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Letter: Synagogue President Responds to Critics of Building Plan

By Robert Birnbaum

 

To the editor:

Your article regarding our plans to build a new home for Greenwich Reform Synagogue on Orchard Street in Cos Cob certainly led to a very vigorous dialog in your “Comments” section.  We respect the concerns neighbors have raised.  There are many valid points and we’ll do what we can to address them, both now and as plans are developed going forward.

I would like to address some specific comments regarding traffic and the overall scope of the project.  It’s important to note that our congregation, particularly the core group that regularly practices attends services, is not a large one. The building will not be the strain on the neighborhood that many fear.  Our goal is to create a spiritual home that will blend in with the neighborhood.

When examining potential properties for purchase, we went through exhaustive feasibility studies. For the Orchard Street property, the engineer who performed the study determined that we could legally and environmentally support about 20,000 square feet of floor area ratio (FAR) in a two story building. This does not mean we expect to build a structure this size, it simply represents a viable upper limit for this property and thus the guideline we used in our request for proposal to architects.

Similarly, parking for 100 cars could also fit on this site with a building of the above size, but it is unlikely our needs will reach that level.

Our typical Friday night Shabbat services—by far our highest-attended weekly event—attracts an average of about 50 people in 25 cars, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.

Another important point is that even though the overall site includes a piece of property on Osee Place, we can assure those residents that there simply will be no exit or entry point for our congregation on Osee. Only Orchard will be used to access the site for members.

Our congregants come from all points within Greenwich, resulting in diluted traffic flow—we don’t anticipate a noticeable difference from any one direction. A considerable percentage of our members live in central and eastern Greenwich; for the past 20 years, they have been traveling via Orchard Street to Stanwich, so no significant change in traffic flow is anticipated.

(Some have raised specific concerns regarding traffic on Valleywood. It’s not clear that the assertion that Valleywood is the most attractive route to the site for cars approaching on Putnam Ave. from the west is correct. But even if some were to find it so –we would discourage that routing- we’re not talking about that many cars—perhaps five or six on a Friday night.)

Last year we had eight Saturday morning bar/bat mitzvahs, which attracted anywhere from 75 to 150 people in 35 to 60 cars.

The only time we anticipate a real bump in traffic to the neighborhood is during the two High Holidays in the fall, when a larger percentage of the congregation attends services. Because Greenwich schools are closed for those holidays there won’t be an additional traffic burden on top of normal traffic to Central Middle School, which is located just 1000 feet away.

On those two holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), our policy has been to engage off-duty Greenwich Police officers to manage traffic flow for safety reasons, a practice we would extend to other events if necessary.

There will be minimal use of the building on weekdays during working hours, other than for small Hebrew school classes and the small staff we employ to run the congregation. We have minor gatherings on weeknights, but these generally consist of no more than 8-10 people getting together for choir practice, small social/study events or a Board meeting.

We expect that an objective, third-party traffic study (which will be performed as part of the regulatory process) will validate our view that traffic impact to the neighborhood will be negligible. GRS has never had any traffic issues in any of its locations, including St. Paul’s Church, in a very residential part of Riverside.

We have already spoken with some neighbors who have voiced their concerns. We will do everything we can to address ongoing questions regarding the site, and we have committed to meeting with neighbors to discuss.

GRS has shared space with other groups and neighbors throughout practically our entire history. We’ve been tenants of churches in similarly residential neighborhoods and we’ve seen how it can be done in a sensitive and cooperative way.

We have every intention of making this process open and civil and we truly believe that we will be a positive presence for the neighborhood in every respect.

