Construction Worker Killed in Tragic Accident at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Development Site

Photo: NYC Emergency Management.

Photo: NYC Emergency Management.

Tragedy struck once again this week at the site that once housed the Lower East Side’s Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue.

The Gotham Organization and the Chinese American Planning Council are partnering for a large residential and commercial complex at 60 Norfolk St. The historic shul was destroyed in an arson fire two years ago. Just as crews began to stabilize remains of the synagogue Monday morning, a wall toppled, crushing two construction workers.

One of those workers, Stanislaw Supinski, was killed. His family has hired an attorney and plans to sue the property owner and general contractor.

“In the wake of such tragedies, the first priority is to be there for a grieving family and ask if such a horrendous circumstance could have been prevented,” said attorney Slawomir W. Platta. “The State of New York has very specific regulations which are intended to keep workers safe. (This) system failed the Supinski family. We will do our best to hold the wrongdoers responsible for this unnecessary tragic accident.” As Curbed reported, Platta intends to file a workers compensation claim to retrieve death benefits for the family, in addition to a lawsuit against the developers and their contractor.

Supinsky, 52, lived in Ridgeworrd, Queens with his girlfriend. He was an immigrant from Poland.


Titan Industrial SVC Corp. had approval from the Department of Buildings to perform emergency stabilization work. The developers planned to incorporate portions of the fire ravaged building in the new project. While Gotham will purchase the Beth Hamdedrash Hagadol site, public records indicate it’s still owned by “Beth Medrash Hagodol of New York Restoration, Inc.” Titan was allowed to return to the site this week to demolish what was left of the synagogue’s western facade.

In a statement, Gotham said, “We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred today during stabilization work necessary to preserve part of the historic remains of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue. Our prayers go out to the families affected by this terrible tragedy.”

AM New York reported:

It was unclear why the workers were so close during the demolition, but fire officials said rescue crews had to pull them from under the rubble, as parts of the building hung on the edge of further collapse. It took minutes for emergency personnel to remove them from the debris. The worker who died at the hospital had gone into cardiac arrest, officials said. Firefighters kept their distance as a stairway was barely holding onto its supports. Pieces of the façade also hung in the balance as Buildings Department officials probed the debris.

In the past month, Community Board 3 approved plans from the developers for two towers on the synagogue site, and an adjacent site owned by the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC). One tower, set to rise 30 stories, will include 488 rental apartments, 75% market rate, 25% affordable. A smaller tower will include 115 affordable apartments for low-income seniors. The complex will also house a new headquarters for CPC and a cultural and educational center for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.  The City Planning Commission and City Council must give their final approval for the project.

The 1850 synagogue building (originally a church) suffered from years of neglect before it was destroyed by an arson fire in May of 2017. The building, a New York City landmark, was home to the oldest Russian Orthodox Jewish congregation in the United States. While a teenager was arrested in connection with the fire, he was later released and authorities never provided any further information to the community about the loss of one of the neighborhood’s most significant historic buildings.


Landmarks Hearing Tuesday For New Towers at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Site


Developers planning a big new residential project alongside the ruins of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue will go before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission tomorrow.

According to the LPC’s meeting agenda, they have filed an application, “to demolish more portions of the building and integrate the remaining structure into a new modern style apartment building.”

The 1850 building is a historic landmark. Last year, major portions of the structure were demolished after a devastating arson fire destroyed one of the most significant remaining Jewish sites on the Lower East Side. The new project is a partnership between the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), which owns an adjacent site, and the Gotham Organization.  The new complex 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.

Tomorrow’s presentation is expected at 1 p.m., at 1 Centre St., 9th floor. No testimony from members of the public will be allowed.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 12.03.09 PM

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. 


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.”

broome/suffolk streets

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

broome/suffolk streets

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.


–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

Crews Begin Chipping Away at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s South Tower


Here are the latest photos from Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the fire-ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. that is slowing being dismantled.

The project, which is being overseen by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, began a little over a week ago. Demolition crews have slowly been removing unstable portions of the facade. In the past day, they have moved to the most significant portion of the building, the two towers in front of the 167-year-old landmark. A worker at the top of a cherry picker is removing checks from the top of the south tower.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was set on fire by teens who snuck into the building this past May. The synagogue was shuttered about a decade ago, although a plan was in the works to develop an adjacent parcel and to restore the synagogue building.



