Community Board 13 confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in Queens on Monday night, rejecting a proposal for a four-story Chabad Lubavitch school and community center in Cambria Heights by a vote of 38-0.
The plans call for the demolition of three houses from 224-12 to 224-20 Francis Lewis Blvd. The site is located about 250 feet from the existing Ohel Chabad Lubavitch complex on the border with Montefiore Cemetery.
Montefiore Cemetery is significant to the Lubavitch faith as it contains the grave of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, who led the international community for decades and is believed by some to be the Messiah.
Visitors to the grave, who can number over 10,000 for significant observances, have long caused friction between Ohel Chabad and Cambria Heights residents over slights ranging from blocked traffic and driveways to urination in residents’ yards.
While a handful of residents spoke in opposition to the project, the main bout featured attorney Sheldon Lobel, representing applicant Keren Peulos, and state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), who delivered a scathing point-by-point rebuttal.
The building, if completed as drawn, would require variances for floor space, lot coverage, front, side and rear setbacks from property lines, and dormitory space for up to 62 students. Then there is the proposed height — four stories in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The city Department of Buildings already has rejected the plan, forcing Keren Peulos to seek variances.
Lobel said first that the application is not connected with the organization that runs a reception center near the Rebbe’s grave some 250 feet down the road. Tens of thousands of followers each year come to the site to pray, pay tribute to the Rebbe or seek his intercession on their behalf.
He placed the importance of the site — and the desire to have the school located there — within the historical and religious history of Lubavitch Judaism, especially in terms of the importance Schneerson placed on education during his lifetime, setting up schools of both bricks and mortar and, eventually, on line.
“He dedicated his life to educating children,” Lobel said. “There are children from India, Africa, who need to go to school. Hopefully, this will be the site of the school where they can send them.”
Lobel also pointed to a basic legal precept — that the federal and New York State constitutions generally afford great latitude to religious institutions for things like zoning regulations.
Comrie wasn’t impressed.
He said there is no need for a facility so large in a residential neighborhood, and that there are better opportunities closer to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Lubavitch world headquarters is located
He said the dormitory is just the latest slap at the Cambria Heights community.
“No other [major] religious site in the world has beds,” he said. “The Vatican doesn’t let you stay overnight.”
He also seized on one of Lobel’s points.
“If you’re teaching online, you don’t need a school,” he said.
Numerous residents said the problems with visitors to the existing reception center give them absolutely no reason to trust any assurances that the new one would be a good neighbor.
Steven Taylor, president of the Cambria Heights Civic Association, lives two doors down from the proposed site.
He remembers the promises he said were made prior to the opening of the reception center and the conditions that were placed on it in return for required variances.
“Not a single promise was kept,” Taylor said.
CB 13 Chairman Bryan Block and District Manager Mark McMillan also had letters of support from Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau), and Councilmen Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) and Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans).
And the two-page resolution calling for rejection of the plan, read by Land Use Co-chairman Edward Halap, said Keren Peulos already owes more than $250,000 in building department fines on the site.
Comrie said there must be a neighborhood show of strength at future hearings of the Board of Standards and Appeals, something he said was necessary at hearings for the existing center.
“We’re going to have to show up 20 and 30 strong with the BSA,” the senator said. “We did before, and we’ll do it again.”