The Ramaz Lower School, on East 85th Street, will not be relocating in September, and plans for the 28-story mixed-use high-rise have been temporarily halted, school officials confirmed in a letter distributed to the parent body last week.
“The administration and leadership at Ramaz and KJ have decided to pause and study the available options before proceeding with our complex building project for the Lower School and Synagogue House,” Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, senior rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue and principal of Ramaz, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week.
The reason for the sudden introspection? Rising construction costs, Rabbi Lookstein insists, not the neighbors’ growing opposition to the tower. “Costs for construction in New York City are rising 2.5 percent a month; that’s 30 percent a year,” he explained. “Our project has gotten much more expensive, so we are stepping back and considering our options.”
Ramaz has not canceled its lease with the Archdiocese of New York, which owns the 91st Street building where the Lower School plans to relocate. Nor has the school withdrawn its application to the Board of Standards and Appeals.
“In late fall, early winter, it became very clear that costs were going up far more than we estimated,” confirmed Steven Gross, past chairman of Ramaz’s board of trustees, adding that they are exploring their options along with the developer.
Opponents of Ramaz’s high-rise say that emphasis on rising construction costs is a smokescreen.
“The people at KJ/Ramaz were somewhat naïve when they embarked on this very aggressive plan,” said Thomas Blum, the head of the ad-hoc committee, “Neighbors Opposed to Ramaz Tower.”
“They are now realizing that the plan faces a significant chance of being denied at the Board of Standards and Appeals,” Blum said.
At 355 feet high, the proposed Ramaz tower would exceed zoning limitations, and therefore requires variances approved by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. Under the proposal the Lower School would occupy the lower 10 floors, leaving 18 floors of luxury condominiums. Plans called for the tower to be cantilevered over the synagogue to make room for a playground.
Last week, a similar project involving air rights in the renovation of Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side faced added scrutiny and more foot-dragging at its BSA hearing.
“The BSA won’t close its eyes and allow for-profit real estate agencies to build above zoning requirements just because it’s on the site of a synagogue or school,” Blum said.
Lo van der Valk, president of the Upper East Side community group Carnegie Hill Neighbors, agreed. “The BSA is evaluating these applications extremely carefully, and is a lot more thorough in its approach,” he said.
Shelly Friedman, who represents both Shearith Israel and Ramaz/KJ, denies this viewpoint, adding that the Shearith Israel project is “on schedule” and “has no bearing on KJ.”
“We wouldn’t have submitted the [Ramaz/KJ] application if we didn’t think we were on firm ground,” he said.
Some opponents of the Ramaz plan are upset with the wording of the letter, which stated that Ramaz “will carefully weigh a number of alternative proposals, including some that are more modest and those that are even more ambitious.”
“It hints that they can build something bigger,” Blum said, adding that he and other neighbors already take issue with the Ramaz plan to breach the 210-foot height limit put in place by zoning regulations.
“I don’t know what ‘more ambitious’ really means,” Gross said, when asked what Ramaz meant by the phrase. “We’re looking at everything again, from painting a door to moving to New Jersey — I’m joking about Jersey,” he added.
Friedman insisted that the building itself would not be changing. “There are various cost-saving devices we may want to employ, in terms of concrete versus steel,” he said. “But it’s not as if the project has been shelved or reversed.”
Ramaz hopes to come to a resolution shortly. “Within the next two to four weeks, we’ll have a much better idea of how we are to proceed,” Rabbi Lookstein said.