Chabad Expansion Voted Down

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For the second time in a month, Community Board 7 voted down a plan that would alter buildings in a landmark district, a proposal that neighbors characterized as an out-of-context expansion.

The plan, submitted by the Chabad of the West Side Synagogue and Pre-School, would reconfigure two historic brownstones into a day school on West 86th Street. On June 2, the full board voted down the application to restore the facades and reconstruct the interiors at 43-45 W. 86th St.

Board 7 made a similar decision in May regarding The Dwight School’s proposed rear-year expansion. Like the Dwight proposal, Chabad’s plans are “as-of-right,” but neighbors question whether the renovations were appropriate for the landmarked neighborhood. One difference between the two proposals, however, is that residents are still living in the two brownstones that Chabad wants to renovate.

Doris Mirescu, a tenant at 45 W. 86th St., refuses to leave her apartment, despite receiving an eviction notice. Mirescu, who has resided in the building for 12 years, says she is one of eight tenants still living there.

A view looking down into the rear courtyard of 45 W. 86th St. shows some of the properties that would be affected by the Chabad plan. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

A view looking down into the rear courtyard of 45 W. 86th St. shows some of the properties that would be affected by the Chabad plan. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“It’s very disconcerting to us that the building was sold and we were going to be thrown out of our homes,” said Mirescu, a rent-stabilized tenant. “It was just a shocking thing because this is a beautiful building and an extraordinary example of 19th-century architecture.”

While Mirescu does not oppose building a school, she believes the changes will negatively impact the mostly residential neighborhood.

“We need schools and we should build schools, but I think there are other buildings that are completely appropriate for it,” she said. “These buildings are residential and are meant to be homes.”

Eric Wynne, whose home on West 87th Street directly faces the backs of the two brownstones, is also concerned.

“The back of the building is metal and glass. If you live on 87th Street and look out at that, you’ll be inundated with light,” said Wynne, referring to Chabad’s models of the proposed changes.

Board 7’s chair, Helen Rosenthal, agreed that the negatives outweighed the positives.

“The Chabad’s application raises a number of tangential and complicated issues which were discussed at length at the CB7 Full Board meeting,” said Rosenthal, pointing to demolition of the buildings’ interiors, expansion into the rear-yard area and the presence of existing tenants. “Ultimately, one might say that the Landmark [Preservation Commission]’s criteria for ‘appropriateness’ are subjective and a majority of the board voted against the Chabad’s application.”

Chabad only needs approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but some community members plan to continue their protests by writing letters to the commission, Mirescu said.

“They haven’t been communicating with us,” Mirescu said of Chabad. “They just send us threatening letters. It’s been a very big struggle for us. We have no idea whom we should talk to.”

However, Chabad spokesperson Hank Sheinkopf said the synagogue has made its plans transparent.

“The synagogue is planning an expansion of two brownstones so more kids can go to day school,” Sheinkopf said. “The plans have been discussed with members of the community for a period of time. The facades will be protected and the plans as proposed are certainly far less intrusive than those that have been proposed by nonprofit entities in the community.”

Sheinkopf pointed to a rear-yard construction project completed by Bard Graduate Center, at 18 W. 86th St. He said that Chabad made sure that the proposal it submitted to Board 7 was less intrusive than what Bard first submitted to the board for its project.

The commission, which held a public hearing on the plan on May 17, is expected to comment in coming months, according to spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon. It has yet to set a date to vote.

Council Member Gale Brewer also plans to hold an informational meeting.

“We’re putting together a meeting with the different city agencies to talk to the neighbors so they understand what the zoning laws are,” Brewer said.      n

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