Shul Shunned: A local synagogue located on a residential block was denied the support of Community Board 15 last night, as neighbors lined up during the Board’s meeting to decry the shul’s proposal to expand.
Congregation Kozover Zichron Chaim Shloime currently takes up two residential homes at 1782 and 1784 East 28th Street, between Quentin Road and Avenue R. Leaders from the synagogue came to request the Board’s approval for a plan to legalize a structure that has illegally connected the two buildings for nearly 20 years, and to expand the rear of the building to add a women’s prayer sanctuary. A representative for the owner said that the facility served 200 local families. Because women and men are separated for prayer services, the building no longer has the space to accommodate their flock, and women have stopped attending. The proposal would provide the space they need to serve the congregation, the representative said.
Neighbors, though, rattled off complaints about the building’s owners, saying that congregants often caused traffic and blocked driveways, the building has been illegally altered without regard for safety, is out of character with the rest of the block, and is a general detriment to their quality of life.
Joe Melfi, whose 85-year-old disabled mother has lived in an adjacent attached house for 40 years, pleaded with the Board to join his neighbors in opposing the shul’s plans.
“My mother and my father, who’ve been in this community 40 years, chose that house to raise five children, raise 14 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. They worked their lives as a longshoreman and a seamstress … and all my mother wants is to spend her twilight years, her golden years in that house,” Melfi said. “How she is possibly not going to have her quality of life affected by this level of construction, I don’t think it’s humanly possible. And anyone voting for this proposed initiative needs to consider that, and consider the responsibility of my mother in that situation.”
The builders sought to nearly double the floor area of the two buildings, from an already over the max 5,996 square feet, to 9,309 square feet. To do so, they aimed to extend the two residential buildings they own to the rear with a two-story, 27-foot-tall sanctuary for men and women, swallowing up the backyards entirely.
While some residents spoke about the elimination of required rear yards and the obstruction of their views, air and light, most were more concerned with another element of the proposal: an illegally constructed structure that connects the two buildings and blocks off what used to be a driveway between them.
Peter Trnka, a New York City fireman who also lives in the attached home adjacent to the synagogue, blasted the proposal in light of major lapses in safety, and the synagogue’s history of skirting building laws.
“This illegal temporary structure composed of steel I-beams and brick and cinder block, that was built in the alley between the two properties, was built 18 years ago in 1995. Sealing the alley and incorporating the structure is a zoning violation … no fines were ever paid, and the illegal structure still exists, and now they’re asking for permission today,” Trnka said. He added that the building exists without a required fire suppression system, and there remains no provision for them in the new plans – a situation made far more dangerous because congregants frequently block the closest fire hydrant, sometimes overnight, he said.
“This is a chronic and blatant disregard for safety,” he added, noting that the congregation already suffered a fire in August 2009, resulting in the injury of several firefighters. “Firefighters do a dangerous job, and sometimes they do need to be put in harm’s way. But unnecessary, illegal alterations such as that structure right in the middle of the two properties could potentially be directly responsible for deaths.”
According to a neighbor who lives across the street, Dana Aloisio, the city agrees that the congregation has built without concern for legality. She noted that, since 1992, the two addresses combined have upwards of $65,000 in fines, and have accumulated 19 complaints, 15 DOB violations, and 29 ECB violations – some of which are still open to this day. Moreover, one of the buildings lacks a Certificate of Occupancy entirely, while the other one’s certificate is in default because the property is being used contrary to what the certificate allows.
“It’s unfathomable how this plan is requesting a bulk variance claiming a non self created hardship when they have in fact created their own hardship by existing against violation and utilizing the space inappropriately against the commissioner’s orders,” she said.
Although a contingent of roughly two dozen congregants attended the meeting to support the synagogue, few spoke on the proposal’s behalf. One neighbor, whose home abuts the shul’s rear, said he had no problem with the proposed expansion. There were 21 letters of objection filed with the Board, and one in support.
Boardmembers, meanwhile, expressed their own disbelief with the proposal.
Member Joe Dorinson said the proposal gives “new meaning to the word chutzpah,” while executive boardmember Eileen O’Brian said it appears the builders have a “callous disregard for the neighbors in the adjoining property.”
“There seems to be no question that the size of the facility is inadequate for the congregation. But, that begs the question to me, I think this location is perhaps inadequate for the congregation,” O’Brian said. “Is there no way to make this facility smaller?”
The Board ultimately denied the application with a vote of 34-to-1. Their recommendation is passed to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which will give the final determination on the proposal.
Sheepshead Bites could not reach a representative of the congregation or the congregation’s attorney for comment on this article, despite multiple attempts.
Other Zoning Items:
- 2085 Ocean Parkway – An application to amend an already approved Special Permit to allow the addition of the adjacent lot and modifications to the design and bulk of the approved building. The applicant is Congregation Bet Yaakob, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, which successfully applied for a variance from the Board in 2011. Since then, and before beginning construction, the synagogue’s owners purchased an adjacent property, allowing them more space to rework their designs, and bring its floor area within compliance. However, because of the property change, they still needed to seek approval from the Board, even though their previous zoning waiver granted more than they’re currently requesting. The Board voted 35-to-0 in support of the proposal.
- 1601 Gravesend Neck Road – The Board denied the application of FG Fitness Gallery at 1601 Gravesend Neck Road. The space is currently being used illegally as a gym, and its owners sought to legalize it. However, no one came to represent the property, and they had repeatedly failed to provide the Board with requested information for as long as two months, boardmembers noted during the discussion. As a result the Board voted to deny the application with a vote of 30-to-4, with one abstention for cause, and the Board will inform the BSA that they will refuse to consider the matter again in the future.
- The New York City Department of Sanitation has revised its rules regarding recycling, now permitting the recycling of all rigid plastics, including toys, hangers, shampoo bottles, coffee cups and food containers. Letters were sent out to property owners in recent weeks, and new recycling stickers for trash cans were sent with it. Stickers can also be obtained by visiting the Community Board’s office.
- Representatives for elected officials reminded Sandy victims to register for Build it Back NYC, a program that will help obtain or recover funds for home and business owners hurt by Sandy.
- There will be no Sanitation pickup on Independence Day, July 4. No recycling will be picked up that week whatsoever. Residents who normally have Thursday morning garbage collection may put their garbage curbside on Thursday night, but the Board warns that not all garbage will be collected.
- Community Board 15’s offices at Kingsborough Community College will remain open all summer.
- The district manager reminded residents to be extra vigilant during the summer, and also noted that several incidents of suspicious packages were reported in recent weeks and taken seriously by the NYPD. If you see something, say something.
- The Board has received complaints regarding potential scam artists seeking to switch your electric service. There are new energy providers (ESCOs) servicing the area, according to the Board, but residents should never give out their credit card, Social Security number, driver’s license or any other private information to strangers doing door-to-door solicitations. If you have any doubts, close the door and call 911.
- Boardmember Chris Greif is helping to organize a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. The fundraiser takes place on July 20, from noon to 4 p.m., at Strike 10 Lanes (formerly Gil Hodges, 6161 Strickland Avenue). Bowl 2 games for $20, and proceeds will go to support Special Olympics athletes. RSVP by calling (347) 260-5057.
- The Board will hold a special meeting of their zoning committee with the Department of City Planning to discuss alterations to the building code in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The meeting will be open to the public. It will take place on July 8 at 6 p.m., at a location to be decided.