Spirituality comes to West 96th Street

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A soaring condo tower, now under development, will include a new five-story Chabad House, complete with preschool and sanctuary, in the base of the building


  • Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, at left, director and co-founder of the Chabad of the West Side, and Rabbi Meir Ossey, the group's associate director, peer through a hole in the construction fence at the site of Chabad's future home on West 96th Street.Photo: Chabad of the West Side

  • Rabbi Meir Ossey, at left, associate director of the Chabad of the West Side, and Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, the group’s director and co-founder, stand before a construction fence on West 96th Street where Chabad is developing its new five-story home, complete with two synagogues and a preschool for 150 kids. Photo: Chabad of the West Side 

  • Rabbi Meir Ossey, at left, associate director of the Chabad of the West Side, and Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, the group’s director and co-founder, stand before a construction fence on West 96th Street where Chabad is developing its new home. Photo: Chabad of the West Side 

  • A rendering of the condo tower planned for 15 West 96th Street shows the five-story base that will become the new home of Chabad of the West Side in late 2020, crowned with 16 floors of uber-luxe residences. Image courtesy of Chabad of the West Side

“We're rabbis, we're into Jewish outreach, not development!”

—Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, director and co-founder of the Chabad of the West Side

A prime 60-foot-wide site less than 300 feet away from Central Park on the Upper West Side is being developed as the future home of Chabad of the West Side, Straus News has learned.

The Jewish center, which became the first Chabad House in Manhattan when it opened in 1984, will occupy five floors and some 20,000 square feet at a now-vacant lot at 15 West 96th Street.

In a complicated real estate deal, the box-shaped religious institution will become the base of a planned 16-unit luxury condominium tower that will soar above it, offering residents sweeping park views.

The siting of the Chabad, with its own entrance and elevator, in the lower five floors of the 22-story building, allows the developer to claim a “community facility bonus” and erect, with city approval, a 312-foot structure, taller than zoning would otherwise permit, documents show.

Two synagogues will be housed in the facility, the larger of which will occupy 2,000 square feet and sport a double-height, 20-foot ceiling, the two Chabad rabbis overseeing the project said in a joint interview.

There will be a children's library and 11 classrooms spread out on three floors, with 3,500 square feet per floor, for dual use as both a preschool and a Hebrew school, the rabbis said.

Plans also call for conference space, a 2,000-square-foot, second-floor terrace doubling as a playground, a training academy for early-childhood teachers, and a men's mikvah, or ritual bath.

The preschool alone will serve 150 children — as young as 18 months, as old as five years — with one head teacher and two assistants instructing as few as eight toddlers per classroom.

“We are laser-focused on preschool,” said Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, director of the Chabad, which he co-founded with his wife Rivka and which has offered an early Jewish education from rented space at 166 West 97th Street since 2001.

Why target the preschoolers? A verse in the Book of Proverbs (22:6) provides the answer, said Rabbi Meir Ossey, who with his wife Sarah is Chabad's associate director, and he quoted the relevant couplet:

“Train the lad according to his way, and even as he grows old, he will not turn away from it.” To be sure, the school will teach girls as well as boys, Rabbi Ossey added.

Affiliated with the Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic branch based in Brooklyn with a global presence, Chabad of the West Side endeavors to disseminate traditional teachings and practices to all Jews, regardless of background or level of observance.

“Our overall philosophy is to provide every opportunity we can for Jews from every background to have a warm and a positive experience with their Judaism,” Rabbi Kugel said.

The new religious-and-communal center — offering outreach, a state-of-the-art security system, and even a ground-floor “coffee lounge with a Starbucks-style layout for parents” — is expected to open in September 2020, the rabbi added.


The institution won't be the only major child-friendly nonprofit drawing large numbers of kids and parents as it puts down stakes on the north side of 96th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue:

By late 2021, the relatively tranquil block will also be home to the Children's Museum of Manhattan, which is currently bursting at the seams in leased space it occupies at 212 West 83rd Street.

CMOM late last year closed on the $45 million purchase of the landmark First Church of Christ Scientist, at 1 West 96th Street, and it expects to move in after a four-year reconfiguration of the property.

“We were gratified to learn of the museum's purchase of the church because we will both benefit from its presence and also contribute to it,” Rabbi Kugel said. “It will bring an increased family presence to this part of the West Side, it's consistent with what we're trying to do, and we expect a good symbiotic relationship with them.”

Like CMOM, Chabad has been operating out of leased quarters since the 1980s.

It started at Congregation Ramath Orah on West 110th Street — it ran a nearby kosher hot dog stand outside the gates of Columbia University — before moving, first to West 103rd Street, then to West 92nd Street, and then to its current home on West 97th Street.

A decade ago, Chabad bought a pair of rowhouses at 43-45 West 86th Street, but eventually, decided the landmarked properties didn't meet its needs and were too great a challenge to redevelop. Now, it believes, it has found the ideal place to fulfill and expand its mission.

