Gotham Details Plan For Norfolk Street Site; More on That Bogus Rivington House Link

A massing diagram showing the shape and size of the new project was part of last night's community board presentation.

A massing diagram showing the shape and size of the new project was part of last night’s community board presentation.

Representatives of the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) and the Gotham Organization, a New York City-based developer, outlined plans last night for a huge new project on the site of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (BHH), the fire-ravaged Norfolk Street synagogue.

During the presentation before Community Board 3’s land use committee, Gotham’s Bryan Kelly said the project at 50-60 Norfolk St. would consist of two towers (10 and 30 stories), 488 apartments (including 188 affordable units), a large new facility for CPC’s social service programs, a new synagogue space for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and neighborhood retail. We reported many of these details in a story published yesterday.

The most interesting part of last night’s discussion concerned the city’s announcement earlier this week of the Norfolk Street housing plan, and the clumsy/deceptive effort by the mayor’s office to link it to Rivington House.

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On Tuesday, the de Blasio administration reneged on a promise made in September of 2016 to create 100 units of senior housing in a new project at 30 Pike St. The commitment had been part of the mayor’s efforts to make up for the bungling of deed restrictions at Rivington House, the former Lower East Side nursing home now in the hands of luxury condo developers.

The unwelcome news was delivered in a press release that also detailed plans to add 60 nursing home beds at Gouverneur Health and to support Gotham’s proposal to create 88 apartments for low-income seniors on Norfolk Street.  The press release read, in part, “The affordable homes and health care for seniors fills a commitment made by the Mayor to replace services lost in the wake of the Rivington House nursing home closure in 2015.”

The mayor attended a town hall on the Lower East Side in May of last year.

The mayor attended a town hall on the Lower East Side in May of last year.

At last night’s meeting, CB3 member Lisa Kaplan said, “We got word day before yesterday that a project that had been promised to us on Pike Street, that the affordable units were now part of (the Norfolk Street project). It looks to me like you were already planning to do senior housing and the project that we were promised on Pike Street just went up in smoke. Tell me that I’m wrong, and why I’m wrong.”

Kelly, Gotham’s executive vice president for development, responded, “I can’t speak to that (Pike Street) development because it’s out of Gotham’s purview, but what I can say is that CPC and Gotham have always talked about the idea of (possibly) including senior affordable housing in our development.”

“Our ability to work out site control with the BHH synagogue has allowed us to identify a footprint where we’re able to create” the senior affordable apartments, said Kelly. Gotham began working with CPC and the synagogue’s leadership before the May 2017 fire that destroyed much of the historic Jewish site. After the fire, they hammered out a proposal for the senior building, incorporating remnants from the burned out synagogue. Gotham has been overseeing the demolition of destabilized portions of the shul. 

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This past fall, Kelly said, “we were approached by the city to ask whether we would consider an even more robust program for senior affordable housing… City Hall, through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, has been willing to commit $25-30 million to create 40% affordable housing on this site…”  Initially, Gotham and CPC had intended to build 30% affordable housing in the project. The city’s financial commitment, Kelly explained, allowed them to up the affordable component to 40%.

But Alan Gerson, CPC’s attorney, told board members that Rivington House was never brought up by anyone in the administration. “From the very beginning,” said Gerson, “before we selected Gotham, CPC expressed in the Request for Proposals a clear interest and preference in maximizing affordability, including affordability for senior housing.” He added, “We didn’t learn about the change of the Pike Street project until just about when you learned about it. Our negotiation with the city was for maximum support, period, the end.”

At another point, MyPhuong Chung, chair of the land use committee, voiced her own concerns. “I had a huge concern about the Rivington House linkage that the press has been making,” she asserted. “Now I understand that you’re not involved in that and that the city didn’t come to you and say, ‘Hey, in exchange for Rivington House can you up the affordability or increase the units?’”

She then went on to blame the local media for the misconception, ignoring the city administration’s role in disseminating misleading information in its Tuesday press release. “I’m very glad to hear that,” said Chung, “because it’s kind of how the press has been portraying it.”

She concluded by saying, “I just want to make very clear that our community is in dire need of senior housing, and that adding senior housing to any project does not make up for Rivington House. That was a 200-bed skilled nursing facility. That is a totally different loss (beyond) what any senior housing could ever fulfill.”

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Other notes from last night’s presentation:

–CPC and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol will own their community spaces. Gotham will have a long-term lease on CPC’s property, but the non-profit organization will retain ownership of that, as well. Lease payments will help support Chinese American Planning Council’s local programs.

–The project will include 20,000 square feet of retail on Broome St. (half at ground level, half in the basement). The developer will not lease space in the project to a big box retailer.

–The developers said historic elements from the synagogue are being removed with care for possible future use. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is overseeing the partial demolition.

–CPC’s 40,000 square foot space will house administrative office plus social service programs. Currently, CPC maintains separate offices on Eldridge and Elizabeth streets.

