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Shearith Israel Rebuilds

Shearith Israel Rebuilds

After two decades and several development plans, the nation’s oldest Jewish congregation has won approval to rebuild its Upper West Side community center, despite the disapproval of many neighbors.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee on March 14 unanimously approved a plan to demolish two brownstones adjacent to the 109-year-old Congregation Shearith Israel building on West 70th Street and replace them with a building that combines synagogue space with four floors of condominiums, to be sold at market rate. The sales would fund the new construction as well as renovation of the main building. Opponents (including the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who lived across the street) complained that the new building would be out of architectural character with the surrounding Upper West Side/Central Park historic district. Some people close to the synagogue complained that the opposition took on an undercurrent of anti-Semitism.

The nine-floor building is drastically shorter than a 42-story tower proposed in the mid-ë80s and later versions that were 33 and 14 stories. "Developers from outside presented several plans to us that seemed like good ideas at the time," says Rabbi Marc Angel, leader of the congregation. "This plan, we came up with ourselves."

The approved plan would provide the congregation with office space, classrooms and storage for archives dating as far back as the 17th century, when the congregation was founded as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.Opponents haven’t given up. They’ve filed a petition with the city Board of Standards and Appeals to block the construction.

"We are concerned about the impact on the historic district and the precedent it would set for other communities throughout the city," said Kate Wood, director of Landmark West!, a nonprofit Upper West Side preservation group.

Wood said her group opposed the new site’s "massing," or density. The community center would not only occupy what were once two adjacent building lots, but also a third, vacant lot owned by the shul. "People who weighed in on this from throughout the city made powerful arguments against this proposal, and we’re disappointed that the landmark commission didnít recognize the issues at stake," Wood said.

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