“We're rabbis, we're into Jewish outreach, not development!” Rabbi Kugel says.


And that's where the realm of the spiritual and the holy gets a helping hand from the grittier, earthier scrum of the real estate transaction.

The story of the site begins when Sackman Enterprises Inc., through an entity it controls, West 96th Development LLC, purchased three century-old, 20-foot wide brownstones, 15-17-19 West 96th Street, over a nine-year period.

Sackman, a longtime developer of West Side properties, then merged the three parcels, giving it title to a single valuable development site two lots west of Central Park.

It then began demolition of the three brownstone in 2016, a process it completed last summer, and won a “community-facility bonus” that lets its condo tower rise to greater heights atop the facility.

Enter P.E.Y. Realty LLC. On June 16, 2017, P.E.Y. and West 96th Development filed a “memorandum of contract of purchase and sale” with the city's Department of Finance (DOF) in which P.E.Y. agreed to buy a condo unit identified only as the “Community Facility Unit.” Details of the contract weren't available in the memo.

But DOF records identify the “sole member” of P.E.Y. as a David Slager, according to DOF records.

Slager, a citizen of the Netherlands who runs a hedge fund on West 57th Street, maintains a low profile as an Upper West Sider — but a very high profile as a philanthropist in Lubavitch circles. Along with his wife Lara, he underwrites Jewish institutions globally, and much of his charitable work has been focused on Chabad — in particular, its preschools.

Sackman, through a sales unit at Cushman & Wakefield, is now seeking to sell the “shovel-ready” development site, with city-approved plans, for $45 million. As for the community facility, it's being sold, under a “fully executed contract,” for $29.8 million “upon substantial completion of the space,” C&W says in marketing materials.

“David and his wife Lara are among the principal benefactors of this new Chabad center,” said Rabbi Ossey. “The entire Chabad community is extraordinarily grateful to them for their generosity and vision.”

condo craze: the backlash

A 69-story, 775-foot mega-tower in development at 50 West 66th Street is expected to become the tallest building on the Upper West Side.

A 55-floor, 668-foot behemoth planned for 200 Amsterdam Avenue is on track to become the second tallest structure in the neighborhood.

Both condo projects face bitter opposition from local residents, preservationists and elected officials.

They strip away light and air, advocates say. Their physical presence overwhelms their surroundings. The controversy's crux: They contravene neighborhood context.

But there is another high-end condo tower planned for another part of the UWS, closer to Central Park, that is also threatening to overshadow several neighboring buildings.

And thus far, it has being developed under the radar, absent scrutiny from activists and politicians, and with far less attendant controversy.

Currently in pre-construction, the 22-story residence at 15 West 96th Street, with 60,320 buildable square feet, is far more modest in size, scale, bulk and massing than the two lightning-rod projects. Its five-story base will become the new home of Chabad on the West Side.

Yet on a fairly quiet, modestly scaled block, its height — 312 feet — will dwarf two treasured landmarks and at least two other stolid workhorse buildings that are just yards away:

* The First Church of Christ, Scientist, a cathedral-like landmark built in 1903 at 1 West 96th Street, reaches 173 feet at the tip of its granite-clad steeple, according to city Department of Buildings records.

* 360 Central Park West, a classic Rosario Candela-designed limestone apartment building, erected in 1929 at 96th Street and part of the landmarked Upper West Side Historic District, tops out at 155 feet.

* 7 West 96th Street, a co-op directly to the east of the planned condo tower, built in 1931, is 180-feet tall, its certificate of occupancy shows.

* 27 West 96th Street, a rental apartment building directly to the west of the condo, built in 1927, stands at 160 feet.

“It's totally out of keeping and totally out of scale for that block,” said Susan Simon, founder of CPW Neighbors Association. “It alters the skyline around Central Park. And it starts to compete with the church.”

The project's developer, Sackman Enterprises Inc., which has developed properties on the West Side for nearly half a century, doesn't typically respond to press inquiries, one of its executives said.

Neighbors mourned the loss of three five-story row houses — each only 50-feet tall — that were demolished last year to make way for a tower in which each of the 16 residential floors will sport just one apartment.

“It's only for extremely affluent people, and it encourages and paves the way for even more of this kind of development on the Upper West Side,” said Nina Felshin, whose family has lived at 27 West 96th Street since 1958.

Felshin said much of her Central Park and East River views will likely vanish after construction, adding, “Worse than that, it will block the natural light.”

The condo also strips needed housing from 96th Street, displacing more people from their homes than the new tower will house, argues Lynne Glasner, who lives in the same rental building as Felshin.

“They tore down three sound, usable and habitable brownstones that had about three apartments per floor and five floors in each building,” she said.

“Basically, they displaced 45 mostly moderate-income families and then provided homes for 16 millionaires — and the city is allowing it,” Glasner added.

Simon identifies a broader problem for Manhattan — that 15 West 96th Street and similar projects could be the wave of the future: “Buildings like that are being cookie-cuttered all over the city,” she said.

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