By Scott Fontaine, thenewstribune.com
Rabbi Zalman Heber looks at a garage and sees a synagogue. His neighbors see a problem.
The proposed site for the new home of Chabad of Pierce County, an Orthodox Jewish organization, has sparked controversy in a quiet corner of Tacoma’s West End.
Proponents see the placement of the synagogue as vital to worship practices, but some neighbors worry about impact on traffic, views and property values.
The conflict has been slowly building since May, when an application for a conditional use permit was filed with the city. Since then, the West End Neighborhood Council executive board, acting on behalf of several neighbors concerned about the building’s dimensions, has written the city to oppose parts of the synagogue’s variance application.
Heber, who moved to Tacoma in November 2003 to start a center that is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, visited every house within 400 feet of the site at 2146 N. Mildred St. in late June to tell neighbors what he was planning.
“I showed them the whole project,” he said. “I showed them the height. I showed them the aesthetics, the looks. I said, ‘As a neighbor, I want to show you this.’ And not one – I want to be on record about this – not one opposed the project.”
But about six weeks later, several neighbors told him they were worried about the changes to the neighborhood that a synagogue would bring. Some letters sent to the city – and forwarded to Heber – were critical of the project. And on Aug. 20, the executive board of the neighborhood council met and drafted a letter to the city opposing the proposed dimensions of the building.
To Heber, the negative feedback came as a shock.
“I’m not a prophet; I’m a rabbi. I don’t know what’s going on in their minds,” he said. “So when I see letters coming in opposition, it takes me by surprise.”
A five-car garage, a holdover of the previous landowner’s fondness for vintage automobiles, sits on the site of the proposed synagogue. The plans for the building would require razing that wooden structure and replacing it with a larger, taller building.
The dimensions of this building – with a total floor area of 7,772 square feet and a sloping roof that peaks at 30 feet – seem to cause the most concern.
The conditional use permit and variance application is in the midst of its 120-day processing window, said Philip Kao, a land use administration planner with the city.
According to the permit, the synagogue would be built within 7 feet, 6 inches of the north and south property lines. It borders North Mildred Street to the east, and it would be located within 10 feet, 9 inches of the western property line, against the house where Heber lives.
“The north and south neighbors have stated that they fear this type of mammoth building so close to their properties will infringe on their privacy, not to mention lowering their property values due to the larger building being so close to their property lines,” reads the letter from Ginny Eberhardt, the neighborhood council’s chairwoman, to the city.
“Several of the neighbors came to us and asked for us to help in trying to stop the size of the building – not the group, just the size of the building that was going in,” Eberhardt told The News Tribune. “We feel it’s just a huge building for a regular residential lot.”
The woman who lives two houses south of the proposed building believes it would change the character of the neighborhood.
“I think the building they’re planning on putting in is just not in keeping with the neighborhood,” said 64-year-old Pat Montgomery Anderson. “I wish they would either keep it small or place it somewhere else where it doesn’t seem out of context.”
But Heber said traditional synagogues have always been built in residential neighborhoods. One reason: Driving on the Sabbath is forbidden in Jewish tradition, so congregation members should ideally be walking on Saturdays.
Founded in Russia 250 years ago, Chabad-Lubavitch is guided by the teachings of its seven historic leaders – called rebbes – who stressed tradition and leadership. Members often follow Jewish dietary laws – including abstaining from pork and other nonkosher foods – and refrain from working on the Sabbath.
The proposed brick-and-wood exterior is designed largely on other houses in the neighborhood, Heber said, adding that the synagogue would clearly resemble a house of worship but wouldn’t be a stadium-seating megachurch.
“I’m not going to fool anyone and say it looks like a typical home on the block,” he said. “But it has a homey look. There’s one door in front. There aren’t huge towers with giant Stars of David on top.”
Parking is a thorny issue with several neighbors. Although teaching discourages driving on the Sabbath, some congregation members who live outside of walking distance would drive to the synagogue. They would use the parking lot of nearby Skyline Elementary School after 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and all day on the weekends.
Jennie Freeman, a retiree who lives next door to the site, is worried that congregation members would fill the school lot and park on the street.
The letter from the council executive board to the city referenced people driving from as far away as Seattle to attend services. Heber said the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition doesn’t keep membership numbers. But Mark Friedman, a retired lawyer who lives in Port Orchard and is part of the congregation, doesn’t believe there would be a problem.
“It’s a local, small congregation,” he said. “A lot of the people are within the neighborhood and walk. And there are a few others who have to drive, but you’re still talking small. On a typical Saturday morning, if we get 25 people, we’re doing well.”
Earl Vernon purchased a house about a block and a half from the proposed synagogue 18 months ago specifically so he could walk to services on the Sabbath.
“If they look at the big picture, it’ll benefit the community and Tacoma at large,” he said. “Diversity always helps a community.”
He also views possible zoning restrictions as an infringement on his right to freely practice his religion.
“We’re a small community, and since we have to walk on the Sabbath, the property size and location is perfect for us,” he said. “We’re asking for equal access.”
The letter from the council executive board to the city also referenced other concerns: the effect on stormwater runoff, the removal of trees and how it would impact wildlife, and the height of the building in a view-sensitive area (25 feet is the maximum height).
Heber and Friedman believe the neighborhood reaction is fear of the unknown and apprehension to change.
“I think something like this happens anytime anyone wants to build anything anywhere,” Friedman said. “It’s nothing sinister. It’s just human nature.”
Heber believes rumor has influenced some of the neighbors. Freeman heard that the synagogue’s long-term plans include buying the houses immediately to the north and south, tearing them down and installing a paved parking lot in their place. Not true, Heber said, adding that if he had his wish, no one would drive to the synagogue.
A public meeting has been scheduled for Thursday. The meeting is not a formal public hearing and no decision will be made at it, but both sides are invited to give comments or ask questions, Kao said.
Heber believes more dialogue can ease the concerns of the neighbors worried about the synagogue.
“I thought everyone was in agreement,” he said. “And now that I see not everyone is, let’s talk. Let’s talk over the issues.”