(Photos) Demolition at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol


As we first reported on Tuesday, crews have begun a partial demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the historic Lower East Synagogue destroyed by fire earlier this year. Here are the photos from the scene today.

The work right now is concentrated on the north side of the building at 60 Norfolk St., where pieces of brick are being removed. Engineers have said that two towers in front of the building are extremely unstable, and that parts of the north and south walls are also at risk of collapsing. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has instructed the building owners to save as much of the facade as possible, and to remove significant artifacts for possible later use.




Partial Demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue is Beginning

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, 60 Norfolk St. December 2017.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue, 60 Norfolk St. December 2017.

In the days ahead you’re likely to see increased activity around Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the fire ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St.

This is because the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Department of Buildings have approved, “emergency stabilization” work on the devastated 167-year-old landmark. In other words, partial demolition is about to begin.

On May 14, the synagogue was set on fire, allegedly by teenage boys, who snuck inside the building. In July, the Landmarks Commission approved the owner’s plan for a careful demolition of those parts of the synagogue which are unstable. The commission urged engineers to proceed cautiously, in the hopes of saving some part of the historic Jewish site.

The commission provided us with the following statement yesterday:

At the public hearing of July 11, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved dismantling portions of the building that are unstable and unsafe. The LPC and DOB approvals provide for slowly removing the walls of the building until they reach a stable level.



In the document embedded below, you can read more details from the LPC’s Certificate of Appropriateness, which was issued Nov. 30. The commission has approved, “building-wide emergency stabilization work, including demolition of unstable top sections of the masonry walls and towers…”

The LPC determined that the fire earlier this year “significantly damaged the building,” and that, “portions of the building, especially on the west, north and south facades are structurally unsound and unsafe and need to be removed…” In approving the application, however, “the commission required that the work be done carefully to minimize the amount of material that must be removed and shall continue only to the point where it is feasible to stabilize the facades and eliminate threats to public safety.” The commission ordered the owners to salvage “significant architectural features and finished material.”  An engineer hired by LPC is monitoring the work.

The Gothic Revival-style building opened as a church in 1850. It was altered in 1885 for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol and became a city landmark in 1967. The commission noted that the building has been in a state of decay for many years. The congregation closed the synagogue in 1997.

The synagogue’s leaders have been working with the Chinese American Planning Council, which owns a parcel behind Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, to develop a new residential building and community facility. They were scheduled to go before Community Board 3 some time ago to outline their plans but the presentation was canceled.

Certificate of Appropriateness: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol – Partial Demolition by The Lo-Down on Scribd

Landmarks Commission Approves “Careful” Demolition of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, 60 Norfolk St.

The leadership of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission this morning to argue for the demolition of their fire-ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. The commissioners signaled their reluctance to approve an application for full demolition. Instead, they want to see the preservation of as much of the landmark-protected building as possible.

The 167-year-old synagogue was set on fire May 14, allegedly by teenage boys. Bryan Chester, an engineer at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, told commissioners that the building is unstable and that very little of the remaining facade is salvageable. The firm was hired by the synagogue to assess the condition of the 167-year-old structure, which has suffered from decades of neglect. The Department of Buildings and an engineer working for the Landmarks Preservation Commission concur with Chester’s findings.

During today’s hearing, however, the commissioners alluded to the historic importance of the building, once home to the oldest congregation of Russian Jews in this country. While acknowledging that some portions of the synagogue must be taken down for safety reasons, they urged the property owners to conduct demolition work carefully. Commission staff this afternoon are drafting a resolution approving limited demolition, under the supervision of the agency’s engineering consultant.

Once that resolution has been approved, we’ll update this story and also have a full recap from today’s hearing.

UPDATE 4:37 p.m. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the application for demolition, but made several modifications. LPC determined that portions of the building (particularly on the west, north and south facades) are structurally unsound and unsafe and must be removed. The commission stated that the demolition work must be conducted carefully in order to save as much of the building as possible. The sole purpose of the demolition is to stabilize the facades. The LPC is instructing the building owners to salvage significant architectural features and finished materials. Finally, the commission’s engineering firm will be monitoring the demolition work.

