On Wednesday night the Historic District Commission, a group that is advisory to Planning & Zoning, held a special meeting on the proposed Chabad synagogue at the corner of Mason Street and Havemeyer Place.
Specifically, the synagogue would replace part of the historic Armory. The meeting was the third time the proposal had gone before the HDC, and, for a third time, the commission was neither satisfied with the application, nor ready to vote on it.
Neighbors of the historic Armory on Mason Street had their voices amplified by attorney James Fulton and former town planner Diane Fox.
The applicant, Chabad Lubavitch, was represented by attorney Tom Heagney.
Architect Erik Zambell, filling in for Rich Granoff, said that since the previous meeting the synagogue design had been updated to incorporate feedback from HDC.
“One of the comments we received was that the curves we had in the September iteration probably didn’t make sense and didn’t relate,” Zambell said. “We eliminated the porte-cochère with the round columns. We’ve created a stepped entry that will give you some cover and open up to the public and we’re stepping it back and using the same material we’re using in our base.”
Zambell said another modification was to replace a stone wall with a metal fence in order to “lighten up” the way the building interacts with the street.
“Likewise, we stepped the center portion of the Mason Street side back so we could get some planting on Mason Street,” he said. “It’s not a lot, but it steps it aback a bit.”
Zambell said other changes included the addition of a “rustication” or “corrugated stepping at the corners” that relates more to the scale of the brick at the Armory, and to use smaller pieces of stone to respond to comments about the building’s scale.
Katie Brown from the HDC asked if it was necessary to take down the Oak trees on Mason Street.
“I believe so, yes,” Zambell said, adding that he did not know what might replace them.
Another change was to eliminate the stained glass at the main entrance, and rather than a menorah or Star of David, the proposal now features a tablet.
Zambell said now, like the Armory, the synagogue windows are more recessed.
Attorney Heagney said the windows were raised and parapets were lowered a foot from 4 ft to 3 ft.
HDC’s Martin Kagan noticed that only the Mason Street and Havemeyer Place facades were included in the presentation. He said the commission wants to see renderings of the other sides.
Zambell said his client is not willing switch to red brick. They are committed to Jerusalem Stone, which is closer to yellow.
Mr. Heagney showed a rendering of a condo project that had gained the HDC’s approval in 2007. There were some gasps from the public.
Mr. Heagney said there had been two previous proposals in the past 11 years for the Armory, including a 2007 cube-like condo project that called for taking down all of the Armory except its facade.
He said that and a prior designs were approved with slightly greater in square footage than the proposed 26,533 sq ft synagogue.
In response the HDC pointed out that the 2007 condominium project had much smaller parking requirements than the synagogue.
“We’re 6,131+ sq ft and we’re proposing to retain much of the Armory – that’s the entire Armory building as it is. We’re only removing the shed,” Heagney said.
HDC member Darius Toraby described the Armory as a magnificent structure with long term history important to the Town, as well as the country, and that any deficiencies or issues with regard to the restoration of the building need to be addressed.
“We haven’t heard anything about that from you guys. You’re asking about Historic Overlay and what are we getting in return?” Toraby asked.
“The preservation of the Armory is tatamount. We are committed to having this building maintained, improved and preserved,” Heagney said.
“Those are wonderful words we use every day,” Toraby shot back. “You have to specify what that entails and to what length. I believe it should be in perpetuity.”
“We are committed to restoring and maintaining it in perpetuity. I thought that was given. I want to state clearly that building is to be preserved,” Heagney said.
Zambell said the current iteration attempts to relate more to the fire house across the street on Havemeyer Place than the Armory.
HDC’s Darius Toraby shook his head. “This building is on the Armory site and should more relate to the Armory than to the fire house.”
When Zambell said there was once a gas station in the Armory parking lot, Toraby shook his head again.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “We’re trying to design a building in relationship to the building next to it – the Armory.”
“Our client does not want red brick,” Zambell replied, adding that the proposed synagogue is not actually attached to the Armory.
Toraby said the new iteration has a “major curtain wall looming around the entire building that doesn’t relate to anything.”
“I see you made a great attempt versus what you did last time,” Toraby said. “But you have now created a recess on Mason Street which in my opinion should be the entrance and looks like an entrance.”
He said he was not comfortable with the main entrance being right opposite the busy fire station.
“There’s lots of commotion and (trucks) almost hugging the sidewalk curb on the other side,” Toraby said.
“You could have a group of people coming out to get their kids, to get their car, to walk home, and it’s going to be a big safety aspect that this design presents in my opinion,” Toraby said.
Toraby was joined by Stephen Bishop and Martin Kagan in his concern about proximity of the synagogue’s main entrance to the busy fire station garage.
Mr. Bishop asked what was the setback of the building from Havemeyer.
“Zero,” Toraby guessed. “What is it?”
The answer was the setback would start at 15 feet and narrow to 7 ft at the corner.
Without a Historic Overlay, the setback would have a minimum of 10 ft.
Mr. Heagney said his applicant would ask P&Z for a waiver for that reduced setback.
Further, Mr. Toraby said the applicant should reconsider reorienting the building to the east, given “the most wonderful and prominent view, and expansive view with trees and historic buildings in the distance.”
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Heagney replied, “That was more a call by the rabbi and the building committee of the congregation.”
During public comment, James Fulton, attorney for neighbors, including several from Virginia Court at 169 Mason Street, shared some history of the Armory written by architectural historian Niels Kurschus.
