Dispute over synagogue’s condo development

Congregation Shearith Israel seeks a variance from BSA to construct a nine-story, mixed-use building in the Central Park West Historic District. Image: Platt Byard Dovell White Architects LLP.

Neighbors claim congregation’s program needs could be accommodated by an as-of-right building. The Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue, a City landmark located at 8 West 70th Street within the Central Park West Historic District, sought a variance from lot coverage, yard, height and setback zoning regulations in order to replace an adjacent community use facility with a nine-story, mixed-use building.

The new building would feature four stories of community facility space—religious classrooms and a 450-person catering hall— and five stories of full-floor residential units. The synagogue would sell the residential units at market-rate to finance the construction of the overall project. In March 2006, Landmarks granted a Certificate of Appropriateness to the synagogue for the proposed development.

Page Cowley, land use committee co-chair for Manhattan Community Board 7, testified against the proposal due to Board 7’s concerns that the new building would block the sightlines from the adjacent residential building, disrupt the historic brownstone character of the block between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, and further reduce access to light and air for residents on the east side of West 70th Street. Board 7 also argued that the synagogue could build fewer residential units and still raise sufficient funds to construct its community facility.

A representative for State Senator Thomas K. Duane, who represents the Upper West Side, echoed Board 7’s concerns. Duane claimed that neighboring residents would suffer diminished property values if BSA were to grant the synagogue’s request. Duane also argued that a religious, non-profit institution such as the applicant should not be allowed to utilize variances to generate revenue.

Norman Marcus, former General Counsel to the Planning Commission, also spoke against the application, questioning the economic hardship analysis presented by the synagogue. Marcus pointed out that the calculations excluded the nonprofit portion of the development. Other residents agreed, finding “very serious flaws” in the synagogue’s economic hardship analysis, such as allegedly overstated acquisition costs.

Kate Wood, representing Landmark West!, testified that BSA received over 200 objections to the proposal, over 80 percent of which were from neighbors within a 400-foot radius of the project. Wood argued that nonprofits that choose to enter the for-profit arena should be held to the same zoning law requirements as for-profit entities. Wood also read a statement from Dr. Elliot Sclar, Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, claiming that the variance would render the “carefully crafted” 1984 Upper West Side rezoning moot.

Attorney Shelly Friedman, representing the synagogue, argued that the proposed building would not block any “legal” light and air, only views. Friedman also requested that his client be able to inspect the affected co-ops or at least view detailed room layout diagrams before BSA took further action.

BSA Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that the applicant should examine different alternatives, such as reducing the height and designing a complying courtyard. Vice Chair Christopher Collins asked for a more detailed presentation of the proposed daily usage of the new classrooms.

Srinivasan set the next hearing date for April 15th.

BSA: 6-10 West 70th Street, Manhattan (74-07-BZ) (Feb. 12, 2008) (Shelly S. Friedman, for Congregation Shearith Israel; Mark D. Lebow, for residents).

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