An American Baptist congregation with a long history in its community can continue to rent space to outside groups as a way to afford upkeep of a church structure built during its former heyday, a California city council ruled May 14.
The Palo Alto City Council voted 7-2 to give First Baptist Church a conditional use permit to operate a community center, culminating a nearly yearlong debate sparked by noise and parking complaints by the congregation’s neighbors.
Founded in 1893, First Baptist Church had 800 members when it built its current facility in 1948. Over the years attendance dwindled, and when Pastor Rick Mixon came as senior pastor in 2006, much of the building was being unused.
“This is your most important asset,” Mixon remembers advising the congregation. “It’s not right for it to sit here empty.” Fueled by demand for office space in the affluent San Francisco Bay Area community, non-church tenants over time accounted for about a third of the congregation’s income.
Last year the city ordered First Baptist Church to stop allowing activities beyond worship and religious instruction, citing neighborhood zoning for single-family residences. Mixon appealed, arguing that everything happening in non-worship hours was to benefit the community, thereby fitting within the church’s mission.
First Baptist agreed to cancel some weeknight activities, including a dance class, due to noise concerns. While the city permit allows use by groups as large as 70 seven days a week, Mixon said the church does not plan to expand beyond its three current partners — a youth choir for girls, a self-help group and a psychiatrist’s practice.
“We have no interest in creating some mega-community center or large community enterprise on our site,” Mixon said in the San Jose Mercury News. “We simply want to make it possible for a few worthwhile organizations and activities that provide for the welfare of the city to share our space.”