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Debate continues over Chabad plan

December 20, 2018 GMT

GREENWICH — Zoning commissioners continue to focus on parking — or the lack thereof — for a proposed new synagogue in central Greenwich.

They again raised concerns this week that the congregation does not have enough spots reserved in an existing parking garage to handle members.

“There are intrinsic limiting factors that make it less functional for the congregation,” acting commission Chair Margarita Alban said at a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday.

The commission closed testimony on the proposal, but members put off voting on the matter until a later date.

Under the current proposal, a 20,913-square-foot building would be built on three lots at 226 and 230 Mason St. and 16 Havemeyer Place. It would include a synagogue and a preschool for Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich.

The new structure would utilize 5,600 square feet of the existing site of the Greenwich Armory, which is currently used as office space, and would share a parking garage with nearby tenants.

Chabad currently operates out of 75 Mason St., but the space has become too small for the congregation and preschool.

The parking garage has a total of 123 spaces, with 32 reserved for Chabad and 91 for other tenants. However, Thomas Heagney, the attorney representing Chabad, said they have an agreement that would allow for all of the spaces to be used after 5 p.m. on weekdays and throughout the weekend, which is when evening and Saturday services would be taking place at the synagogue.

Bernard Adler, a traffic engineer retained by Chabad, said a study had been done showing that at most 31 of the 32 spaces would be used daily for drop-off and pick-up at the preschool. During the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Heagney said an arrangement has been made with the Greenwich Public Schools for people to use the nearby Julian Curtiss School parking lot because school would not be in session.

When pressed by the commission, Heagney said the arrangement with the district was not in writing, but similar agreements between religious institutions and schools have worked before without any issue.

Chabad has insisted available parking will be enough to handle its needs, but it was unclear this week whether the commission was convinced enough to support the project.

Commissioner Dennis Yeskey inquired what would happen if there were a weekday wedding or funeral. Chabad officials said weddings typically do not happen on weekdays and funerals would likely happen off-site, but no actual plan was introduced to address his concerns.

Alban said if all the parking spaces in the lot were available for Chabad “this would work perfectly,” but felt it was a problem that 91 of the spaces are designated for others to use during weekdays.

“You tell us you want it to work perfectly and it will work perfectly because we will make it work perfectly,” pledged Rabbi Yossi Deren, Chabad of Greenwich’s executive director. “We have to make it work perfectly. … We have the very intense regulations of the beautiful town of Greenwich to fit into and we’re going to plain and simple.”

Deren also promised to continue to work closely with the commission but did express frustration that he felt Chabad was being held to a different standard than others have been in the past. He cited difficulties with the town’s Historic District Commission and ongoing public opposition despite changes the congregation has made to the plan, including comments in an online petition that Deren and others at Chabad have taken exception to.

“The line keeps on getting moved and the nature of these things that keep popping up whenever we comply with earlier objections are of a standard that others are not held to and that’s unfair,” Deren said. “It’s called discriminatory.”

Members of the public in attendance reacted angrily to the claim. Alban and town Director of Planning and Zoning Katie DeLuca rejected it, saying they were simply following the law and town zoning regulations and applying a fair standard to questions they’ve had about the project.

“We know it’s hard for an applicant but we try our best to be consistent,” Alban said.

Deren said he did “feel the love” from the commission, to which Alban joked it was “tough love.”

Neighbors have voiced opposition to the project, including complaints about parking and traffic downtown and potential changes to neighborhood character.

“I am not a Jew but I am a man of faith and I believe in the word of the psalmist who said, ‘I was glad when they said unto me let us go into the house of the lord,’” said James Fulton, an attorney representing the residents of the Virginia Court Condominium at 169 Mason Street. “But this site is too small for this growing spiritual community. The parking, 31 or 32 available spaces during the weekdays is not going to be adequate and traffic is going to be a nightmare resulting from a nomadic search for non-existent spaces at the busiest rush hour time of the week.”

The commission will next meet on Jan. 8.

Several members of the public spoke during a lengthy hearing on the proposed project Tuesday, including neighbors and other residents who voiced concerns and members of the Chabad congregation who strongly backed the plan.

Use of the armory had been criticized due to its historic value. The town’s Veterans Appreciation Council recently met with Chabad and came together on ways to honor veterans if the new synagogue is approved.

No more public testimony about the proposal will be heard now that the item has been closed.

As one of the final speakers of the night, town resident Dean Gamanos, a member of the Veterans Appreciation Council, offered hope that the matter would lead to a positive outcome.

“I think if we just keep working together, listening and sticking to the rules that we’ll all end up with a happy situation,” Gamanos said.