Shearith Israel project nixed again


Congregation Shearith Israel wants to build a 9-story condo building on the West 70th Street footprint of the now-demolished four-story building pictured behind the synagogue. Photo: Eden, Janine and Jim, via flickr
Opponents are skeptical about congregation’s reasoning for change in plans

BY OLIVIA KELLEY

Congregation Shearith Israel’s request for a time extension on the construction of a luxury condo and community house adjacent to its synagogue on West 70th Street was again shot down by Community Board 7’s Land Use Committee on Nov. 16th.

The project, approved by the city’s Board of Standard’s and Appeals in 2008, received variances for a nine-story community house — twice as tall as what zoning standards allow — planned for an empty West 70th Street lot to the west of the synagogue, which is on the corner of Central Park West. The bottom floors were to be used for community classrooms while the top floors were reserved for market-rate condos. The project never got off the ground and was given a four-year extension in 2012, which expired earlier this year. CSI requested another extension, but due to changes in the original plans, the board placed a hold on the project.

“They’ve tried to pass off these changes as child’s play,” said Kate Wood, president of Landmark West. “But they’re not minor at all.”

According to Wood, CSI was approved for 15 classrooms, but when the plans were resubmitted in 2012, almost all the classrooms had been relabeled as office spaces, with only three classrooms left. The Department of Buildings withdrew the permit and CSI resubmitted plans with the classrooms re-included. Shearith Israel officials said a labeling error was to blame. Wood, though, is unconvinced.

“The architect signed and sealed those papers under oath saying this was the official plan,” she said. “In fact, this could not have been a labeling error since classrooms and offices have very different code requirements.”

Michael Hiller, an attorney representing those opposed to the project, said there was no mistake. The original application was approved based on the presence of a school at the church that needed classroom space. It was later found out that the school was only a tenant of the church and not actually a part of the congregation. While the application was pending, the school canceled its lease with Shearith Israel, eliminating the need for classrooms.

“The application as initially prepared is substantially different from what is being proposed now, said Hiller. “The developers are passing this off as a minor modification — it’s a very substantial modification.”

Shearith Israel officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The synagogue submitted for a hardship analysis in the application process to prove there was a need for the variances the building project requested. Wood said that after eight years, the need for such allowances needs to be reassessed.

“We have no reason to believe that if there ever was such a hardship that it still exists,” she said.

In September, the Board of Standards and Appeals sent out a list of 40 questions about the proposed project to Shearith Israel officials. According to Roberta Semer, chairwoman of CB7, the Board did not receive those answers until the day of the scheduled meeting to vote on the issue.

“I didn’t get a chance to review them, because we got them later in the day,” said Semer.

Community members are specifically concerned about the height of the building, saying it would block their views. Roughly 500 residents signed an online petition drawn up by Landmark West calling for the Board of Standards and Appeals to reject new application.

“It would have a terrible effect on the community. It would, among other things, result in increased traffic, block views to central park, create shadows across public spaces in the community, and cast a pall across the Upper West Side skyline,” Hiller said.

Wood said too much time had passed since Shearith Israel’s initial proposal.

“If they got this extension, by the time the building was finished, it would be 12 years from the time of approval,” Wood said. We live in a different time than we did 12 years ago.”