The Sixteenth Street Synagogue has called 3 West 16th Street home since 1945, but the shul has been told that it will not be allowed to ring in a New Year there—what would be its 68th. Earlier this week the State Supreme Court decided in building owner Jack Braha’s favor and ordered the Orthodox synagogue out by December 26.
It could very well be the last chapter of a legal battle that has been raging for more than a decade. Although the synagogue, which is planning to file an appeal on Monday, says that it intends to stay no matter what, even if that means being physically removed by marshals on January 7.
“We’re going to stay until the sheriff comes. If they have to arrest us, fine,” Richard McBee, the synagogue’s president, told The Observer. “What else can we do? This is our home. I didn’t pick this fight.”
And what a fight it has been, a fight of good faith agreements gone bad, broken promises and disappointment all around that reinforces nothing so much as the need for legally binding documents to bolster even the best of intentions.
The trouble, according to court documents and several sources familiar with the situation, all started back in 1999, when the National Council of Young Israel decided that it wanted to sell the six-story building it had owned since the 1940s. The Sixteenth Street Synagogue would need to leave.
The Sixteenth Street Synagogue, which grew from Young Israel’s model synagogue in the 1940s, considered itself a co-owner of the building, even if its name was not on the deed, and sued Young Israel for the right to stay.
To settle the argument, businessman Steven Ancona proposed raising money to purchase the building from Young Israel, then renovating the top four floors to sell as luxury condos. The basement, first and second floors, along with the profits, would then be donated to the Sixteenth Street Synagogue and Magen David, the Sephardic synagogue that Mr. Ancona belonged to which had recently started worshiping in the building.
To raise money for the renovation, Mr. Ancona turned to Jack Braha, a real estate developer and diaper manufacturer whom he had worked with before. Mr. Braha agreed to front money for the purchase and renovation. The only catch was that, rather than Mr. Ancona and Mr. Braha both being principals in the LLC that Mr. Ancona had set up to make the purchase, Mr. Braha would be sole owner so that he could get a tax break by purchasing the building with the proceeds of another development sale.
The synagogues and Mr. Ancona both agreed to the deal. Mr. Ancona would handle all renovations and get a 35-year lease. After the condos sold, allowing Mr. Braha to recoup his equity and a 10 percent return on his investment, Mr. Ancona would get the bottom three floors of the building, which he would donate to the congregations.
The only problem? There was no written agreement to protect the synagogue, and absolutely nothing worked out as planned.
“If I had been president at the time, I think I would have tried to get something in writing,” said Mr. McBee. “But we were told nothing could be in writing. Everything was dictated by the tax needs.”
The problems piled up fast. Mr. Ancona failed to meet the January 2008 renovation deadline written into the lease agreement. The lease said that repayment would need to start, at the rate of $99,000 a month, regardless of whether the work was completed or not. Mr. Ancona didn’t pay, claiming that Mr. Braha hadn’t forwarded him enough money to complete the renovations. Not that it probably mattered: the market for luxury condos was collapsing anyway. The relationship between the two men had turned rancorous by that point, several sources said, and Mr. Braha moved to evict Mr. Ancona.
The synagogues got caught in the middle. And since Magen David, the Sephardic synagogue, moved out, only Sixteenth Street is left.
The synagogue claims that Mr. Braha only paid two-thirds of what the building was worth when he bought it from Young Israel, specifically because he wasn’t going to be getting the portion with the synagogues. But whatever the intentions were, the only legal owner of the building is Mr. Braha, and the deed contains no stipulations or liens.
This December the court ruled, as it has ruled before, that the dispute over 3 West 16th Street is a fairly clear-cut case of contract law, a contract between Mr. Braha and Mr. Ancona. The synagogue doesn’t have a deed, a lease or written contracts with anyone. The man with whom the synagogue made a verbal agreement violated his written agreement with the owner the building and is, clearly, not in a position to uphold his agreement with the synagogue. It is, in short, a mess.
“Braha has said that we should sue Ancona, because he’s the one who made all the promises,” said a former congregant and board member who asked not to be named. The problem, he explained is that suing Mr. Ancona wouldn’t get the synagogue any closer to staying at 3 West 16th, which is all that the synagogue has ever wanted.
“We were a very trusting synagogue that was thrilled two very sophisticated guys were going to take care of everything,” said the former congregant. “We never had a lease, we never signed a lease because we never saw ourselves to be a tenant. We didn’t want to give away something that we’d always had. No one realized that this could happen. Braha gave us hope by telling us that his dispute was not with us.”
Unfortunately, last year, the hope that a deal could be worked out with Mr. Braha led the synagogue to sign an agreement saying that it would leave the building in a month. Details are fuzzy, and Mr. Braha’s lawyer said that he did not wish to comment, but the synagogue claims that it saw the document as an act of good faith, proving to Mr. Braha that it wanted to work with him. But Mr. Braha never gave them a new lease, as they say he promised, and the agreement to vacate helped lead to the synagogue’s undoing in the most recent court case.
Mr. McBee said that the agreement to vacate was simply an attempt to stay in the building as long as possible after the synagogue lost an appeal last year. A gesture of peace and friendship that Mr. Braha used against them.
At this point, the only thing that the Sixteenth Street Synagogue has is its long-term occupancy.
“We have every right to be here. The space is ours because we’ve always been here,” said Mr. McBee. “We’re staying, we’re simply not leaving. We have a job to do and our job is to run a synagogue.”