He said the Armory was completed by the State of Connecticut in 1911, constructed for the CT National Guard, and remained an active military facility until 1971.
“The Greenwich Armory was a facility where Greenwich boys in the Connecticut National Guard met, were trained and mustered into the service of their country,” he said, adding that the building was designed by a Greenwich architect in the Lombard style.
“It has a beautiful cathedral style rear wall to match its front face,” Fulton said. “I noticed that the comment by Mr. Granoff that his plan would only demolish ‘the shed.’ Niels Kurschus would tell us it’s all part of the Armory building.”
Fulton said what Mr. Granoff referred to as “the shed” had served service men as a very functional section of the Armory and was actually a hall where spectators could observe the men training.
Mr. Fulton referred to a lawsuit, Heithaus vs Greenwich P&Z, that went to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court of Connecticut told us what the purpose of a Historic Overlay zone is. Section 6-109.1 of Greenwich Municipal Code sets forth the purpose, procedures, standards and controls for HO zone designations. Before you make a recommendation to P&Z you should know the purpose of section 6-109.1 is ‘to encourage the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of buildings and structures, and of pertinent vistas.’
“6-109.1 exists to protect and preserve buildings, not front facades of buildings, not pieces of buildings,” Fulton continued.
He said that in dozens of instances in Greenwich a HO was granted “to preserve and protect a building, not a chunk of a building or a wall of a building. That’s not a use of the regulations. It’s an abuse of the regulations.”
Further he said the new synagogue would destroy three of the four pertinent vistas enjoyed by the Armory and persons who wish to look at the Armory.
As for Mr. Heagney’s point that two earlier proposals for condominiums at the Armory included demolition of the rear of the Armory, Fulton said ,”two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Mr. Bishop said that the 2007 HDC was comprised of different members than the current group.
Fulton also said the building is on the National and State Register for Historic Places.
“The human aspects of the Armory are more than bricks and mortar,” Fulton said.
Fulton said that Raynal Bolling, who is immortalized in a statue a block away on Greenwich Avenue, moved to Greenwich in 1911 and joined the National Guard in his 30’s, which would have brought him to the Armory.
Bolling would later give his life for his country, becoming the first high ranking Air Force officer killed in World War I.
“There is no monument to the privates who were from Greenwich who drilled at this Armory and went off to war,” Fulton said.
“Sadly, as a result of inadequate research, some of the names of the Greenwich boys who gave the ultimate sacrifice in WW I aren’t even on the plaque upstairs in town hall,” Fulton said. “The only monument to these boys is this Armory. Please don’t let it get torn down.”
Fulton said 22 other towns in Connecticut have preserved their armories, including what Mr. Granoff referred to as the shed. “Why can’t Greenwich do that?” he asked.
Former Greenwich town planner Diane Fox, who is now actively involved in preservation through the Greenwich Historical Society, gave some background on Historic Overlays in Greenwich.
Fox said Greenwich has 24 of Historic Overlay in both commercial and residential zones. “None of them had demolitions,” she said. “They were added to. The generosity of the HO zone is to keep the buildings and add uses.”
Some examples she gave were The Mill in Glenville, the Post Office on Greenwich Avenue, the Greenwich YMCA and the building that houses Tiffany’s.
“In other towns their armories have been made into restaurants, offices and community centers,” she said, going on to warn that if the large portion of the Armory is demolished it will serve as a precedent for others who want to demolish in the historic overlay zone.
Linda Hannett, who lives on Mason Street said she worked at Fawcett Publications for Roscoe Fawcett himself.
“He was most proud of that building. His father Captain Billy served in the Spanish American War and Roscoe was in the Army. …He expressed how awful it would be if the Armory would be torn down,” she recalled.
Hannett said that at Fawcett Publications the shed was in use, and at one point employees started a petition with the goal of ensuring the Armory would preserved.
“We went out after work, up and down Milbank Ave collecting signatures – hundreds of signatures for management. The idea was to try to preserve this building to make sure it didn’t get blown up.”
“When Fawcett sold the building to CBS, they said you have to preserve the Armory. All effort went into doing that,” she said. Later Dave Pecker of Hachette said he came from an Army family and that he wouldnever take it down. After a couple transactions, the Armory was sold to Nitkin. “Somewhere along the line that sentiment got lost,” she said.
“I’ve lived here since 1974. I can’t believe I’m standing here having to have this discussion. I’m begging you. For the sake of hundreds of people who said protect this building. I don’t think the Nitkin Group wants that reputation.”
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Dean Gaminos introduced himself as a Navy veteran and member of the Post 29 American Legion. “This Veterans Day on Nov 11, we are celebrating 100 years since the end of WW I, which was an amazing part of the world’s history. I’d be very upset if this Armory was effected,” he said.
After all the HDC members’ questions were answered and members of the public made their comments, Mr. Bishop said his group would discuss and make a recommendation. The commission members pulled their chairs into a corner of the room and allowed anyone interested to listen.
The gist of the conversation was that the HDC seeks more changes and that they were not yet ready to take a vote.
Mr. Bishop recommended forming a working group of members from representing the synagogue and the HDC in order to keep the process moving, and the applicant agreed.
Mr. Bishop acknowledged any decision would have to be made in a public forum.
Mr. Heagney said the clock was ticking and that he had already filed extension letters.
The application goes before the P&Z commission on October 30.