–Dattner Architects, the same firm behind the senior rental building on Essex Crossing site 6, will be designing the new project. One major goal is activating Broome Street, between Norfolk and Suffolk Street, and essentially making the project “seamless” with the surrounding Essex Crossing buildings.

–The site is currently zoned R-8 and is part of a Large-Scale Residential Development Plan. Gotham is seeking to create a new master plan and upzone the parcel to R-9-1. The proposal must go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and there will be an environmental review.  The Landmarks Commission also must sign off on the development plan.

30-Story Residential Tower Planned Alongside Ruins of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

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The Gotham Organization is set to go before Community Board 3’s land use committee tonight to unveil plans for a large new development project — built partially on the ruins of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue at 50 Norfolk St.

The proposal includes two buildings, including a 30-story tower on Suffolk Street, right in the middle of the Essex Crossing mega-project. The new plan would add 488 residential units, retail and community space on sites currently owned by the synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council. The project will cover 576,000 square feet, according to a document filed with CB3 in advance of tonight’s meeting.

The community board questionnaire reveals the following:

–The developers envision a “master-planned project” that would create an “intergenerational community.”

–They’re seeking to change the R-8 zoning on this particular block to R-9-1 and C2-5.

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–On the synagogue site, there would be a 10-story senior building, including 88 apartments for low-income seniors. It is presumed that the developers would incorporate what remains of the synagogue, which was destroyed by an arson fire last May. Crews have been demolishing unstable portions of the landmark-protected structure for the past several weeks. The apartments would be available to seniors with annual household incomes between 30% and 60% of Area Median Income.

–On the current Suffolk Street parking lot owned by the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), there would be a 30-story tower with 300 market rate apartments and 100 affordable units. The affordable units would be reserved for residents earning household annual incomes between 40% and 100% of Area Median Income. Market rate apartments would be offered in a range between $2150/month for studios and $7350 for 3-bedrooms.

–There would be 46,000 square feet for community facilities, including a headquarters for CPC’s social services and a new synagogue for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. The two non-profit organizations would own these spaces.

–The developers are looking to participate in several subsidy schemes, including the 420-c and 421-a tax exemption programs.

As we reported yesterday, the mayor’s office is trying to argue that the affordable units in the new Norfolk Street project compensate the Lower East Side community for the loss of more than 200 nursing home beds at Rivington House. This project was in the works long before the city administration seized on it as a potential “Rivington House replacement.”

Tonight’s meeting takes place at 6:30 p.m. at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge St.

One more interesting tidbit. The Gotham Organization was one of many developers which bid on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area Project, now known as Essex Crossing. The firm lost out, but the developer is now poised to claim a large chunk of real estate right in the middle of the former SPURA site. If this new project goes forward, the 30 story tower will be taller than any of the Essex Crossing buildings. In creating 488 new residential units, it would generate almost half the number of apartments being built in all of Essex Crossing.

60 Norfolk Development Questionairre by The Lo-Down on Scribd

Department of Buildings Declares Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Unstable

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) has determined that the remains of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historic Lower East Side synagogue, are unstable. The agency, however, will not insist on the immediate demolition of the 167-year-old building because a safety zone has been established around the property. The announcement came from DOB late this afternoon.

The building, a city landmark since 1967, was destroyed by fire May 14. The Lo-Down first reported on Saturday that the synagogue’s leaders have submitted an application for demolition to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The application will be heard before Community Board 3’s landmarks committee (an advisory body) tomorrow (Tuesday) evening. A Landmarks Commission hearing will be held July 11.

Forensic engineers from the Buildings Department believe that the remaining facade has been compromised. Since the structure is not a danger to neighboring properties or to the public, a DOB spokesperson said, the agency has decided against issuing an emergency declaration to demolish the historic synagogue.

Before the building can be taken down, the owners will be required to go through the city’s permit application process and to seek approval from the Landmarks Commission. There has been talk of trying to preserve a portion of the old structure, incorporating it into new construction on the Norfolk Street site. The synagogue is partnering with the Chinese American Planning Council to build a mixed-use complex on the synagogue lot and an adjacent parcel.

Demolition Application Filed For Fire Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

There’s some sad but unsurprising news to report this morning about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Lower East Side synagogue destroyed in a May 14 fire.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Mendel Greenbaum, has told The Lo-Down that he’s filed an application for demolition with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The commission plans to hold a hearing on the application July 11. The first step, however, is an appearance by building ownership and its engineers at the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 3. That’s scheduled this coming Tuesday, June 20 at 6:30 p.m. (JASA/Green Residence, 200 East 5th St.)

In a phone interview yesterday, Rabbi Greenbaum said the Department of Buildings is extremely concerned about the stability of the fire ravaged building at 60 Norfolk St. Inspectors have not been able to enter the synagogue, which is filled with rubble. They made their assessment after examining the perimeter of the 167-year-old building.

