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Upper West Siders Still Question Landmarked Synagogue's Community Center

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The centuries-old congregation is still facing opposition to plans for its neighboring community center

Upper West Side congregation Shaerith Israel has planned on building a new community center next to its Central Park West synagogue for over half a century. But tweaks to its most recent proposal have neighborhood opponents to the project up in arms. The Wall Street Journal revisits the fraught site at 8 West 70th Street, where excavation is about to begin in preparation for the nine-story community center with condos, and reports that the congregation just might have to wait a little longer on that.

Neighborhood opponents won a zoning appeal last year that calls to question religious institutions and their missions with regards to citywide zoning rules.

In December 2014, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved plans to demolish the congregation's existing community center (it falls within the Upper West Side Historic District) which implied that work would move ahead at the site. But in the fall, the DOB issued a "notice to revoke" permits issued in 2008 after discrepancies were discovered between the plans on which a zoning exemption was granted to the synagogue and their most recent iteration.

According to the synagogue, the discrepancy comes back to a relabeling of rooms. The synagogue applied for the zoning exemption claiming they needed it to build a facility that would accommodate its programmatic needs. The synagogue plans on building a nine-story structure with room for community programs, classes, a banquet hall, a kosher kitchen, wheelchair access to the adjoined synagogue, and five floors of condos.

On the most recent plans for the community center, space formerly allotted for classrooms was relabeled as office space. The synagogue maintains that its not acting in bad faith after the permits were granted.

"The community has always maintained that the synagogue could build an appropriately sized building that could fulfill their programmatic needs," Executive Director of Landmarks West! Kate Wood, one of the community center's main opponents, told WSJ. Wood says that the building should be in keeping with the scale of neighboring buildings on the block and be no more than 75 feet tall. The Board of Standards and Appeals approved the zoning variance with plans for a 106-foot building excluding rooftop mechanicals.

As neighborhood organizations rail the plan for the community center, the synagogue says its proceeding until it's hampered. Former plans for the site included a 42-story tower that would cantilever over the century-old building.