Congregation Shearith Israel Application

Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried
Testimony before the Land Use Committee of Manhattan Community Board 7
Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My name is Richard N. Gottfried. The Assembly District I represent includes Congregation Shearith Israel and the site of the proposed new building at 6-10 West 70th Street.

Shearith Israel is applying for zoning variances that would allow it to construct a new, nine-story building including five top floors of luxury-priced residential condominium units. The proposed building would reach an overall height of more than 119 feet, instead of the maximum height of 75 feet allowed for most of the site under current zoning. If these variances are approved, the new building would harm its neighborhood and advance a dangerous trend in land use.

Shearith Israel has revised its initial application several times. Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Buildings revoked the Congregation’s permits and issued a “stop work” order. DOB cited the failure to comply with zoning rules and the significant discrepancies between the work being done and what had been authorized. These discrepancies include the elimination of most of the programmatic uses for the new building, reducing the number of classrooms from fifteen to three, and doubling the height of the mechanical structure atop the building. An applicant for the special relief of a zoning variance should not come as the subject of a stop work order for violating approved plans.

The underlying issues that made Shearith Israel’s last proposal so troubling have not changed. That proposal was rejected by Community Board 7 in 2007, in a resolution citing the Community Board’s opposition to the height and setback waivers. Unfortunately, it was approved by the Board of Standards and Appeals in 2008. The Congregation should not now be allowed another bite at the apple to make it worse.

The harms imposed on the synagogue’s neighbors include covering more lot-line windows than would be permitted under a zoning-compliant plan, and reducing light and air for neighboring apartments that face the rear yard. For the neighborhood as a whole, the proposed building is too tall and out of character with the architecturally and historically significant buildings that line the side streets of the Central Park West Historic District in the immediate vicinity of the synagogue.

If the BSA were to allow these variances, property owners and developers across the city will feel empowered to develop their real estate holdings without regard for the City’s zoning and historic preservation laws and policies.

The Congregation has said that it could not build the new community house without the revenues that the proposed residential development would generate. This is not credible. It should raise the funds for its new community house the way other congregations do, by turning to its members. Also, the community house itself will generate income.

The application does not meet the findings required for variances under section 72-21 of the New York City Zoning Resolution. The split-zone nature of the lot, which includes the landmark synagogue, does not represent a “unique physical condition” or a “hardship.” Shearith Israel can develop a viable building, suitable for a number of different uses, without variances.

There are no physical conditions restricting Shearith Israel’s ability to generate a “reasonable return” on this zoning lot. If it chose, it could generate income with a building complying with zoning and the Central Park West Historic District.

The project deprives the residents of the historic district of value for the financial benefit of the Shearith Israel. Transferring value from the neighbors to the Congregation effectively forces them to make a substantial and involuntary contribution for a facility for which its members ought to be paying.

The variance granted in 2008 was bad enough. It should not be made worse piece by piece.

I urge the Land Use Committee to reject the application in its entirety