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Synagogue plan approved in Greenwich — with conditions

February 22, 2019

GREENWICH — Plans for a new synagogue in downtown Greenwich and a new location for Greenwich Academy’s preschool and day-care program got the green-light Tuesday night from the town — but with conditions attached.

The town Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved plans from Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich to build a new synagogue and preschool at 226 and 230 Mason St. as well as at 16 Havemeyer Place. But it also required Chabad to reduce the size of the new building and preserve the entire structure of the historic Greenwich Armory, instead of part of it as was proposed.

Additionally, the commission placed restrictions on where cars could enter and exit and required that it operate within town parking regulations.

Commission members agreed that these conditions satisfied their concerns about traffic, parking and how the new synagogue and school would fit in with the neighborhood, particularly when it came to preserving the armory.

But Chabad now must determine whether it can accommodate those conditions in its plans. Originally, it had proposed a 20,913-square-foot building, but with the conditions, it would get only about 14,000 square feet.

Thomas Heagney, the attorney representing Chabad, called the approval a “cautiously positive step in the right direction” and said he will meet with the synagogue’s leaders, the project’s building committee and architects.

“It will take more work with the commission before we’re where we need to be before we can build the new synagogue,” Heagney told nearly 50 Chabad supporters after the decision was made.

If the entire Armory was preserved, the commission might allow a larger structure, he said. Further discussions will be held with the commission, and another site plan will be submitted.

“As we start to digest this decision, we will formulate a plan moving forward,” Heagney said. “We will develop a plan that will work for everyone.”

The commission cited saving the armory and parking concerns for the conditions. The commission’s Acting Chair Margarita Alban credited Chabad for its work to address the town’s concerns, but she said the parking issue bothered her throughout the process.

“If they could just meet our basic standards, I would be comfortable with this,” Alban said.

Neighbors and other residents had also expressed their worries about parking and retaining the neighborhood’s character. Commission member Peter Levy was among those who focused on the armory, saying the synagogue’s plans were a “renovation, not a restoration.”

“Preserving a portion of it is certainly worthwhile, but I feel it doesn’t go far enough,” Levy said. “Doing something to preserve a building doesn’t mean you’re doing enough to preserve a building.”

Conditions were also set with the approval of Greenwich Academy’s plan to move of its preschool and day-care program. The program known as the Cowan Center would move off the campus of the all-girls private school at 200 N. Maple Ave. to two parcels at 96 and 100 Maple Ave. Those parcels will be combined into one, to house the program as well as have three residential units for school faculty.

Those properties had only been residential and had a previous historical overlay designation on them. The conditions placed by the commission call for changes in the on-site parking and call for additional landscaping to better preserve neighborhood character.

More significantly, it cut the number of students in the Cowan Center program from 60 to 50 and restricted it to the children of faculty and staff at Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School. Currently, the program is also open to the siblings of enrolled older students.

The proposal will also need a further endorsement from the town’s Historic District Commission to move forward.

Greenwich Academy’s Head of School Molly King said she was willing to accept the compromise and do all they could to be good neighbors.

“We were obviously listening to every word and always would support where the commission lands,” King said after the vote. “I think they worked very hard to try and balance all concerns, as we have.”

The Greenwich Academy move is part of an overall plan to modernize the campus. The school is limited by floor area ratio restrictions on how much can be build on its existing campus. As part of the modernization efforts, it will be using its main campus to focus on Grades 1 through 12. The Cowan Center is being moved in order to free up space for that.

“The current Cowan Center is outdated,” King said last month. “It’s not an ideal space for this program. Relocating the Cowan Center provides an opportunity to both better address the learning needs for early childhood development and it allows us to leverage current (floor area ratio) on our main campus. That was something that really came out of our master campus plan.”

The overall modernization plan for Greenwich Academy, is still being looked at by the Planning and Zoning Commission. It is set to be discussed further at a future meeting.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com