In an exhausting three hour meeting in the basement staff lounge at Greenwich Town hall Wednesday night, the Historic District Commission (HDC) was joined by about 50 residents, including several veterans, who objected to the demolition of “the drill shed,” the rear portion of the historic Armory on Mason Street, in order to make way for a 28,000 sq ft synagogue for Chabad Luvabitch.
The applicants, Chabad Lubavitch and Nitkin, seek a historic overlay which would give them significantly increased FAR to build a synagogue at the corner of Havemeyer Place and Mason Street. In exchange for the Historic Overlay and extra FAR, they are offering not to demolish the entire historic armory.
This was the applicants fourth time in front of the HDC with their proposal, each time returning having made changes to accommodate feedback. They were hoping the HDC give a certificate of appropriateness for the historic overlay as they are on the agenda for the following night at P&Z (Nov 8). But that did not happen.
The applicant seeks to preserve the front 6,000 ft of the historic Armory (built in 1911) including its facade and some offices, and demolish the equally historic rear section of the building where servicemen did drills for decades.
The meeting started with a presentation from architect Erik Zambell from Granoff Architects and attorney Tom Heagney who summarized the last round of alterations made in response to HDC suggestions.
They said that now the synagogue would feature some red brick accents to better tie into the adjacent Armory.
They also increased some setbacks from the street and moved the main entrance to Mason St from Havemeyer Place.
They recessed the main entrance so families leaving an event or service could have a place to talk rather than on the sidewalk close to traffic and the busy fire station.
Attorney Heagney said some red brick mimicking that of the historic Armory had been incorporated into the synagogue as “an ode to the Armory.”
In previous HDC meetings, the applicants had said a request for red brick was a “deal breaker,” and that they would use Jerusalem Stone exclusively.
On Wednesday, however, the applicant said they were willing to incorporate some red brick into the design including a sitting wall along Mason Street and an arch over the entrance.
“We’ll look to harvest as much red brick as we can from the existing Armory,” Heagney said, adding that the red brick was a “tribute” to the historic Armory. “We created a brick portal that brings you into the vestibule.”
Darius Toraby was having none of it. As for the red brick arch, he said, “It’s like you’re throwing us a bone. It doesn’t make design sense, I’m sorry.”
Toraby also said the building simply had too much mass.
“We stepped the massing back on Mason Street,” Heagney said, adding that increased setback resulted in increased square feet of the synagogue.
There was a lengthy conversation about the project’s overall square footage.
The project includes Nitkin’s offices in the front of the Armory (about 6,000 sq ft), three levels of parking garage including commercial parking for the adjacent financial center, and the actual synagogue.
The parking garage square square footage is excluded from FAR calculations per P&Z regulations.
That gave the HDC pause.
The project is already proposed to be 27,854 square ft, and that doesn’t include the parking garage levels which add to the building’s bulk, which all the HDC members took issue with.
Further, parking would be accessed by two-way entrances to ramps from street level.
Darius Toraby said Greenwich downtown has a shortage of parking, but, “We have resisted building ugly parking garages in Greenwich.”
The HDC commissioners said it was hard to reconcile giving a Historic Overlay and so much extra FAR in exchange for preserving only part of the historic Armory.
After the HDC members asked their questions of the applicant, the public had a chance to ask the HDC members questions.
Several members of the HDC asked what programming required such a large increase in space given that the Chabad’s current location is in two modest houses – one at the corner of Lincoln Ave and Mason, and one next door on Lincoln Ave where Chabad runs a pre school.
Attorney Heagney said his client would sell both the Mason Street house and Lincoln Ave house that houses the preschool if they received permission to build the new synagogue.
He also said that Chabad Lubavitch does not currently own the property where they seek to build a synagogue. But, he said, once the building was completed, Chabad would own it and Nitkin would continue to own their offices. He said the arrangement would be like that of two condo owners.
The synagogue activities would not be taxed, but the Nitkin office space would pay tax. That brought up the question of how to determine who pays or doesn’t pay when the parking is shared for both commercial use and religious use.
“Did you approach the architect to work with the existing Armory?” asked resident John Nelson.
Nelson said the Armory shed already contains a parking lot and asked why it made sense to tear it down only to build more parking.
Peter LeBeau, the commander of American Legion Post 29 who served in the Vietnam War, and was just honored for his service last week at town hall, said “weekly meetings at the Armory were like church to us.”
“There are over 2,000 living veterans in Greenwich. I think I can speak for a large portion of them who don’t want to see the Armory removed. It’s a desecration. It’s a monument, a sanctuary, where we trained there to go off to war. To tear it down would be an abomination.” – Peter LeBeau Commander of American Legion Post 29, served in the US Army during Vietnam War
Ashley Cole said, “At the end of the day this discussion is about historic preservation. That’s why we’re here. When I’m looking at this, it’s about the Armory. I don’t see that it is being honored here.”