CB3’s Landmarks Panel Urges Preservation of Fire-Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Image from handout provided by Howard L. Zimmerman Architects.

Image from handout provided by Howard L. Zimmerman Architects.

A structural engineer working for Beth Hamedrash Hagadol says the fire-ravaged synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. is in “dire” condition, and saving even small portions of the Lower East Side landmark will require a lot of effort and more than a little luck. This assessment came during last night’s meeting of Community Board 3’s landmarks committee. The synagogue recently filed a request for demolition after the Department of Buildings determined the remaining structure is unstable.

Thomas McMahon, the synagogue’s consultant/attorney, opened the presentation by summarizing the unfortunate situation in the aftermath of a devastating May 14 fire, allegedly set by teenage boys. The blaze, he said, “was tragic in many ways” and has forced the demolition application because, McMahon explained, “it is really a severely dangerous situation.” The decaying building has been vacant for about a decade. In the days before the fire, said McMahon, the synagogue had been close to reaching a deal with a neighboring property owner, the Chinese American Planning Council, to finally restore the 167-year-old building and to build affordable housing. 

Bryan Chester, a project manager at Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, then guided community board members through a grim report about the building’s current condition. He arrived on the scene the morning after the fire and was on site for about two weeks. The building, said Chester, is so unstable that inspectors were forced to evaluate it from a safe distance (photos and a man lift were used to inspect the facade). “At the end of the day,” he explained, “we weren’t even able to get investigators all the way in to finish the investigation due to the instabilities.” 

“There are certain portions of the building which just cannot be saved,” said Chester. There are other sections “that we are going to do our best to save,” he added, but it won’t be clear what, if anything, can be salvaged until the demolition crews go to work.  

See selected slides from the presentation here: 

bhh report 2 bhh report 3

bhh report 4 bhh report 5 bhh report 6 bhh report 7 bhh report 8 bhh report 9 bhh report 10 bhh report 10 bhh report 11

The biggest concern is the stability of the two towers in front of the building. In some spots, said Chester, a single brick is holding up several feet of the tower above it. During the fire, the roof collapsed, taking out a lot of the synagogue’s masonry and ripping apart critical support infrastructure. Firefighters, for their own safety, knocked down unstable pieces of the building. Some of the stone, Chester said, came loose as workers put up a sidewalk safety shed around the site.

“The north tower,” said Chester, “is in very severe condition” and must be demolished. While the south tower looks more stable at first glance, he said, it is also in bad shape. As anyone can tell walking along Broome Street, the north side of the building is in tatters. The facade is largely gone and there’s very little to be saved.

“The rear of the building does look (to be) in relatively good condition,” Chester reported, but he added, “It’s still not in great shape, and we won’t really know the damage that’s been done to that wall (until crews get a closer look).” The masonry on the southern wall was badly damaged, but engineers are at least somewhat hopeful parts of it can be saved. 

“The rabbi and the congregation,” Chester concluded, “are committing to try their best to save as much as they can.” While no one wants to see the building demolished, he said, “the reality of the situation is that it’s probably going that way, but we will do our best.”

bhh report 12

bhh report 14

Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol also spoke during last night’s meeting. He said the building has great sentimental value to him (Greenbaum’s father-in-law, the great Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, led the congregation for a half century). Referencing the plans with the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), he said the synagogue’s board of directors remains committed to re-establishing the shul on the Lower East Side. The rabbi indicated that the synagogue’s air rights were worth about $12 before the fire. The development site at 60 Norfolk St., which will not be a city-protected landmark much longer, is now worth about $18 million, he estimated. For the first time, Greenbaum said publicly that the synagogue had no fire insurance.

Alan Gerson, a former Lower Manhattan City Councilman, is CPC’s lawyer. During the meeting, he said the original plans would have included restoring the synagogue, establishing a public events space and a shul on the lower level. The vision was also to create housing, “including significant affordable housing,” said Gerson, “serving a cross-section of the community.” The idea, he explained, was also to create a “revenue stream” (presumably through at least some market rate apartments and facility rentals) to support CPC’s social services for young people and seniors.

