Followup: Saving Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Endangered Norfolk Street Synagogue

beth hamedrash hagadol winter 2014

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

During the last couple of years, we’ve been keeping track of efforts to save Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the 163-year old synagogue building at 60 Norfolk St. At the end of 2012, the synagogue filed a hardship application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, seeking permission to demolish its historic home. The building has been a city landmark since 1967, but it was shuttered six years ago due to safety concerns, after years of neglect.   Last March, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s rabbi, Mandl Greenbaum, agreed to withdraw the application and to work with local preservationists to come up with alternatives to demolition.  In the past week, we’ve spoken with various people involved in the project.  Here’s an update.

Last spring, the New York Landmarks Conservancy conducted an engineering study to assess the building’s condition.  A draft report was completed during the summer, according to Ann Friedman, director of the conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program. The initial inspection found some structural problems, including a destabilized balcony, collapsing joists and erosion of the space between the roof and one of the building’s walls.  But the evaluation showed that the foundation is secure and that the synagogue’s basic structure has not been compromised.  The interior, however, has been badly damaged from water seeping in from the leaky roof.  The report recommends removal of all plaster (there may be a few salvageable decorative elements) and a complete renovation.  Friedman said the next step is to create a proposed budget for the project.  In the past, preservation experts have estimated restoration costs of at least $3.5 million.  In 2010, the conservancy estimated it would cost about $1 million just to seal the building, a critical step in preventing further flooding and water damage.  Once the report is finalized, it will be forwarded to the Landmarks Commission.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

Inside Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, fall of 2012.

60 norfolk interior fall 2012 (2)

In a recent phone conversation, Rabbi Greenbaum said he remains dedicated to the preservation effort.  “We know we have to act,” he said.  Greenbaum said preliminary talks have taken place involving the developers of Essex Crossing, the large mixed-use project being planned on several parcels surrounding the synagogue.  The hope is that the developers will want to purchase the Norfolk Street property, pay for the restoration of the synagogue and incorporate it into their project as some kind of community center.  Greenbaum said no promises have been made, but Essex Crossing representatives were receptive.  In response to an inquiry from The Lo-Down last fall, a spokesperson for the development team declined to “speculate on any kind of future relationship” with Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

The other potential player in the synagogue’s future is the Chinese Planning Council (CPC), which owns a parking lot behind Beth Hamedrash.   Greenbaum and David Chen, CPC’s executive director, have discussed the possibility of the two organizations collaborating in a mutually beneficial way regarding the adjacent parcels.  The parking lot is currently part of the same zoning parcel as the Hong Ning senior housing building, located just to the south of the synagogue.  CPC would need permission from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development before developing or selling the lot.  Chen noted that there are unused air rights on both the CPC and synagogue parcels.   Within the Chinese Planning Council, he added, there’s an internal debate as to what should be done with the property.  “We are not interested in real estate speculation, in simply selling the land for a big profit” Chen explained.  “My own view is that there’s an opportunity to further our mission by creating a social services facility or affordable housing.”

Rabbi Greenbaum’s decision to withdraw the hardship application last year followed a campaign by a preservation group, Friends of the Lower East Side, to save one of the neighborhood’s most significant Jewish sites.  Holly Kaye, the founding director of the LES Jewish Conservancy, was instrumental in persuading the rabbi to change course.  Yesterday, Kaye told us, she’s confident he is still committed to preserving the building.

So what’s the upshot?  A lot depends on what the Essex Crossing developers choose to do.  It’s obviously not in their interest to have a decaying, abandoned synagogue in the middle of their new project.  It remains to be seen whether they will have interest in paying to restore the building and converting it into some sort of public facility, a performing arts center, for example.  If air rights can be transferred from the Beth Hamedrash and/or Chinese Planning Council parcels to the Essex Crossing site, the restoration effort might seem more enticing.  But given the strict height limits in place on the Essex Crossing lots, the city would need to give its approval.