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Developer-Friendly City Agency Ignored 'Fraud' by UWS Synagogue, Suit Says

By Nicole Levy | May 17, 2017 3:02pm
 Congregation Shearith Israel wants to build a nine-story community center with five condos on the top stories directly behind its synagogue on West 70th Street.
Congregation Shearith Israel wants to build a nine-story community center with five condos on the top stories directly behind its synagogue on West 70th Street.
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A coalition of community groups opposing the construction of a nine-story building behind a West 70th Street synagogue filed a lawsuit to appeal a city agency's decision to bend zoning rules for the project — condemning the agency as an “institutionally biased administrative body which regularly rules in favor of real estate developers."

Petitioners including the Upper West Side Neighbors Association, Landmark West! and the 91 Central Park West Corporation are asking that the city's Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) revoke a variance permitting Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI) to build a 105-foot-tall building. The structure would be the tallest mid-block structure in the zoning district — and is slated to feature a community center at the base and condos with Central Park views on the top five floors.

The suit filed in state Supreme Court on May 5 claims that the synagogue deliberately misled the BSA and that the agency flouted its own rules under the influence of CSI and its lobbyist, Capalino+Company

The BSA "ignored overwhelming documentary evidence that CSI engaged in a massive fraud upon the BSA, the Department of Buildings," and other governing bodies, the suit says, adding that the BSA grants about 97 percent of zoning variance applications.

"The laws and facts are often irrelevant to the BSA's determinations ... Instead, outcomes are obtained through exertion of political influence, generally at the instance of lobbying firms such as Capalino," the suit says, adding that Capalino is "the lobbyist whose personal relationship, and questionable financial dealings, with Mayor de Blasio led to the latter's investigation by various law-enforcement agencies."

CSI first approached the BSA with a request for a zoning variance in 2007, after the city's Department of Buildings rejected its out-of-context plans for a building that would house classes, archives and religious ceremonies, the suit says. The synagogue said the current building was too small to accommodate all of its religious and spiritual programs.

But CSI's "true purpose" in designing its new building was selling the top five floors as luxury condos, the lawsuit alleges. CSI only insisted on a first floor for religious purposes and three floors of classrooms so that condos would get expensive Central Park views, according to the filing.

CSI said the condo sales would subsidize its programming, but the suit insists this was a "bogus justification" for constructing an inappropriately tall building "to the detriment and at the expense of CSI's neighbors."

The BSA approved the synagogue's plans in 2008, giving the organization four years to build. But Landmark West! filed its first suit against CSI that September, delaying construction until it was dismissed in 2012.

Then, instead of proceeding with its original plans, the synagogue filed new plans in 2013, replacing several classrooms with office space, the latest lawsuit says. The Department of Building rejected the plans, but OK'd a revision in 2015 that removed 80 percent of the classrooms originally included. 

In the meantime, CSI kept its neighbors in the dark and offered no one consistent explanation for why areas previously labeled as classroom space had become office space. When Landmark West! filed new zoning challenges in 2015, on the basis that the new DOB-approved plans were significantly different than those approved by the BSA, Capalino+Company tried to pull strings in its clients' favor, the lawsuit alleges. 

After the new DOB plans were overturned, CSI continued to use them in an application for a construction loan.

In a 2016 application to the BSA for an extension of its zoning variance, CSI offered a series of excuses for its delay in proceeding with construction — claiming the nearly 1,000 changes it had made to its original BSA-approved plans were "minor" when they were in fact "substantial and pervasive," the suit says.

Still, the agency accepted CSI's "absurd" explanations, failed to hear out the opposition's arguments and granted a postponement until January 2020, according to the lawsuit.

BSA Executive Director Ryan Singer said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

CSI executive director Barbara Reiss said in a statement sent to DNAinfo that the synagogue worked with neighbors, city agencies and its congregants over the past decade to develop plans for the center.

CSI Executive Director Reiss said in an email that the synagogue was "heartened by the BSA’s decision to approve our current design of a nine story building and to reject, on behalf of the entire community and the city, the complaints that are still being leveled by a small, but vocal, opposition."

A member of the opposition, Landmark West! member and 91 Central Park West resident Jeanne Martowski, said she worries that the construction of one tall building will have a "falling domino effect" in her neighborhood.

She isn't concerned about rising prices, but a diminishment in Upper West Side residents' quality of life when "you don't feel anything except you’re going down a canyon" and "you're ... lost in your city," she said.

The proposed synagogue community center on West 70th Street isn't the only high-rise development that Upper West Siders are objecting to.

On Tuesday, residents rallied outside 200 Amsterdam Ave., where SJP Properties plans to build a 668-foot residential building, the tallest one north of Midtown.