 

Robert Birnbaum

President, Greenwich Reform Synagogue

BW November 17, 2012 at 02:49 PM
I wasn’t sure someone could insult our intelligence more than Jennifer Kutai did yesterday but you certainly have sir. Let’s be honest, developers don’t leave approved buildable SF undeveloped just because they think it would be better for the community. They develop the maximum allowable SF the first time so they don’t have to go back for site plan modifications and additional permits in the future. This is exactly what you will do and based on your blog, 20,000 SF won’t be enough to handle the future growth you are seeking for your congregation. I can see that you've tried to downsize the scope of this travesty for those on Osee and Valleywood but what about me 4 doors down on Orchard?
Sarah Darer Littman November 17, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Thank you for your conciliatory letter. However, it neglects to answer several important points: 1. Looking at your calendar, it appears that there are more than 8 Bar/Bat Mitzvahs this year and thus it appears your congregation is growing rather than the small, quiet "hardly any traffic" neighbor that your letter would lead us to believe. https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B1a7V7fhNTM5YnQ3NDhHeXVOYkE Can you comment on this. 2. You have made no reference to the nursery school that Ms. Kutai mentioned in the Patch thread. Anyone who has driven on Lafayette Place at drop off/pick off for First Presbyterian preschool or on Putnam before they installed the traffic lights at Temple Sholom will know how much extra traffic chaos a preschool entails. Please can you comment on this matter? 3. If you are planning to build a smaller facility, why was the RFP for a 20K facility with parking for 100 cars and expansion for an extra 5K feet?
Nicole Crosby November 17, 2012 at 03:47 PM
1. What is the justification for this claim in your letter? "Some have raised specific concerns regarding traffic on Valleywood. It’s not clear that the assertion that Valleywood is the most attractive route to the site for cars approaching on Putnam Ave. from the west is correct." Valleywood is the shortest, most direct route from points west on Putnam. It has three fewer traffic lights than continuing east to Sinowoy. It avoids traffic on Putnam - which is always heavier than traffic on Valleywood. The speed humps on Valleywood are not much of a deterrent to its use. (Another option is for the driver to take Stanwich, but that is also much less direct and potentially involves the driver in traffic from a middle school and two churches - one that meets at the school.) 2. You make no mention of weddings. This would cause the greatest disturbance to neighbors since they draw large numbers of people, loud music, and late evening departures. Since the plans call for the sanctuary and social hall to be able to combine, providing 5,000 square feet of space, very large groups are clearly anticipated. 3. No matter how many or how few people use the facility on given day, the transformation of our neighborhood with a massive institution, parking lot and security lighting is something we will have to live with 24/7.
Nicole Crosby November 17, 2012 at 03:50 PM
If you truly believe that the facility would be " a positive presence for the neighborhood in every respect," you wouldn't have kept the plans secret until this late in the process - telling 10 architects before telling us, you wouldn't have sent your letter to the bare minimum number of residents and you would have spoken to neighbors prior to purchasing property. Actions speak much louder than words.
OSR November 18, 2012 at 10:36 PM
Robert Birnbaum, Maybe You or one of your members can get Enticed with a offer to sell property in their neighborhood,since you all feel it would not impact a densely populated neighborhood across from a nature preserve. Hmmmm say maybe on Doubling Rd. Just a thought.
Lana Ross November 18, 2012 at 11:29 PM
I have just found out about this and we live three houses over. How did you fail to notify us, the most affected people on this street? This is beyond my understanding. Why have you kept it such a secret if "for sure nobody will be affected". Do you live in a high traffic area with a toddler with your bedroom window overlooking the street? Do you have any idea what this is like? How can you propose to add more traffic to our already strained neighborhood and be first secretive and then nonchalant about this? "Some have raised specific concerns regarding traffic on Valleywood" - we have raised more concerns about traffic on Orchard and you're still not listening. "Another important point is that even though the overall site includes a piece of property on Osee Place, we can assure those residents that there simply will be no exit or entry point for our congregation on Osee. Only Orchard will be used to access the site for members." - Right and here you go again: only Orchard will be affected. But this is still a residential neighborhood and we do not want to be affected regardless of the size of your congregation, school, parking or whatever else you have plans on building. Also, please let us know if you have enough space in YOUR backyard to build your 20,000 sq ft property. Perhaps you should consider moving your development there.

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