Synagogue caught in neighborhood conflict over building skyscraper on Upper West Side



Hanging on the wall in Congregation Habonim’s entryway, architectural plans and collages depict the synagogue’s future home. The designs include a garden, chapel, nursery school, event spaces, and an elegant sanctuary.

For the synagogue, the move promises big improvements. Their current location at 103 West End Ave is too small, forcing key services, like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, offsite. Its former home on 44 West 66th Street was not much better. Built in 1958, the modernist, two-story structure grew outdated and stifling for the synagogue and its increasingly popular nursery school.

But Habonim’s real estate deal with New York-based Extell Development that made possible those plans in the entryway has had problems, plunging the neighborhood into a two year long legal battle. Most recently, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) announced that it will hold a hearing on December 17th that could result in setbacks for the developer, and by extension Habonim. Extell did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2014, Habonim sold its building to the company for $45 million and relocated to the commercial space they currently lease. As part of the deal, Extell promised to rebuild the synagogue into the luxury residences they were planning. For New York religious organizations, agreements like this one are not new. Lincoln Square Synagogue and Shaare Zedek are recent examples on the Upper West Side.

Initially, Extell’s building, planned just under 300 feet tall, looked like it would blend into the neighborhood. However, in 2017, the developer hired Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta and released updated renderings for a nearly 800-foot-tall building, prompting uproar from neighborhood residents, activists, and some city officials. In community board meetings, street block associations, and the media, they protested that the Extell building – set to be the tallest on the Upper West Side — would cast shadows over Central Park and block natural lighting in nearby apartments. They also worried that the lengthy construction project would cause traffic jams and exacerbate air pollution.

Turning to Landmark West! and City Club of New York, both urban planning advocacy groups, the community took legal action. In December, the BSA will rule on select issues from Landmark West’s challenge, which claimed that the Department of Buildings’ decision to issue permits for the skyscraper overlooked the developer’s exploitation of loopholes in zoning law. The judgment could temporarily halt construction, further delaying the synagogue’s move, originally slated for 2019.

“It won’t be next year,” says Habonim Rabbi Lisa Gelber, “I don’t know when it will be, but it is going to happen.”

The controversial construction project has placed Habonim at odds with its neighbors. The synagogue’s leaders worry that the lawsuits against Extell could jeopardize the congregation’s future. But Roberta Semer, chair of the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7, says that the synagogue failed to consider the neighborhood’s interests.

“We tried to explain to them” Semer says, “that by building an almost 800-foot-tall building, it was harming the community.”

For Extell and others, places of worship and community institutions are appealing partners. A real estate policy known as  the “community facility bonus” offers developers more space to build if they include nonprofit organizations into their plans. For Habonim, and its modest congregation of approximately 300 people, the deal ensured survival.

However, Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West!, says that these deals are not always the win-win situation that the developers promise. “Developers are targeting a lot of these religious nonprofits,” Khorsandi says, “When you start looking at the many years of rental they have and relocation fees, the developer ends up getting a much cheaper property than what they’re paying for.”

For now, Habonim awaits the December ruling on the Extell lawsuit. Despite the financial burden of leasing their space, Richard Verner, president of Habonim’s board, says that the synagogue stands by its decision to sell to Extell. It had “no other choice” but to take the deal.

“There aren’t many options for space in New York City, so really our options were to make our own space bigger, which was not financially feasible,” Verner reflects, “Or find another space to build a synagogue suitable for us for a long time into the future.”