While Gerson acknowledged that CPC has signed an “option agreement” with a developer, the Gotham Organization, for the project, but he said it’s only an “exploratory” contract, not a finalized deal. Gerson said CPC remains committed to the plan and he pledged to work with the community and to “honor the heritage of the site.” 

“We will respect the preservationists’ desires expressed at this meeting (to save as much of the building as possible),” said Gerson. “We share them. We reflect them. We are not the owners of that property and we have not taken legal title to that property, but we are certainly committed, to the extent feasible, to proceeding in partnership in such a way that as much (of the building) as possible (is preserved).” 

CPC attorney Alan Gerson spoke at CB3's landmarks committee.

CPC attorney Alan Gerson spoke at CB3’s landmarks committee.

Several community members spoke out last night about the demise of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. Some of them argued that far more should have been done in the past decade to save a cherished Lower East Side Jewish site. Others expressed concern that profits from the sale of the Norfolk property stay in the community, rather than benefiting private individuals. We will have a separate story later today detailing their arguments.

The landmarks committee last night approved a resolution stating the importance to the Lower East Side community of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, which has been a city landmark since 1967. The resolution called on the property owners to preserve as much as they possibly can of the distressed building. A vote of the full board will take place later in the month. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has scheduled a hearing on the matter for July. The Buildings Department has not insisted on immediate demolition, saying the structure does not pose a danger to the surrounding neighborhood.

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.

Teen Accused in Synagogue Fire Returns to Courthouse; No Case Filed Today

Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 14. Photo by Richard Brennan.

Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 14. Photo by Richard Brennan.

A teenager arrested in connection with a fire that decimated the historic Lower East Side synagogue, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, was back in family court this morning. The New York City Law Department, which handles juvenile cases, once again today declined to file charges.

The 14-year-old boy was arrested two days after the fire broke out and brought into the 7th Precinct. The NYPD anticipated filing third degree arson charges against the boy. He was taken into custody after police reviewed surveillance video that showed three young people fleeing the scene shortly after the blaze started in the abandoned building.  The teen was released into the custody of his mother May 18.

In his second court date this morning, the Law Department was expected to inform the suspect whether a case would be filed and referred to a family court judge. In a statement received a short time ago, a department spokesperson said, “We are continuing our investigation into this matter. If we file charges on a future date, a press statement will be issued at that time.”

The 167-year-old building is a New York City landmark and one of the most significant synagogues on the Lower East Side. At the time of the fire, the rabbi and leaders of the Chinese American Planning Council say they were finalizing plans to restore the synagogue and build a new mixed-use project on an adjacent parcel. Inspectors this week hope to determine if any part of the synagogue can be saved.

Click here if you would like to read more about the process for dealing with juvenile defendants in New York City.

Fate of Fire-Ravaged Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Could Be Decided This Week

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Friday, May 26.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, Friday, May 26.

More than two weeks after the devastating fire at Beth Hamdrash Hagadol, the historic Norfolk Street synagogue, engineers are still trying to determine whether any part of the 167-year-old building can be saved.

We spoke with Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum late last week, who said it will likely be a few more days before they have any solid answers. As you may have noticed, construction fencing went up around the perimeter some time ago and a shed for debris was moved into position behind the synagogue. The Department of Buildings’ (DOB) forensic engineering unit will be working o determine if the remaining structure is secure, or whether walls are in danger of collapsing. Howard L. Zimmerman Architects has filed applications for the removal of debris, according to the DOB’s online database.

Greenbaum said he’s determined to move ahead in partnership with the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) for a new structure behind the current nursing home building. That site is owned by the CPC. Before the May 14 fire, the two organizations were planning to restore the synagogue building as part of the new development, creating a synagogue space in the basement of the landmark-protected building. Greenbaum said he still wants to re-establish Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as a functioning congregation on the Lower East Side.

In related news, a 14-year-old boy accused of setting the fire is expected to be back in family court tomorrow. According to a spokesperson with the NYC Law Department, he’ll be informed as to whether a case will be filed against him. If that occurs, the boy will be required to appear before a judge. He was arrested May 16 and later released into the custody of his mother, a Lower East Side resident.

