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AN ORCHARD STREET SYNAGOGUE? KEEP AN OPEN MIND

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No one knows yet what the synagogue will look like. There’s no specific building proposal on the table, or detailed architectural plans ready for review. The exact size of the structure, its location on the property, and details such as lighting are as yet unknown. Everything’s still in an early design stage.

There’s no reason why the building can’t be designed in a way that blends in with the neighborhood, and even enhances neighborhood appearance. And yet, in the neighborhood mindset this possibility seems already precluded.

Neighborhood opposition quickly reached a frenzied state. Although there’s no specific proposal, minds began to close immediately, reacting instead to the monster that is imagined.

And unfortunately, as fellow Greenwich Time columnist Bob Horton describes in his column on Friday, certain political leaders are pandering to these neighborhood fears, rather than exhibiting true leadership by calling for a more calm and reasoned approach.

This is a really a zoning matter that calls for due process. All that’s before the Planning and Zoning Commission for approval at the moment is an application to revise the lot lines between two properties.

Yes, this property line revision is ultimately intended to create enough acreage in accordance with zoning regulations for Greenwich Reform Synagogue to build a new synagogue with a maximum size of 20,000 square feet and a parking lot that can accommodate up to 100 cars.

But should this, in itself, be cause for such hysteria? Yes, the neighborhood must be vigilant when it comes to any development proposal, but it’s impossible to gauge the impact without the specifics.

Might it not be sensible to wait until there’s something real to react to, a specific plan with specific things to oppose? Wouldn’t it be more reasoned to mount an opposition using plan-specific arguments at the appropriate time in the zoning approval process?

But no. Whatever it is, we’re against it, seems to be the attitude. Just stop the synagogue, regardless of what they propose. Besides, everyone seems sure they already know all the answers anyway, regardless of what GRS may say. And whatever the real plan turns out to be is irrelevant, or suspect.

In the absence of fact-based specifics, imaginary information becomes fact. For example, one argument against GRS plans that’s been communicated directly to me is that construction involves the blasting of ledge rock that will cause damage to neighboring homes.

But when I asked GRS president Robert Birnbaum about such blasting, this is his email response:

Regarding the ledge, not only are there
no plans to blast it, but the architects with whom we have met are all
interested in “minimal impact” work, and all want to leave the ledge
undisturbed, although some have suggested that its current state is quite
unattractive, and with some landscaping, could be turned into a “nature
park”, which could perhaps even be open to the public, but at a minimum
would enhance the views of the site that neighbors currently have.

Birnbaum adds that none of these designs or an architect have been selected yet.

It seems it would be in the best interests of the neighborhood to work in cooperation with GRS toward a design that will be mutually beneficial to the community and the relatively small Reform congregation of 150 families.

Another of the reasons given by opponents is traffic.

Some call the reaction NIMBY. A synagogue? Not in my backyard.

NIMBY? No, everyone protests. It’s not about a synagogue. It’s the traffic.

After all, its a house of worship, and this should be a good thing. Aren’t most Greenwich churches located in residential neighborhoods? Yes they are, and consider this.

Traffic?

In last Sunday’s Greenwich Time there was a front page story about the impact of houses of worship in residential neighborhoods. Prominently displayed on the front page was an idyllic picture of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in Riverside, an example of community harmony.

What the article omitted is that throughout the decade of the 1980′s, this very same Greenwich Reform Synagogue was housed at St. Paul’s, until it moved to Stanwich Road in 1992. It’s offices were located at St. Paul’s. Classes were conducted there. All Friday night services, holiday services, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs took place there.

Without any negative impact on the neighborhood, two congregations, with their respective traffic, dwelled together in the same building in harmony with the residential community.

Is there any reason why GRS should create a traffic problem in Cos Cob that didn’t exist in Riverside when it shared space with another congregation that had its own traffic? And why would the building have to be any less in keeping with the neighborhood that St. Paul’s? It all depends on the design.

Orchard Street is, and always will be, a heavily trafficked street, regardless of whether a synagogue is located there. It’s also not a neighborhood that’s limited exclusively to residential use. In close proximity to the proposed synagogue site is Central Middle School and a Baptist church. Just down the street is a commercial area with a deli.

And just across the street are acres and acres of wonderful woodland, a marvelous town-owned public open space preserve that used to be the Pomerance property and part of the Tuchman property and that adjoins the Montgomery Pinetum. This is a huge amount of acreage that will remain forever open space in this otherwise densely populated area. And within this abundance of open space, there’s even a group home run by Abilis.

This is a neighborhood with a very interesting mix of uses. Who’s to say a synagogue might not fit in well? At least let’s keep an open mind and see what they propose.

Categories: General

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