Community Board 18 last week turned down a synagogue’s expansion plans, arguing that the proposal would alter the nature and character of the community, adding traffic and parking congestion to the area.
With a vote of 20−2, with six abstentions, the board recommended the disapproval of Kollel B’nai Torah’s request to enclose a portion of 1323 East 32nd Street and build up to roughly 21 feet, enlarging the former residential home to accommodate its growing congregation.
As reported in this newspaper last week, the synagogue has been renovating the property for over a year, work that has roiled some of its neighbors, who say the project has damaged their backyard garden, preventing them from enjoying their peaceful patio. “It’s unconscionable, what they did,” neighbor Roberta Weiss recently told this paper. “They went two to three feet on my property, and destroyed the patio.”
At the May 20 meeting, Roberta and her husband, Julian Weiss, blasted the project, and recoiled at any further expansion by the synagogue. The board agreed, and said in its decision that it would stand by the neighbors.
After the meeting, congregation member and area resident Joshua Newman, who said he is volunteering his time to try and get the project completed, had his own blasting to do. “My thoughts were it was a foregone conclusion before we came in. It seems that in general they were against a community facility,” he said. “They weren’t really wiling to listen to reason or logic. They behaved like a bunch of children.”
“I was warned about that. This board is very emotional,” said Newman, a computer programmer by trade.
While a house of worship is allowed in a residential area with no special approvals needed, the size of this particular building is not, mandating a public hearing and the approval of the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. The community board’s vote is simply advisory.
The first phase of the project — the renovation of the building — does not require a special public review, and was granted the requisite permits by the city’s Department of Buildings. Plans were submitted in December 2006, and approved in January 2008, according to agency spokesperson Caroline Sullivan. She said the most recent violation was issued in March 2009 to the contractor, Philip Calise, after inspectors found that construction at the site had caused damage to an adjacent property at 1325 East 32nd Street, specifically to the rear yard garden.
The synagogue does not own the property, although it did at one time offer to buy it, Newman said. It has entered into a long−term lease with property owner East 17th Street Properties Inc., an entity of Beth Israel Hospital. The renovation work is costing $500,000, and is expected to finish in June. Newman insisted that the synagogue, which is currently located at 2748 Nostrand Avenue, will enhance the neighborhood. “Before, the building was about to cave in,” he said.
Newman said it “pains him” to see the Weisses upset. “We will put everything back and replant it and make it beautiful,” he vowed. That’s been our promise to them from the first day.”