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Proposed Harvard Chabad Expansion Faces Opposition From Cambridge Zoning Board, Neighbors

A proposal to expand Harvard Chabad's Banks Street headquarters did not win approval from the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeals.
A proposal to expand Harvard Chabad's Banks Street headquarters did not win approval from the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeals. By Briana Howard Pagán
By Laurel M. Shugart, Crimson Staff Writer

A proposal to dramatically expand Harvard Chabad’s Banks Street headquarters failed to win approval from the Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeals during a contentious Thursday public hearing.

The rejection leaves the Jewish student organization to revise and clarify the proposal before a follow-up hearing in June. The proposed expansion has sparked concerns from neighbors and BZA members alike about the dramatic increase in size and its effects on quality-of-life in the area.

Chabad is proposing to consolidate two historic buildings into a larger congregation space, which would significantly exceed the density and size currently permitted by the city’s zoning code and requires permission from the BZA.

The expansion would add more than 7,000 square feet to the space’s current footprint.

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the organization’s founder and president, said Wednesday that Chabad outgrew its indoor capacity once it began serving hundreds of Harvard affiliates and community members in an outdoor tent at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He added that outdoor programming poses risks for Chabad members and visitors at a time of mounting concerns around antisemitism at Harvard and on college campuses. The University is currently facing a lawsuit and a congressional investigation over allegations of antisemitism on campus.

“Sitting outdoors all the time is a vulnerable place to be right now — very exposed, both to the weather, but also to elements that makes it difficult to properly secure. So the urgency to create a secure safe space for community to gather and to convene is more than critical,” Zarchi said.

However, the proposed renovation has faced consistent opposition from residents, largely from the Kerry’s Corner Neighborhood Association — many members of which spoke at the Thursday meeting.

Residents raised concerns about the size of the development in addition to a number of smaller issues, like noise levels, trash disposal, and increased car traffic. Zarchi listed a number of solutions to the complaints, including hiring an outside company for trash removal.

“We aspire to be a good neighbor,” Zarchi said during the meeting.

“So immediately when we hear concerns,” he said, “we try to address it immediately.”

But the Board members were stuck on the size of the development, which nearly doubles the permitted density.

“I feel it is a detriment to the neighborhood, and I think some of the neighbors have talked about that in terms of scale and compatibility with the other size of structures within the neighborhood,” said Chair Jim Monteverde.

Though the proposed expansion won approval from the city’s Historical Commission — which reviews permits for developments or renovations in historic areas but does not evaluate zoning issues — the BZA represents the most significant hurdle for the project to move forward.

As the meeting drew to a close, three of the five voting Board members indicated they remained opposed to the proposal.

Chabad opted to request a continuance of the meeting until mid-June rather than have the project go to a vote. If the Board voted against the proposal, Chabad would have to wait two years before reapplying.

Zarchi said the organization will spend the next few weeks clarifying technicalities in the language of the proposal to address concerns raised in the hearing, including a better explanation of why the organization is pursuing such a large-scale expansion.

“We’re going to utilize the opportunity to clarify some misrepresentations in some areas that seem to be unclear about the merits of our project,” Zarchi said in a Thursday interview following the hearing.

—Staff writer Laurel M. Shugart can be reached at laurel.shugart@thecrimson.com. Follow them on X @laurelmshugart or on Threads @laurel.shugart.

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