At first glance, the preservation battle over the nearly century-old synagogue on a tree-lined block of West 93rd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan looks familiar, even tired. One group wants to save the stately granite building, emphasizing its history, neoclassical architecture and towering stained glass windows. Another group wants to turn it into a high-rise condominium.
But in a twist, it’s the synagogue that is fighting for the change.
Across the city, financially struggling religious congregations, facing dwindling attendance and shrinking donations, are looking for other sources of revenue. Increasingly they are turning to their most valuable asset: location, location, location (and, in some cases, the air above it).
The state attorney general’s office, whose approval is required for all sales of religious properties in New York, received 165 sale petitions in 2016; so far in 2017, it has received 124. The number of petitions has been increasing in recent years, said Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the office.
In New York City’s fevered real estate market, the pace of such deals — and opposition to them — have become especially frenetic, said Renato Matos, a lawyer who advises religious organizations on real estate transactions.
“There’s a tremendous amount of activity,” Mr. Matos said.
And in some places across the city, neighbors are cobbling together neighborhood associations and legal alliances to fight the proposed sales.
“I’m surprised that the board of trustees and congregation doesn’t really value the history and beauty of the building enough to find a different kind of resolution for the problems they’re facing,” Ronna Blaser, a founder of the West Nineties Neighborhood Coalition, said of the synagogue, Shaare Zedek, which was dedicated in 1923.
Last month, Ms. Blaser and a dozen members of the coalition sat in State Supreme Court in Manhattan for a hearing on Shaare Zedek. (After the attorney general’s office approves a sale, the Supreme Court must weigh in, too.) The synagogue’s leaders plan to sell the property to a developer, who would replace the building with a 14-story condominium tower. The synagogue would own and occupy the first three floors.
Without the deal, valued at $34.3 million, leaders said the synagogue, which was founded in 1837, would fold. The sanctuary is unusable in the winter and summer because it lacks heating and air-conditioning, Michael Firestone, the president of the synagogue, said. And while it seats 1,200 people, only about 80 families attend.
“This is an existential issue,” Mr. Firestone said.
But in court, neighbors in the coalition questioned the synagogue’s motivations, citing its exemption from property taxes. They also worried that the high-rise would bring overcrowding.