Teen Accused of Setting Synagogue Fire Released Into Parental Custody

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 17, 2017.

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, May 17, 2017.

Here’s the latest on the investigation into the destructive fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

A 14-year-old boy who was arrested Tuesday evening in connection with the synagogue fire was released into parental custody after an initial court appearance yesterday. As the New York Times reported, he appeared in Family Court and the case was referred to the city’s Law Department. The teen, whose name is being withheld because he’s being prosecuted as a juvenile, lives about a half mile from the synagogue at 60 Norfolk St. The teen is due back in court May 31, when prosecutors will be required to spell out the charges they plan to pursue against him. More from the Times:

The police took the teenager into custody after interviewing his two companions, who were released. He was brought on Tuesday night to the 7th Precinct station, where Commissioner James P. O’Neill happened to be attending a community council meeting. The boy declined to talk to investigators and requested a lawyer, the police said. The police have not determined a motive or uncovered any indication of bias.

The Lo-Down first reported the arrest yesterday morning, after we witnessed the boy being escorted by cops into the precinct the previous evening. Eyewitnesses saw three teens running from the synagogue shortly after the fire erupted Sunday evening. Security camera tape was used by cops to identify the teens.

On Wednesday, The New York Post identified the teen, reporting:

David Diaz was with other teens inside the abandoned Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue when he allegedly set a curtain on fire Sunday night, according to the sources. The flaming curtain fell onto some pews, causing the fire to quickly spread through the building, which was destroyed. Several teens were caught on surveillance video fleeing the scene — and a female friend of the alleged arsonist gave him up to cops after they spotted her going to school on Tuesday… Diaz is also responsible for a smaller blaze that broke out at the synagogue on May 7, according to law-enforcement sources.

bhh side view 5-17

In the past day, construction fencing went up around the 167-year-old building. Fire investigators have not been able to conduct a search of the main floor of the synagogue due to stability concerns. Safety supports will be put in place before they enter the building. “Astonishingly the synagogue’s towers remained standing,” noted the Times, giving preservationists some hope that part of the the city landmark could be salvaged.

This morning, a Department of Buildings spokesman said the agency’s investigation into the structural stability of the building is still ongoing.

14-Year-Old Arrested in Connection With Fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue (Updated)

Photo by Richard Brennan.

Photo by Richard Brennan.

First on The Lo-Down: A teenager faces arson charges this morning in connection with the devastating fire at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Norfolk Street synagogue.

The 14-year-old boy was taken into custody last night just hours after NYPD officials said they were investigating the blaze as arson. Witnesses said three young people were seen in the vicinity of the building. Cops had been reviewing security camera tape that also showed the possible teenage suspects fleeing the scene.

The synagogue, one of the neighborhood’s most important historic sites, was destroyed Sunday evening. Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum told us that kids have been going in an out of the building for weeks (the synagogue has been vacant since 2007 but a restoration plan was in the works).

Police are not releasing the name of the suspect since he is a juvenile, but we’re told he lives in the neighborhood.

One other note. The teen was brought into the 7th Precinct last night as the monthly community council meeting was underway. He was taken to a room on the second floor for questioning. Police Commissioner James O’Neill was in attendance at the meeting.

UPDATE 9:24 a.m. A few more details now from the New York Post: The teen was arrested at his home, “which is not far from the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol synagogue.” The boy has been charged with third degree felony arson as a juvenile. The other teens are apparently claiming they did not participate in setting the fire:

Cops busted him after speaking to one or more of his friends who were present at the time the fire was set, and implicated him as the person who started the blaze, police sources said. The people who provided that information told cops that their friend acted alone — even though they accompanied the suspect into the abandoned temple, sources said. The teen will likely be arraigned at Manhattan Family Court later Wednesday.

UPDATE 9:57 a.m. More from Channel 7:

Detectives have names of (the suspect’s) two friends, also spotted on surveillance video, fleeing the scene. Police said they are seeking to question them also… Surveillance video recovered from a nearby camera showed three young people running from the general area. Although the fire occurred in what was once a house of worship, it was not investigated as a bias crime.