On the eve of a season focused on aspiring to spiritual heights, Congregation Shearith Israel on West 70th Street is celebrating a more physical ascension. The historic congregation, founded in 1654 by Sephardic Jews and commonly known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, was granted permission on Aug. 26 from the city’s Board of Standard and Appeals to build a controversial nine-story community house adjacent to its landmarked synagogue.
The mixed-use tower will replace the current community house, a shabby building connected to the synagogue. The two cellar levels and first four floors will allow for the expansion of the smaller synagogue, as well as state-of-the-art meat and dairy kitchens, a 350-person multifunction banquet room, rabbinical and administrative offices, and 12 classrooms. It will also provide a direct, enlarged entrance to the synagogue, which will be wheelchair accessible.
Funding for the community house will be offset by the conversion of the top four-and-a-half floors into luxury condos and a penthouse.
The victory is temporary, as it has instigated yet another legal round in Shearith Israel’s divisive, decades-long battle with preservation groups and outraged neighbors, most notable among them the late ABC News anchor and across-the-street neighbor Peter Jennings.
Opponents of Shearith Israel’s proposed tower call the BSA’s decision “irresponsible,” saying that the ruling is a precedent-setter, paving the way for a host of other religious institutions and nonprofits to seek variances in order to maximize their profits when selling air rights to developers.
“The BSA is giving [Shearith Israel] a free pass to build luxury condos that have absolutely nothing to do with its religious mission,” said Kate Wood, executive director of the preservation group LANDMARK WEST! “It’s nine stories here, but could be 19 stories in Brooklyn, which could be devastating to the surrounding areas,” says Wood. “Once you break the zoning requirements, the sky’s the limit.”
Meanwhile, Shearith Israel’s trustees say they are “pleased” with the BSA approval and “look forward to proceeding with the project.”
“There are real benefits here, providing for better circulation outside the sanctuary,” says Shelly Friedman, a land use lawyer who represents both Shearith Israel and Kehilath Jeshurun. “A number of services end in the sanctuary and continue downstairs in the social hall. Many of the older congregants and even younger congregants who are physically challenged literally had to be carried downstairs.”
According to Alan D. Sugarman, an attorney who lives across the street from Shearith Israel and mounted a Web site called Protectwest70.org to oppose the high-rise, the decision is indicative of the BSA’s failure to perform its public duty. Sugarman is preparing to file an appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of property owners on West 70th Street. He has until Sept. 29 to do so.
In addition to turning the street into a “canyon of darkness” and “eroding the character of the neighborhood,” Shearith Israel’s new community house was pushed through the BSA using “phony financial analysis,” Sugarman charges. The financials were used to prove that the sale of the condos would not yield extra profits above and beyond the cost of constructing the community house. “You can put up three townhouses on the property and make an enormous amount of money,” he says. “It’s the most succulent piece of real estate in New York City.”
Ron Prince, who lives on West 70th Street, says he will lose his terrace view of Central Park if the community house is built. “We view Shearith Israel as a very affluent and connected institution. The BSA caved into pressure. But the community will not let this stand without a fight.”
Several calls to the BSA by The Jewish Week were not returned.
Wood and other opponents of Shearith Israel’s community house say they are most concerned about the domino effect. “It will result in a flood of similar applications from the other synagogues, yeshivas, churches and other nonprofits in all five boroughs who will see the variance process as a way to fundraise,” Wood says.
Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue, she points out, is “a prime example of a congregation with a very similar application waiting in the wings.” In July, The Jewish Week reported that Ramaz had withdrawn its application for variances from the BSA for a 355-foot-mixed-use tower with 18 floors of luxury condominiums. At the time, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, senior rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue and principal of Ramaz, said he was leaving open the option of resubmitting the proposal. Shearith Israel’s success in gaining BSA approval may give Ramaz the impetus to do just that.
While the preservationist groups complain that the tower’s height will destroy the character of the area, Shearith Israel lawyer Friedman says that it rises no taller than the building next door on West 70th Street. And as for setting a precedent, Friedman contends that the precedent has already been set. “Just look down the street, where the Rose building has been built above Lincoln Center,” he says.
In the near vicinity, Trinity School in the West 90s constructed an apartment building and Fordham University has been working to expand its Lincoln Center campus. Most significantly, within days of Shearith Israel’s unanimous approval from the BSA, Mount Sinai Medical Center got the OK to construct an 11-story, 269,000-square-foot Center for Science and Medicine.
Shearith Israel has owned these air rights for half a century, Friedman adds. In this tough economy, he says, “the opportunity to raise money through philanthropic efforts is extremely limited.”
The irony, Alan Sugarman points out, is that in 1896, when the trustees of Shearith Israel were first building the synagogue, they were concerned about upholding an individual opinion quoted in Gemara Shabbos that the roofs in a city not be taller than the synagogue. To the south of the synagogue, they constructed a four-story parsonage that was lower than the synagogue. And when the trustees sold land to the west of the synagogue, they placed restrictions on the height of any home built on the property.
“Certainly in urban areas, this rule could not be followed,” Sugarman says. “But here the congregation is violating these principles by constructing a building next to its own sanctuary.”