Synagogue Booted from 16th St. Building will Appeal
BY SAM SPOKONY | A historic but embattled Orthodox synagogue in the Flatiron District has seemingly lost its battle for survival, after a State Supreme Court judge ruled Tuesday not to extend a stay of eviction that had previously given the congregation some semblance of hope.
The eviction stems from a decades-old fight that found the synagogue caught in the middle of — and then bumped out of — a prior agreement between its leadership and a pair of developers, an agreement that lacked a written contract.
The Sixteenth Street Synagogue has called its 3 West 16th Street building home since 1945, and it had been in trouble ever since the building was sold by the National Council of Young Israel in 1999. In an immediate attempt to save the ground-floor synagogue, Steven Ancona — who had connections to another temple that was, at that time, also located at 3 West 16th Street — had set up a plan to purchase the six-story building, build luxury condos on the first four floors, and use the profits to keep the synagogue in place.
The deal revolved around a simultaneous agreement between Ancona and developer Jack Braha, who decided to fund the purchase and renovation in exchange for Braha being granted sole ownership of the building. If the plan had eventually succeeded, Braha would have given the bottom half of the building back to Ancona, who would have then donated all necessary space to the Sixteenth Street Synagogue.
But money and deadline issues arose, and the relationship between Ancona and Braha soured. That left the synagogue without a savior, but, more importantly, without a written contract stating the terms planned for its future under the previous agreement between the two men.
So when Braha evicted Ancona from 3 West 16th Street in order to simply convert the entire building into condos, the synagogue was left without any deed of ownership, and faced eviction. The synagogue was initially told to vacate the building several weeks ago.
A stay of eviction was granted by State Supreme Court Justice Martin Shulman on December 24, as the synagogue argued that it has had explicit one-third ownership of the building ever since it was owned by the National Council. Even though there are no written documents, attorneys for the synagogue claimed that its ownership of the space remained untouched.
But that effort fell flat on Tuesday, when Acting Supreme Court Justice Debra James called the synagogue’s argument nothing more than “sophistry,” and denied an extension of the stay of eviction. By law, the 67-year-old synagogue must now leave the building.
Synagogue President Richard McBee — who in fact did not seem very shocked by the decision when he walked out of the courtroom at 71 Thomas Street — condemned the ruling in a statement released later that day.
“The court most certainly did not take into full account our historic, legal, equitable and moral rights to this building, as well as the fact that we have been trying to work this out to the best of our abilities,” McBee said.
Braha and Ancona could not be reached for comment by press time.
McBee said the synagogue will file a motion to appeal James’s decision in the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, maintaining the argument that Braha made a commitment to recognize the synagogue as a co-owner of the building after he purchased it in 1999.