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Upper West Side NIMBYs take aim at Congregation Shearith Israel’s expansion in historic district

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Landmarks West! has filed a lawsuit attempting to stop a West 70th Street synagogue from building a community center topped by condos

Congregation Shearith Israel is at the center of a new lawsuit.

Upper West Side NIMBY group Landmark West! has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop construction work on a synagogue/community center topped by condos, alleging that a zoning variance for the site is out of context for the landmarked West 70th Street block.

The lawsuit pertains to a nine-story, 105-foot building at 8 West 70th Street that would neighbor Congregation Shearith Israel, which has occupied the corner at Central Park West for 120 years. The building would house a four-story synagogue community center that would include room for programming, classes, a banquet hall, a kosher kitchen, and provide wheelchair access to the adjoined synagogue. The top five floors of the building have been earmarked for residential use, presumably in order to support the synagogue’s finances in an era of increased secularism.

It is of course said condos that the lawsuit takes aim at. “It’s clear that the CSI never intended to—or needed to, as they suggested—use the space for education purposes. It was a ruse designed to get approval for multi-million dollar luxury condos and nothing more,” 91 Central Park West occupant Jeannie Martowski notes in an email from Landmarks West!

The new community center and condos are poised to replace this building at 8 West 70th Street.

Congregation Shearith Israel isn’t the only religious institution to include residential units in its plan for a sustainable operating budget. The Jewish Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights sold a parcel of its land for $96 million to developer Savanna, who is planning a 32-story condo tower on the site. In Williamsburg, Saint Peter and Paul Church at 321 Wythe Avenue entered into a $2.1 million per year deal to lease a portion of its site to developer Watermark Capital Group, who will build a standalone apartment building on the site.

The Congregation Shearith Israel site falls within the Upper West Side Historic District, and in order to proceed with the project the synagogue needed to win the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which it did in December 2014. The project also received a zoning variance from the Board of Standards & Appeals back in 2006. According to Landmark West!, CSI and has amended its plan 98 times to include a different building envelope.

The suit not-so-subtly accuses the Board of Standards & Appeals, also a defendant named on the lawsuit, of being in cahoots with influential monied folk like lobbyists and “other well-connected developers’ advocates.”

Plans were filed for the new building in 2014, and scaffolding appeared at the site in February 2015. A stop-work order has been in place for the site since March 2016.

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