This article has been updated to reflect a vote for officers by the commission at the briefing meeting before Thursday’s P&Z meeting. Margarita Alban is no longer “acting chair.” She is the chair and Nick Macri went from being “acting secretary” to secretary. Congratulations. The votes were unanimous.
On Thursday night the long awaited Planning & Zoning vote on the proposed Chabad Lubavitch synagogue on Mason Street at the historic Armory finally took place place.
The vote resulted in silence.
As each commissioner weighed in, the eyebrows of the applicants furrowed deeper.
Chabad Lubavitch seeks to build a new 21,000 sq ft synagogue with a 130 seat sanctuary. That reflected a reduction from earlier iterations of the proposal seeking about 27,000 sq ft. The proposed synagogue would be on the site of the historic Armory on Mason Street and the adjacent parking lot at the corner of Havemeyer and Mason Street.
They proposed several curb cuts on Havemeyer and Mason Street to install ramps to different levels of a parking garage.
While their plan is to preserve much of the Armory, in order to create the parking they would “reconstruct” two of the walls of the former drill shed, which the commissioners noted is an integral part of the Armory.
Commissioner Nick Macri read aloud regulation 6-109 about restoration of historical structures. He said he was concerned that the applicant was not intending to preserve the entire structure.
“The regulation clearly states the removal of distinctive materials, alteration of features, spaces and spacial relationships that characterize the property are to be avoided. Really – preserve the building is the intent here.”
Macri noted the purpose of the Historic Overlay, which when permitted, grants an applicant considerable extra FAR in exchange for the preservation and protection of of structures with historical or aesthetic value. And Chabad was seeking that full FAR benefit.
Macri praised the applicant for their diligent work with Historic District Commission and the P&Z commission, but he said both the HDC and SHIPO (State Historic Preservation Office) said the drill shed was an integral part of the historic Armory, not a separate facility. He said the P&Z commission had never acted on a historical designation without the HDC’s endorsement.
“The applicant falls short on the HO,” he said, adding that the application failed to conform to the underlying zone or meet the special permit standards to preserve the land, structure and features having historical, cultural or architectural merit.
Further, he said Chabad fell short on overflow parking parking for special events, and that the garage by its nature, compromises the historic aspect of the structure.
“To make the program work, you need to build a big garage, and a big garage is in the basement of the historic structure. To build the big garage, you need to tear down the building to do it. It’s a catch 22,” Macri said. “Reducing the program in the building resulted in some of the improvement in parking, but it’s still under parked.”
Peter Levy concurred with Mr. Macri that the building was still underparked.
The commissioners said the fact that the parking was not entirely self contained was a problem.
Mr. Levy said that with three separate entrance and egress points, congregants would be unable to tell from the street whether any levels of parking were empty or full, and have to go in and out of the garage multiple times in search of parking.
Further, Levy said the applicant’s plans to preserve a portion of the historic Armory is certainly worthwhile. But, he said, “I fear that doesn’t go far enough considering what the HO calls for.”
“We’re really looking for a restoration, not a renovation,” Levy said.
Lastly, Levy said the applicant is seeking the FAR of .9 in spite of not preserving the entire Armory. (Actually the HO FAR bonus is .89, but the commission speaks in terms of a rounded number of .9).
Victoria Goss said the amount of FAR bonus should be in proportion with how much of the structure the applicant is saving.
Goss came up with a compromise of .64 FAR, which would boil down to 20,201 sq ft for the synagogue, which would in turn decrease parking.
Ms. Alban noted that the parking requirement is a reflection of the number of seats inside the synagogue.
Mr. Hardman said he was troubled by the proposed site coverage and building coverage.
“Parking leads to traffic concerns,” Macri said. “We’ll have a massive amount of movement of cars in and around the site. Because it doesn’t provide the amount of parking to be self contained on the site, that bleeds over onto the streets and creates traffic issues.”
Macri commented on the proposed synagogue’s location on a prominent corner in downtown. “It’s almost an object building,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Here I am on the corner.'”
Alban said she had always been troubled by the applicant’s parking plans.
“Where I struggle is we grant more FAR and yet the applicant does not meet the requirement of our parking regulations. And yet the applicant has spoken consistently of building a facility to fully accommodate its growth and future demand, yet the facility starts out not providing parking per regulations. That’s made me uncomfortable throughout this.”
“I got very frustrated there’s all this parking available, but it’s contractually gone somewhere else,” Alban said of the 90 parking spaces deeded to neighboring businesses on Monday to Friday from 8-5pm.
Levy and Macri said if the applicant were to consolidate the parking so people aren’t driving in and out of multiple entrances, and shrink the building and push it back further from the street, it might work.
Levy said, “The difference between walking by a building that is 4 feet vs 10 feet away from the street is dramatic.”
“If we give .64 FAR rather than the .9 FAR I would think that would work,” Ms. Goss said. “It would reduce the size and seats in synagogue and reduce the parking demand. And also make the building slightly smaller.”
Ultimately P&Z made a motion to offer a compromise, not granting the full .9 FAR, but rather offering a .7 FAR which would result in a reduction of square footage from 21,000 sq ft to 14,000 sq ft.
Specifically the conditions of the approval are that the entire Armory be preserved and that there be no curb cuts on Havemeyer Place, that parking be contained on site, inclusive of current property owners parking obligations and large special events of the tenants.
Also that the building be set back 10 feet from the street. Another condition was that the Chabad install several deciduous trees.
The applicants who perhaps were braced for a rejection and prepared to launch a lawsuit under RLUIPA, the federal law that says towns must treat religious uses the same as any other, looked stunned by the vote on a compromise.
The applicants, and about a dozen friends of Chabad, filed out of the room in near silence.
The next meeting is on March 5 and the application for a development at 500/600 West Putnam Ave, postponed from Feb 21, is tentatively on that agenda.