Cole said Historic Overlay is about a concession or compromise between a municipality and a developer. “Each makes a compromise,” she said. “What I see is the developer trying to take advantage of FAR and zoning allowances without honoring the intent of the Historic Overlay.”
David Wold, a veteran who lives in Byram said sevicemen had drilled at the Armory for over 100 years.
“It was the ‘drill hall.’ It is 50% of the Armory,” he said. “How can you tear it away and maintain the historical value? I don’t understand it.”
“The benefit of saving this historic structure is considerable,” said Jenny Larkin, adding, “It’s a historic monument to men who served their country. It’s sacred.”
John Jordan said that through P & Z he obtained drawings of the proposed synagogue and reviewed them with neighbors who all were “stunned” and agreed the volume was inappropriate. He said neighbors objected to the Armory being turned into a parking lot.
“Historic Overlay is about being sensitive to the historical nature of a building. hope you reject it. It’s very discouraging,” Jordan said to a loud round of applause.
Davidde Strackbein, former chair of the board of the Greenwich Historical Society, expressed concerns about parents queuing up to drop off or pick up their children at the pre school from a single lane on Mason Street.
“Just trying to park while Soul Cycle is in session, forget it. Our traffic problem is so bad and this is just a nightmare waiting to happen,” Strackbein said.
Heagney showed the rendering of “cubist” condominiums that had received the blessing of HDC. That proposal dates back to 2006. He said they towered over the Armory.
Mr. Bishop, chair of HDC, said in the past his commission’s meetings were not noticed by P&Z and the public therefore didn’t attend. The synagogue proposal for the Armory has drawn increasingly larger groups of concerned residents.
Mr. Toraby also pointed out that that a previous proposal for townhouses would have a lower parking demand overall compared to the synagogue, and residents would not be using the parking during the day when they go to work. During the day the commercial and office use would use the parking and vice versa.
Darius Toraby said currently the synagogue and Armory as presented didn’t have that type of symbiotic relationship.
“The office use will be there every day of the week and the school and sanctuary activities can occur any time,” he said. “They don’t have to be on a Saturday or Sunday only. It can happen on a weekday.”
There was one person who disagreed with the veterans and residents who want the entire Armory preserved.
Andy Wells argued that the new synagogue would be equally sacred as the Armory drill shed it replaces.
“Change is painful. None of us like change,” he said. “My guess is that some may call this a monstrosity. If I lived across the street I might be calling it a monstrosity, but it was painfully designed to address the concerns of the commission. Others might question its value to the community especially if it’s taking away tax dollars. Change is a constant. It’ll happen whether we like it or not.”
“Step back and look at the forest through the trees,” Mr. Wells continued. “The gentleman from the American Legion is spot on. This is about something sacred. The Armory was built to protect the integrity of the country, to train soldiers to fight against slavery, to fight against totalitarian, to fight against the Nazis and to fight for our American rights. There are many ways to preserve them, one is to preserve as much of the shed as possible and approve the construction of a different kind of monument that speaks to the values those boys fought for. Each of us fight for values every day. Some fight with machine guns bayonets tanks boats. I suggest we step back and consider the real opportunity here.”
After about a dozen residents voiced their concerns including several veterans and the director of the Historical Society, the HDC members discussed the application and members of the public listened.
After about 45 minutes they agreed they would not recommend a certificate of appropriateness to the P&Z commission who have the application on their agenda on Thursday night.
“I agree with Darius, I can not support it,” said HDC chair Stephen Bishop. “We’ve moved a little bit in the right direction, but there’s still major problems with the project. The massing is just too big. Getting the.9 FAR is too much I don’t think we’re getting enough for it.”
Mr. Toraby said it didn’t make sense to destroy the drill shed which contains parking, in order to build more parking.
The HDC members agreed there is still too much massing and that open space setbacks remained too small.
HDC previously may have approved the cubist condos for this location, but Mr. Bishop was dismissive. He said it wasn’t until recently that P&Z even publicly noticed the HDC’s meetings.
“When all the other things were approved, there was no public notice,” Bishop said. “It wasn’t our fault, now P&Z has put in notice regulations. I don’t think anyone knew that the Armory could be torn down.”
“Times have changed and there is a lot more interest in the rear shed than I realized,” Mr. Bishop said.
“No part of the Armory should be torn down,” Bishop continued. “It violates the Historic Overlay criteria and the intention of the regulation.”
Instead the HDC agreed the historic drill shed should be incorporated into the project design with an adaptive use.
Specifically the HDC suggested the applicant find a way to put the levels of parking underground and preserve the drill shed.
Correction: A reference to the rendering of “cubist” condominiums that had the blessing of HDC was not last year but rather 2006. The story has been updated to reflect that. Also, Davidde Strackbein is the former chair of the board of the Greenwich Historical Society.