There’s particular concern about the two towers in the front of the shul. When the roof collapsed during the fire, much of the masonry of the towers was taken out.  The synagogue hired an independent consultant, Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, to conduct an independent study. Greenbaum said the results of that survey are consistent with the Buildings Department’s findings.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission did not respond to our request for information about Beth Hamedrash Hagadol yesterday. We also contacted the Department of Buildings, asking whether any decisions had been made about the fate of 60 Norfolk St. A spokesperson would say only that the investigation is ongoing and that the agency has received no application for demolition.

In December of 2012, Rabbi Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the LPC to demolish the building, which had been closed five years earlier and required millions of dollars in repairs. The vision at that time was to build a new mixed-use building with space for the synagogue on the ground floor.  Several months later, however, he had a change of heart. In March of 2013, the rabbi told us the demolition application was being put on hold. In response to local pleas for preservation, Greenbaum said he would try to find a development partner interested in restoring the building.

The synagogue and the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) were working on a restoration plan that also included building on a site owned by CPC behind the shul. Along with their development partner, the Gotham Organization, they were scheduled to meet with representatives of the Landmarks Commission three days after the fire. The plans have obviously changed dramatically.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country.  The building opened in 1850 as a Baptist church (some of its congregants later founded Riverside Church).  The synagogue purchased the building in 1885. The congregation was led by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York City.  Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, an internationally known scholar and a Holocaust survivor, was spiritual leader of the synagogue for 50 years, before his death in 2003.  Oshry, Greenbaum’s father-in-law, spearheaded a successful campaign in 1967 to designate the synagogue as a city landmark.

Rabbi Greenbaum hopes to establish a small synagogue in the basement of the new building. Those plans are still moving forward. The synagogue site could accommodate a 45,000 square foot building, even before accounting for the neighboring CPC parcel. Greenbaum and members of the Oshry family would like to salvage some part of the synagogue as a memorial to one of the most significant Jewish sites on the Lower East Side.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection with starting the fire. Prosecutors have, at least for the time being, chosen not to press charges. The case is being handled in juvenile court.

Latest Developments: Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Photo by Rich Caplan.

Photo by Rich Caplan.

We have more details on tonight’s devastating fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the 167-year-old synagogue building at 60 Norfolk St.

More than 100 firefighters fought the blaze, which broke out just before 7 p.m. It was under control by about 8:50 p.m., but not before ravaging the historic landmark. Thankfully, no one was injured.

A short time ago, we spoke with Rabbi Mendl Greenbaum, who was on the scene to begin assessing the damage to the building. The synagogue was shuttered in 2007. He told us that groups of young people had entered the property in recent weeks. Police have been called on numerous occasions, he said. They apparently set a small fire last Sunday evening (exactly one week ago).  A TLD reader, Paul Power, sent us the photo you see below, showing fire trucks in front of the synagogue Sunday, May 7. Greenbaum said authorities are checking security cameras in the area for evidence that the same kids were on the scene tonight.

Greenbaum said he was scheduled to pay a visit to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the coming week to discuss the future of the building. He was to be accompanied by representatives of the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), which owns the parcel behind the building. CPC has for many years been contemplating a new commercial building on the site. Greenbaum said a development plan for both parcels was to include the renovation of the dilapidated synagogue building.

In 2012, Greenbaum filed a hardship application with the Landmarks Commission, seeking permission to demolish the building. Under pressure from preservation groups, he withdrew the application. Several organizations, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy, have been advocating for a full restoration. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is the oldest synagogue of Russian Jews in this country.  It was built in 1850 as a church.

Earlier tonight, City Council member Margaret Chin was on site to gather information and to assist residents of the Hong Ning senior housing complex, located next door to the synagogue. The elevators were shut down for a time, and there was concern about tenants potentially suffering smoke inhalation, or having to evacuate. Fortunately, they were all okay, and evacuations were not necessary. Chin called the fire “devastating,” and said officials will be “working hard to save the historic landmark.”  Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou also put out a statement tonight, saying she was in close contact with emergency officials and staff members were on Norfolk Street to assist residents with any pressing needs.

Wayne Ho, president and CEO of Chinese American Planning Council was in the lobby of the Hong Ning building, as well (his organization owns the property). He declined to discuss any potential development of the site adjacent to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, except to say that, “many conversations have been taking place.”

It will be tomorrow before Department of Buildings inspectors get their first look inside the badly damaged building. Local preservationists already fear the worst, strongly suspecting that the cherished Jewish sacred site will be condemned and demolished. The now charred and gutted synagogue, of course, sits right in the middle of the Essex Crossing development site. As a vacant parcel, it would be worth many millions.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.

Last Sunday evening, May 7. Photo by Paul Power.

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

Petition Started to Save Norfolk Street Synagogue

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

We continue to follow developments at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the endangered synagogue at 60 Norfolk St.  The synagogue has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to demolish the 1850 building, which was protected in 1967.  In January a local preservation organization, Friends of the Lower East Side, urged supporters to contact the commission, urging it to reject demolition. Now the group has started an online petition.   You can find the petition here.