Tone Deaf : The Case of B’nai Torah on South Green Road

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A letter from Stuart Mendel to University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld. This letter was provided by Mendel to the Heights Observer for publication.

I had the opportunity to convene 11 residents in my home recently to share information and discuss concerns regarding the B’nai Torah project in development for the properties at 2588 and 2592 S. Green Road. A representative from the B’nai Torah congregation attended the meeting, at my invitation. I did offer invitations to you, Mayor Infeld, and to two other City Council representatives. Unfortunately, schedule conflicts precluded participation for each.

As it turned out, the group comprised a balance of Jewish and Christian residents in roughly equal measure, some from the western end of the city.

I want to take a few moments to share a few observations and thoughts based upon the meeting.

  • I estimate the median age of the residents at the meeting to have been approximately 70 years. Some with serious health considerations and un-desiring and unappreciative of the aggravation this project is causing.
  • Over half had resided in University Heights for 30 or more years, with several close to 50 years.
  • Most are alarmed at the decision of the planning commission – particularly that of the Mayor and Vice Mayor – and that of the full City Council to allow the project to move ahead with little stipulation to address resident concerns; in seeming to ignore resident opposition to the project; and by the dismissive rationale of resident concerns offered by City Council based upon the sole Councilman to mumble a few words of rationale for his decision.
  • All nearby property-owning residents expressed concerns about water and drainage from the 2588 parcel during and following construction. Several noted that the elevation of both 2588 and 2592 parcels on which the current residential structures are built are at the highest physical point in all of University Heights and that significant examples of flooding have occurred over the years under certain circumstances on nearby properties.

During the meeting I came to realize that neither the home at 2588 nor the Condos on the Green development have basements; they are built on concrete slabs. The original builders of these structures had to be aware of the shallow water table and run-off problems for the parcels. One of the long-time condo residents noted the city of University Heights compensated her for a flooded living room from water damage through her floor several years ago.

From the residents perspective, very little has been done to engender trust with the congregation and city government.  Few are persuaded by the congregation and the city’s assurance that resident concerns will be addressed through the process of approvals.

This sentiment is not frivolous, idealistic nor opportunistic.

The property values, peace-of-mind and well-being of University Heights residents are in play.  A balanced public process will advise the congregation to go beyond the ethical and financial margins in meeting resident concerns. The fact is, this project is intrusive and an aggressive use of private property for a new purpose that will clearly impact the nearby existing property owners. Zoning issues aside, little opposition or challenge has been offered by our “at large” council people regarding the worthiness of the project.

This past Sunday, we were all at a loss to know just who among our elected city officials speaks for the homeowners.

A project that requires a special-use permit should require the “sign-off” of the neighbors affected by that change of use. It is pretty clear to me that the nature of the project; the manner in which it will be shoe-horned into a small lot and the precedent that will be set for project development in University Heights; the concerns of the drainage, traffic, egress, noise and change of use will require meeting each home owner objection in a manner that the individual homeowner finds satisfactory. It is shortsighted of the congregation to address the concerns of neighbors by merely tinkering with their own design in view of the opposition to the project.

But there is more. Given the recent history for this particular parcel of land, and assuming the congregation approached the city before purchasing the property and was encouraged by the Mayor, Vice Mayor, individual council members or possibly even appointed officials, the situation we find ourselves in appears to be one of political tone-deafness by our city government; or of public officials exceeding their authority by pre-determining the public process and making promises they have no business making involving private property.

All of this is exacerbated by the poor and leisurely communication and unsatisfactory engagement practices of the congregation, the city, its appointed officials, and the council.

Assurances of the congregation that they will incorporate resident concerns is not credible given that the project will move forward regardless of their concerns, because the Mayor and City Council believe the institution will be an anchor based on supposition and gut feelings. There is no UH development plan, zoning plan, or long term sustainability document that forms the basis for this kind of development, nor explaining how University Heights  plans to apply the neighborhood “anchoring” principle in a mature, residential neighborhood. The justification for “anchor” rings hollow to resident property owners who have lived in this city for nearly half a century.

At best, this is an example of good intentions having unintended consequences. At worst, it is the darkside of Mayberry.

Stuart Mendel is a long-time resident of University Heights.

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