New Info in Hand, CB7 Rejects Congregation Shearith Israel’s Building Plans

Congregation Shearith Israel, at the corner of Central Park West and 70th Street, with the vacant lot proposed for development at the synagogue’s rear. | JACKSON CHEN
Congregation Shearith Israel, at the corner of Central Park West and 70th Street, with the vacant lot proposed for development at the synagogue’s rear. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | Complicating an already convoluted approval process, Community Board 7 rejected for now an Upper West Side synagogue’s plans to develop a mixed-use building directly adjacent to its site on West 70th Street.

Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI), located at 8 West 70th Street, has been trying since 2008 to win city approval for creating a nine-story development one lot further back on the side street. When the synagogue recently filed an amended application for a mixed-use building of five residential floors, three office and classroom floors, and one lobby floor to the city’s Board of Standards of Appeal (BSA), CB7 had an another opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

Following a July meeting of CB7’s Land Use Committee, where a mixed resolution opposing CSI’s amendments but endorsing additional construction time for the project, the full board, in its September 6 meeting, replaced that with a substitute resolution drafted in the wake of new information obtained from Landmark West!, the project’s main opponent.

According to an email blast sent out on September 1, “the CB7 office received material information regarding the BSA application for Congregation Shearith Israel… that impacts the resolution as originally written following the committee meeting.”

As a result of a Freedom of Information Law request, Landmark West! discovered a letter from the BSA to CSI — which was provided to Manhattan Express — citing 40 comments about the project application, including missing items, a Department of Buildings objection, and several unanswered questions.

“This throws a totally different light on the whole thing,” said Kate Wood, president of Landmark West! “None of us had any idea that the BSA was being so critical. It raises the question if the application is insufficient, then it shouldn’t have even gone to Community Board 7.”

The majority of CB7 agreed with that perspective, concluding that the letter demonstrated that too much information about the proposed development is missing for the board to vote on the application.

“At this stage, for this to come now having already presented a project prematurely knowing there are some things that need to be fixed, we feel that these are significant enough to defer our review until we get the facts and then we’d be very happy to review again.” Page Cowley, CB7’s Land Use Committee co-chair, explained.

That sentiment was challenged, not only by supporters of the project, including CSI congregants, but also by several CB7 board members.

“We’re disappointed that the community board changed its position based on what is frankly a very standard notice of comments issued by the BSA,” said Zachary Bernstein, a Fried Frank attorney representing the congregation. “The synagogue is in the process of responding to those comments, and the community board will be copied simultaneously on the submission of all the responses.

Bernstein added that CSI would provide any additional information if the synagogue’s responses generate further questions.

CB7 member Meisha Hunter Burkett said she felt that the 40 questions raised by the BSA were “pro-forma” or typical issues asked about any project.

“Stalling the process in my view is really unfair to the congregation that’s been working on this for many years,” Burkett said.

Many congregants urged the board to consider the synagogue’s deteriorating infrastructure and its need for more program space and not put off approval of the project.

Opponents, however, remained firm in their criticism of a building they consider an intrusion at odds with the feel of the neighborhood.

“It was too big and out of character when the Community Board 7 rejected it seven years ago,” said State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried. “The new proposal is even more too big and even more too out of character. If the Board of Standards and Appeals believes that it can’t act on it without a whole lot more information, neither should Community Board 7.”

Bernstein said that regardless of CB7’s vote, the BSA will be scheduling a hearing on CSI’s application.