Building Redevelopment News Article

From the Jewish Independent Newspaper

November 19, 2010
Beth Israel plans for future
Synagogue fundraises for new buildings and parking lot

By Michelle Dodek

"This new building will be built as a place for our synagogue community to grow and thrive,” said Lorne Cristall, co-chair of Congregation Beth Israel’s capital campaign.

Together with co-chair Gary Averbach, Cristall explained the ambitious plans to completely renovate and reconfigure the existing BI building and add a significant new wing that would primarily be devoted to a sanctuary. The other major element of the project would almost double the current parking capacity by building an underground parking lot, accessed through part of the existing synagogue parking lot and extending under the Vancouver Talmud Torah property as well.

Part of the current plan is motivated by co-operation with VTT on the parking lot, although BI began the rezoning process before they knew Talmud Torah was interested in expanding their school buildings. The City of Vancouver is anxious to have the two organizations work together to solve the traffic flow issues created by drop-off and pick-up at VTT, and the BI and VTT planners believe that a secure underground parking area is a win for everyone.

Cristall said it will be about one more year until the paperwork is complete for the rezoning, but that they are very confident that it will be approved, based on a plan for the area that the City of Vancouver calls “the Oak Street Corridor.” In that plan, the property owned by BI and VTT would be restricted in certain ways, but redevelopment and densification is a definite option.

“It has been a five-year process to this point for the redevelopment plan,” said Averbach. In fact, Cristall pointed out, it was about 10 years ago that the BI membership voted on a proposal to renovate their building, which has been in need of structural repairs for a long time. At the time, the membership balked at the expense and voted it down, but, this time around, Averbach is sure there won’t be opposition. “People like to be part of a winning project,” he said.

The current proposal would see the existing BI building gutted and turned into what they’re calling a family life and education building, according to BI executive director Shannon Etkin. The remodelling would keep the exterior intact but provide logical and easy access to the administrative offices when people enter the building, modern kitchen facilities, new classrooms and a large social hall. “People won’t have to use a hotel for their large simchas,” commented Cristall. “We will be able to have events for our congregation and the Jewish community as a whole.”

The addition will give Beth Israel an east-facing sanctuary, accessed from 28th Avenue and through the underground parking lot. They will also be able to host High Holiday services under one roof. The new building will be designed by Acton Ostry, the same architects VTT is using for their plans and the firm that designed Congregation Har El’s synagogue, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, King David High School and Hillel House at the University of British Columbia.

There is another element to BI’s redevelopment plan that is being presented to the city. It features a 25,000-square-foot building on the east side of the property with office space designated for nonprofit organizations. This building would provide revenue for the shul and be in keeping with the city’s Oak Street Corridor development. According to Cristall and Averbach, there are no immediate plans to build this structure.

The preliminary phase of fundraising will begin in January with a major donor campaign. At that time, the co-chairs will ask those able to donate $100,000 or more to commit to the project. Although he didn’t disclose specifics, Etkin assured the Independent that they were developing many naming designation options for their major donors, as well as for more modest donors who want to leave a legacy. They plan to have a “significant percentage of the overall projected costs of the expansion and renovation raised by spring 2011,” said Etkin. Once they have that sum in place, they will go to the membership of the BI for a vote.

Averbach and Cristall asserted that there will be a very small mortgage, there will be no financial assessment to members and that dues will increase only as they would otherwise. Additionally, they added, construction will not start until they have raised all of the money, so that future members will not be on the hook for a big debt.

Averbach, Cristall and Etkin were animated when discussing the plans and each one showed their excitement and confidence in this project going forward. “We believe in the capacity of our membership to contribute,” said Etkin.

The BI congregation will be kept in the loop, said the men, as they have been in the past year in the synagogue’s monthly newsletter, Koleinu. In addition, the shul’s website is updated with current information and the project will be on the agenda at the congregation’s Dec. 2 annual general meeting. In January, they are planning a question-and-answer meeting on the issue.

“We now have an exciting program that will create enthusiasm and excitement for all congregants,” said Cristall.

“We won’t underestimate people’s ability to recognize and support a good idea,” Etkin added. “Good enough is not acceptable because this is not just about a building. This is about a spiritual home, the growth of families and building the future.”

The three men laughed when Averbach mentioned that if anyone wanted to get a jumpstart on their pledge, they could call Etkin any time. He can be reached for questions as well, at Beth Israel, 604-731-4161.

Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.

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