Neighbors to Synagogue: Enough With the High-Rise

Last Wednesday, the Community Board 8 meeting at the Ramaz School on the Upper East Side was peculiarly packed. “These meetings are not usually this crowded,” a representative from Hunter College told The Observer.

While two extra rows of seats were being added for those standing in the back of the room, a woman jokingly attributed the meeting’s popularity to the presence of neighborhood resident and Today Show host Matt Lauer, who sat quietly off to the side.

Most people were there in opposition to the glut of development that the ever-tonier ZIP code is currently experiencing. Although debate about a proposed catering hall at 583 Park Avenue dominated much of the public session, another issue was discussed, albeit briefly, that was particularly appropriate for the venue.

The boards of trustees at the Ramaz Lower School and at Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue recently presented a plan that calls for the construction of a high-rise at 125 East 85th Street. The synagogue has been associated with the school since it established Ramaz in 1937.

The high-rise would replace the existing structures with a 28-story building containing a new lower school, a synagogue house and 18 floors of residential condominiums on top. The condos will be sold as private homes, and the proceeds from the development will be used to pay for the new school and the new synagogue house, according to the project’s attorney Shelly Friedman. Mr. Friedman explained that additional fund-raising will still be needed in order to completely fund both. “There is not going to be any loose change around to pocket,” he said.

The total preliminary development cost is $80 million, which includes restoration of the synagogue, demolition and relocation of the lower school, and construction of the new building. The synagogue’s summer bulletin stated that demolition is scheduled for June 2008, and construction is expected to take two years.

That timeline’s quite optimistic considering the fierce opposition to the plan.

“The amount of noncompliance in terms of square feet with this project is enormous,” Lo van der Valk of Upper East Side community group Carnegie Hill Neighbors told The Observer. “The building is in a zoning section that allows a maximum property height of 210 feet. The proposed building would be 355 feet. Of the 18 residential stories, 13 break the envelope significantly.”

Because the building would exceed the zoning requirements, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals must grant variances for the plan to move forward. While that term usually conjures memories of a hated math class in college, in this context, a variance is the approval needed so that a development can legally go over zoning regulations.

While zoning issues were at the forefront of many fights that Mr. van der Valk was involved in during the 1980’s with Carnegie Hill Neighbors, the synagogue’s development is especially worrisome because of the precedent it could set in a city where every nook and cranny is becoming fair game for development.

“Experience shows that nonprofits are generally given better treatment for getting variances,” Mr. van der Valk explained. “If they get approval to build this tower, then every nonprofit in the city will think it can get approved for similar projects.”

Neighbors to Synagogue: Enough With the High-Rise