Members of a prominent Ocean Parkway synagogue skipped candle lighting ceremonies last night, instead sparking a flame of civil war.
A plan to expand the facilities of Congregation Shaare Zion at 2030 Ocean Parkway was voted down, as congregants who opposed the plan packed into Community Board 15’s December meeting last night, stoking controversy in what was expected to be a humdrum meeting.
Representatives of the congregation’s board came requesting approval for a bulk variance to allow the enlargement, which would see a new six-story, 62-foot-tall addition, while maintaining their waiver of parking requirements. The enlarged structure would see the demolition of an adjacent house the congregation bought for a never-constructed youth center in the late 1980s, now known as the Annex Building, and would have an overhang above the existing property.
The congregation will use the space to better accommodate its 3,000 congregants by adding classrooms and study rooms, multi-purpose rooms and prayer rooms, according to Shaare Zion’s representative.
But, according to its neighbors – and members of the congregation – the shul, though loved, is a problematic neighbor. Several opponents took turns at the Community Board meeting’s podium to complain about noise, garbage and parking, which they say will worsen with the enlargement. Immediate neighbors also feared that a taller structure would limit the amount of light hitting their property.
“[The enlargement] will cause more noise, will exponentially multiply the garbage problem, the traffic, it will generate more trash, it will damage someone’s foundation most likely, it will blot out the light. By my reckoning it will cast a shadow some 80 yards long … it will engulf our homes in perpetual night time,” said neighbor Abraham Safdieh, who then launched into an altered rendition of the Merchant of Venice’s most famous monologues, asking, “Whose house did we damage? Whose light did we steal? … If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
The synagogue’s attorney, Lyra Altman, tried to smooth over objections, noting that the enlargement is intended to better accommodate the existing congregants, not to grow the number of attendees. But that assertion brought doubt from Heather Dayan, who lives directly behind the annex on the corner of Avenue T and East 5th Street.
“You’re saying no more people are going to come,” she said before the board. “How is that so? You build more space more people are going to come.”
Dayan noted that even if it didn’t bring new people, the existing congregants and the synagogue’s management already pose a problem.
“I love the shul, I love the community more than anything. My husband prays there, my children pray there. However, there is a major problem with parking,” Dayan said. “People abuse the power and say they’re just going in for a half hour, [and say] it’s okay I’m blocking your driveway.”
Dayan adds that the synagogue hosts weddings and social events every night, with valet attendants throwing the tickets on her property, and revelers making noise and leaving trash strewn about.
Dayan and Safdieh’s sentiments were echoed by seven other opponents, almost all members of the congregation, who took up approximately 22 minutes of the 35-minute hearing. No one spoke in support of the expansion.
The surprise outpouring of opposition to the project left many of the Community Board’s members taken aback. The meeting was expected to proceed quietly, with swift approval of the synagogue’s plans. When voting, five of the 37 present members chose to abstain because of their affiliation with the synagogue, while several who voted against it preceded their vote by saying it came with “a heavy heart” or “deep regret.”
The final vote vote was 19 against approval, with 13 for and five abstentions. Their vote will be taken into consideration when the Board of Standards and Appeals provides a final decision on the variance.