Community: a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood); a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
The Cambria Heights community is dealing with outside forces intent on making a major change to the community so many have worked so hard to build. In its truest sense of the word, community stands for like-minded individuals who come together for mutual benefit. That is certainly what Cambria Heights has always been. It is a vibrant community consisting of single family homes, small businesses, and community services which all lean on one another for support. That is exactly what is envisioned through the City planning process.
Cities plan neighborhoods as cohesive units. No part is bigger than the whole. The residential supports the commercial and vice versa. Just think about how Cambria Heights is structured and you get the picture. Linden Boulevard acts as a main commercial corridor and to the north and south are residential homes which then support those commercial endeavors. Interspersed throughout Cambria Heights are community facilities such as churches and schools, which also add support for the members of the community. The members support these facilities and the facilities support the members. It is a give and take relationship that builds upon the definition of community.
We now have two organizations that threaten to upset that relationship. As many of you may know, the southern portion of Cambria Heights borders on the northern boundary of Montefiore Cemetery. Due to the cemetery interring important individuals of the Jewish faith, Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch and Keren Peulos, two separate organizations, chose to acquire single family homes and illegally convert them into religious uses. Let me be very clear: as a practicing attorney I have the upmost respective for religious freedoms. My objection, along with many others in the community, to these illegal conversions are strictly due to them being out of character to Cambria Heights and the negative impact to the communities’ health, safety, and welfare.
First, let’s look back at some recent history. Cambria Heights was developed as single family enclave and has remained so. It’s still one the few areas dedicated to single family home ownership. New York City Planning actually downzoned Cambria Heights in 2005 to preserve the area. As stated in the re-zoning, “the zoning changes will preserve the predominant low-density character of the Cambria Heights neighborhood and ensure that new development would be consistent with the area’s scale, context and building patterns.” This was a clear mandate that the low-density character of Cambria Heights was to be respected.
Clearly, that respect was short lived. In 2013 Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch received approval from the Board of Standards and Appeals for variances that allowed the combining of approximately five single family homes located along Francis Lewis Boulevard at the eastern edge of the cemetery into a religious use structure. This development involved buildings that had been illegally used for a number of years with no intervention by the New York City building department. Thousands of dollars in fines were incurred, yet the buildings were still in use. Now, Keren Peulos has applied for variance approval to convert three single family homes located in the middle of the block along Francis Lewis Boulevard, in a 4-story educational/religious building with the capacity to accommodate over 300 students. Again, this development involves buildings that have been illegally used for a number of years with no intervention by the New York City building department. And again, thousands of dollars in fines have been imposed, yet the buildings are still in use. This is not community. These two uses do not contribute in any way to Cambria Height’s vibrancy. In fact, they now threaten to destroy the community and that vibrancy.
What can we as Cambria Height’s residents expect from these developments? Just for starters there will be increased traffic for all. Even now we experience a multitude of buses that park and idle along Francis Lewis Boulevard that make it almost impossible to exit our homes without anticipating an accident. It is only a matter of time before there is an accident causing either property or personal damage. Increased trash and pollution. These “visitors” consistently leave trash in their wake. The increased trash invites rodents into our properties. The buses and cars consistently idle emitting constant pollution in front of our homes. Overburdened city services. Developments of this size will increase water and sewer uses. As religious uses they pay no taxes so that burden will fall on the community: those of us who reside here permanently and are stake holders in the area’s future. More large crowds that impact our quality of life. And, believe it or not, 24-hour visitation. Remember, this is a RESIDENTIAL community. There is simply no need for 24-hour access to a cemetery.
The members of the Cambria Heights Civic Association and other concerned community residents have hired an attorney to represent our interests when the Keren Peulos application goes before New York City’s Board of Standards and Appeals. Now is the time to protect the Cambria Heights community. Otherwise, this will no longer be a community as we know it.
Steven E. Taylor, Esq.
President, Cambria Heights Civic Association