A zoning crackdown in a Silicon Valley neighborhood has a dozen community groups searching for new venues and threatens the future of a 124-year-old American Baptist church that depends on rental income for about a third of its annual budget.
Recently the city of Palo Alto, Calif., sent letters informing commercial tenants renting space at the city’s First Baptist Church they are not allowed to operate in the neighborhood zoned for single family residences.
Officials also instructed First Baptist to no longer allow activities on the premises other than organized worship and religious studies and occasional “conditionally permitted” uses to the satisfaction of a code enforcement officer.
First Baptist Church pastor Randle “Rick” Mixon says that might have made sense when the 800-member church built its facility in 1948, but it is no longer viable for a 100-member congregation located in the affluent San Francisco Bay Area community surrounded by neighbors including Google CEO Larry Page and the family of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
When Mixon came 11 years ago as pastor, he says 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.”
Currently the church rents space to dance groups, an art-education center for toddlers offering classes in both English and Persian languages, a Chinese art association, a family friendly concert and musical event organization, the Palo Alto Philharmonic, a social worker providing individual, family therapy and parent coaching services and a psychiatrist who works with teenagers who have thought about suicide.
“We believe everything we do with the building serves the city and is for the welfare of the city,” Mixon said in a phone interview Aug. 9. “It is ministry, and it fits within our ministry statement.”
The city’s code enforcement division doesn’t see it that way. Recently under pressure for perceived lax enforcement of zoning laws, the city turned down a conditional use permit for the New Mozart School of Music, a for-profit music school offering lessons in piano, violin, voice, cello, guitar, flute and saxophone, citing concerns about parking and traffic near the church.
Mixon said he believes the other tenant raising concern in the neighborhood is iSing Silicon Valley, a nonprofit choir for girls that started as a mission of First Baptist Church four years ago and has grown to involve about 300 participants a week.
Mixon said every complaint raised by neighbors about parking and traffic is “resolvable,” and he believes the bulk of residents consider the church a good neighbor. He said the congregation has “very competent legal counsel” in the event the impasse cannot be resolved amicably.
Without the $110,000 a year the church receives in rental income, Mixon said the congregation will be unable to afford upkeep on a 70-year-old building. Some of the tenants are looking for new space. Others will not be able to afford the rates for office rental in the most expensive neighborhood in one of the costliest places to live in the country.
Self-described on the church website as a progressive church affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA with a long history of “deeds over creeds,” First Baptist Church has been in Palo Alto since 1893.
After occupying its current building in 1948, the church sponsored a family from a German concentration camp that was held for 10 years as refugee white Russians. The patriarch later became grounds person and a “faithful follower of Jesus.”
A few years later First Baptist sponsored two refugee families from Indonesia and two refugee families from Cuba, helping them find housing and employment.
In the 1990s the church moved into the ecumenical movement, helping launch both the Santa Clara County Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Hunger Program. It now is moving into the next phase of engagement through interreligious dialogue and service.
Mixon, 70, is believed to be the first openly gay man ordained in an American Baptist church. In 1973 he helped found American Baptists Concerned, forerunner to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. He is profiled in Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, a congregational resource on sexual orientation and gender identity produced jointly by AWAB, the Alliance of Baptists and Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
Before coming to Palo Alto he served pastorates at Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco and at First Baptist Church of Granville, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in religion and psychology and worked for many years as a psychotherapist and adjunct faculty at schools including the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.