Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Landmarks Approves Shearith Israel Proposal

A disappointing day at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Yesterday (Tuesday, March 14, 2006), the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to APPROVE Congregation Shearith Israel's (CSI's) proposed building at 8 W. 70th Street. More than three years after introducing plans for a 15-story building on this largely 4- to 5-story brownstone midblock (in what we all thought was a protected historic district and mandatory, low-rise contextual zoning district), CSI received a green light to erect a 10-story building (taller than any other building on the midblock, twice the height of what is allowed on this site). Next, the plan must be presented to the Board of Standards and Appeals in order to get the series of zoning exemptions (for height and setbacks) it needs before construction can proceed. Stay tuned for more information about the timeline for this phase of the process.

Is it a victory that the community was able to raise enough substantive issues to bring the building down from 15 stories to 10 (remember that 20 years ago the original proposal was 40+ stories cantilevered over the Individual Landmark Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue)? Yes and no. On the positive side, this project brought preservationists and other concerned citizens together, with few exceptions, from across the city to form a unified front against the (now sadly routine) practice of allowing overdevelopment-by-special-exemption in neighborhoods that everyone believed were protected.
Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope, Greenwich Village, Chelsea - thank you all for standing strong.

On the negative side, this overwhelming public support for upholding the landmark and zoning protections didn't convince the LPC. So, although the building is smaller by a few stories, it will still set a precedent for overreaching development elsewhere in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District and throughout the city.

It's been a long road, with many miles yet to go. Next stop, Community Board 7's Land Use Committee - we'll keep you posted on where and when.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

LPC Poised to Vote on Shearith Israel Tower, 8 W. 70th Street

Say "No" to out-of-scale development in our historic districts! Mark your calendar to attend the Landmarks Preservation Commission's (LPC's) public meeting on Tuesday, March 14 (exact time tba), when they may very well take a vote on Congregation Shearith Israel's controversial plan to construct an 11-story (124-foot) building at 8 West 70th Street adjacent to the Individual Landmark Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue on a predominantly low-rise, brownstone block in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District and the contextual midblock zoning district (R8B) designed to protect the block's low-scale character. Although testimony will not be taken from the public, your presence is absolutely critical and will speak volumes about the major concerns about this project and the far-ranging precedents it would set for communities all across the city. (See below for other action steps you can take.)

We're not alone. Here's what other neighborhood groups have had to say about the synagogue's plan:

Brooklyn Heights Association - "[W]e believe that in this period of burgeoning development pressure the Commission should pause to consider, as a matter of broad preservation policy, its essential role in defending the character of lower scale areas in the districts it supervises."

Park Slope Civic Council - "Our 700 members and 30 trustees will follow closely the action taken here, as we wish to avoid any precedents that could be used to
compromise the decades of hard work and accomplishments achieved to maintain the integrity of our historic and unique neighborhood."

Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation - "We strongly believe that...zoning which has been crafted to ensure design compatibility in historic neighborhoods should be strengthened and protected, rather than weakened."

Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side - "In recent years, many institutions have relentlessly disregarded the historic scale of the architecture in these midblocks. The Congregation Shearith Israel application is just another example of an ill-conceived, out-of-scale institutional proposal."

Has the LPC gotten the message? Tuesday will tell. Please make every effort to attend! And let the LPC hear from you beforehand - please send emails/faxes to LPC Chair Robert B. Tierney today! Email:, Fax: 212-669-7955. (Please send copies to us at

**Another important contact is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who until recently represented much of the Upper West Side in the NYS Assembly. Since taking office in January, BP Stringer has taken some tough stands on over-development issues in other neighborhoods - urge him to take a stand on this one as well! Email/fax him your views -, 212-669-7862 (fax), 212-669-8300 (phone).