By the narrowest of margins, Community Board 14 has given the go-ahead to a new synagogue on Avenue M.
At its September meeting, held at Edward R. Murrow High School, 1600 Avenue L, the board approved the variance that had been requested by Congregation Kol Torah at 2022 Avenue M, with 18 members voting in favor of the application, 10 members voting against it and six members abstaining. For the purposes of approvals, abstentions count as no votes.
At one point, indeed, it looked like the application would go down to defeat, with 17 members in favor of it, 10 against and seven abstaining. But, at that point, board member Lori Knipel changed her vote from abstention to yes. The board’s recommendation is advisory only. The final decision on the application will be made by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA).
The synagogue proposes building a new facility on the site because they have outgrown their current premises, according to a statement of facts and findings submitted by attorney Richard Lobel to the board earlier this month.
“The congregation is currently renting space to hold services and classes in a building located at 2016 Avenue M, two lots west of the premises,” according to the statement. “However, the current facility is inadequate to satisfy the programmatic needs of the congregation and the growing membership of the congregation has created need for additional space.”
The variance was applied for, said Lobel in the statement, because the new synagogue would be considerably larger than what would be allowed as-of-right. It will cover a larger portion of the lot and have smaller front and side yards than what is required. It will have one parking space, considerably fewer than the 25 spaces required.
The board tends to approve enlargements of private homes up to 1.0 FAR in the portion of the board’s catchment area where the special permit process is in place. The proposed FAR for the new synagogue is 1.89.
FAR stands for Floor Area Ratio, which is a measure of a building’s bulk. The area where the synagogue is located is a low-rise, low-density residential district that is zoned R2, with a maximum as-of-right FAR for residential buildings of .5.
The motion approved by the board included a number of conditions that board Chairperson Alvin Berk said had been agreed to by the synagogue representatives who had previously attended a public hearing on the issue at the board office.
These conditions included a stipulation that “the kitchen in the basement be for warming only, not cooking,” that the open space in the cellar be “not for commercial use, but only for the purposes of the congregation,” and that the garage on the property be used “according to code.”
The stipulations grew out of comments made by an area resident at the public hearing, said Florence Valentino, a board member who had attended the public hearing and who voted against the variance. The resident, said Valentino, had said during the hearing that she was representing the people who live next door to the synagogue site.
One major issue, said Valentino, was the traffic congestion already plaguing the area.
“She said that she can’t get in and out of her driveway,” reported Valentino, adding, “Even though they are saying they are not going to have any weddings or events of that nature, she feels they are gong to have parties or receptions and catering, and she is concerned that some people will come there in cars.”
The issue of making sure that board stipulations are adhered to was brought up during the general board meeting by one member. “How can we police these recommendations?” Gary Schultze asked Berk.
“They are generally policed if there are complaints from the community,” Berk replied. “That’s the only way of knowing they were violated. We can intervene informally with the congregation. We have to take their commitment as having been made in good faith.”
The size of the completed synagogue was also a concern to board members, said Valentino.
With all the home expansion that has occurred in Midwood over the past several years, “People are starting to experience personally what they’re voting for,” Valentino noted. “They are looking out their window and seeing someone else’s window four feet away, so they are starting to understand the consequences of approving all of these large homes on small city lots.”
On the other side of the equation, there was also concern that the board respect the precedents it has set, Valentino added. “The problem in the board now is that, in the past, we voted to approve such things,” she noted. “We can’t look like we played favorites at one point.”