Maximum occupancy was on the minds of Millburn residents and members of the Millburn Township Zoning Board of Adjustment as they got their first detailed look at the architectural plans for the synagogue that a rabbi hopes to build in a residential neighborhood in Short Hills.
“The big issue is the capacity of the building,” said board member Thomas Singer. “We want to determine the ultimate occupancy, especially as it relates to parking.”
Architect Laurance Appel, principal partner of the Appel Design Group, presented interior and exterior drawings for the proposed Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills at a township zoning hearing on Aug. 23 at the municipal building. About 60 people, including Lubavitch-trained Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky and his wife, Rivkah, listened as Appel elaborated on the 16,000-plus square-foot structure planned for 1 Jefferson Ave. — the address of the Bogomilskys’ home — and for 7 Jefferson Ave., which they hope to acquire for the construction.
The plans have stirred controversy among town residents centering on the variances and waivers required for the center. At previous meetings of the board, opponents to the plan focused on potential traffic hazards, inadequate parking, and insufficient sidewalks in the residential area. Supporters have insisted that the synagogue is an appropriate structure for the neighborhood and claimed that the township had placed obstacles in the plans for its construction.
At the Aug. 23 meeting, Appel said that the focal point of the building is the two-story sanctuary, which contains 144 fixed seats. Based on the Orthodox model, there are separate sections for men and women, with a divider between them. The sanctuary opens into the social hall, which holds approximately 144 persons. A kitchen and daily worship chapel are also on the first floor.
Plans for the basement area include a mikva with showers and waiting area, three meeting rooms, and an open, multi-purpose area. Two offices and the rabbi’s study occupy the third floor.
Although Appel gave occupancy numbers for each room, attorneys for the opposition and board members pressed him for information on how he determined the numbers, what formulas he used, and if using the rooms for different purposes would change the numbers.
Appel said that when designing the building he was “looking to use a vocabulary that was all residential, so it would resemble the adjoining residences.” To achieve this end, he said, he incorporated siding, gambrel roofs, and bandings of low stone for the exterior. He said the building height of 34 feet, three inches is within the zoning rules and is lower in height than the existing house. When asked about the footprint for the new structure, Appel said it was 7,330 square feet, about 10 percent more than the combined footprint of the buildings currently standing at 1 and 7 Jefferson Ave.
Appel also described the exterior lighting plan and said he was still working on bringing the intensity down.
One of the bigger issues in dispute was the sign planned for the center, which Appel said he believed was within the code standards. The zoning officer, however, issued a letter of denial stating a variance was needed if they wanted to use the planned design and placement.
Although there was little audience participation due to time constraints, one opponent to the plan, who said she lived in the neighborhood, told NJ Jewish News she didn’t want any kind of house of worship in a residential area, even if it was a church. “It creates too much traffic. There’s been a number of accidents already,” she said.
Mike Rosenberg, a Millburn resident since 1981 who attends the Chai Center in its current location (but doesn’t live in the neighborhood) reiterated Rabbi Bogomilsky’s claim in The Millburn Item alleging the township has impeded his attempt to purchase property in the past. “You know,” Rosenberg told NJJN, “whenever there’s a religious issue that doesn’t involve Judaism, it just sails through.”
The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 27.