Looming sale of the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center raises concerns from neighbors

The Van Cortlandt Jewish Center, pictured on Feb. 20, 2024, has been a pillar of the community since the 1960s.
Photo Emily Swanson

The fate of the 60-year-old Van Cortlandt Jewish Center (VCJC) could soon be in the hands of a real estate developer, defying the wishes of some neighbors who want more transparency from the Board of Trustees and for the building to remain designated for community services.

The VCJC board would not confirm potential buyers for this story, but neighbors who have known for some time about a possible deal say that Innovative Development Construction — which already bought two nearby private homes — is the potential buyer for the VCJC building at 3880 Sedgwick Ave. The developer declined to comment for this story. 

A deal to sell the VCJC building has been slowly churning for some time. The Riverdale Press reported in August 2023 that the building was to be sold and the board chair at VCJC said the vote to sell was cast in 2019.

But since then, with no specific plans made public, residents fear that the VCJC building could be torn down and replaced with market-rate housing, which could signal the end of an era when generations upon generations stayed in the neighborhood because it was a great place to live and relatively affordable. 

Market-rate apartments are not necessarily a bad thing, given the city’s housing crisis, said Petr Stand, a retired architect and urban designer who bought a house near VCJC 37 years ago. 

But he told the Bronx Times in an interview that based on recent trends, he is concerned that a private developer would prioritize high-end studio and one-bedroom apartments rather than larger, more affordable homes for families.

The VCJC building also houses an early childhood facility and senior center. Photo Emily Swanson

In recent years, reporting shows that the trend of packing in small units has held true even for government-subsidized affordable housing. 

Reporting by Gothamist found that roughly 70% of subsidized units built or financed since 2022 are studio and one-bedroom units, even when community demographics reflect mostly larger households. 

Data analysis by Gothamist showed that households of just one to two people are more highly concentrated in Manhattan, whereas the outer boroughs, including the Bronx, tend to have larger households. 

The average household size for ZIP code 10463 and adjacent neighborhoods is 2.29 to 2.79 — and in Council District 11, home to VCJC, 76% of affordable units are studios or one-bedroom units. 

Council Member Eric Dinowitz represents the area and told Gothamist that too many affordable housing programs “are not meeting the needs of the blocks on which they’re built.”

As for the VCJC site, Dinowitz said in a statement to the Bronx Times that he is closely monitoring the potential sale. 

“As an advocate for responsible development and a champion for vital community institutions, I share broad concerns about something being built that does not adhere to the context of the surrounding neighborhood,” he said. 

Stand is among those concerned that a private developer on the VCJC site would have even more reason to ignore what fits with community demographics in the interest of profit. 

“Some new architecture is absolutely hideous, put up by people who don’t care,” he said.

Keep the building — or the congregation

Jack Kleinfeld, chairman of the VCJC Board of Trustees, confirmed that the board is “negotiating to sell the building” but would not provide the Bronx Times with names of potential buyers. 

The assessed market value of the 33,331-square-foot building is $3,073,950, according to the real estate website Property Shark.

Despite the center’s long history in the neighborhood, the board voted in 2019 to sell, Kleinfeld said, by a vote of 29 to 5 — and a steep decline in membership was a major factor. 

According to Kleinfeld, the congregation had at least 700 members when the building was first built — but now has less than 60. 

“We too are unhappy that we have to sell the building that has been our congregation’s home since the mid-60s,” Kleinfeld said in a statement to the Bronx Times.

But the congregation must take priority over the building, he said. 

“The reality is that we can sell the building and maintain a viable congregation or keep the building and go bankrupt.”

Preserving the community

No one has seen specific plans for what a potential buyer would build on the VCJC site and without information, some neighbors are envisioning the worst. 

“We are a prime niche for gentrification,” said Laura Chenven, a retired adult educator who also does community gardening and organizing work. 

Chenven has a long ties to the neighborhood that brought her back after years living in Maryland, she told the Bronx Times in an interview. She lived in Van Cortlandt Village in the mid-1970s, then moved away for some years and returned to the Bronx in 2010. 

Chenven said she wants “smart development” that balances housing with community services and keeps the character of the neighborhood. But given housing trends and the clamor to build, she and others are concerned about the possibility of a massive development with “no proportion” to the neighborhood and its culture. 

The chairperson of the Land Use Committee of Community Board 8 said they have been involved in discussions between the developer and VCJC. 

Our hope and objective is to insure to the maximum extent possible that whatever the outcome will be is one that advances not just the parties’ interests but, more importantly, the stability of the community and its future as a community that continues to thrive,” Charles Moerdler said in an email to the Bronx Times. “We look forward to continued good faith discussions between the parties and stand ready to facilitate their outcome.”

But some neighbors have become more vocal in expressing their views before it’s too late. On Jan. 26, the Riverdale Press published a letter to the editor signed by three people including Stand, “representing a group of VCJC congregants and neighbors” opposed to the sale.

The writers expressed similar concern that the developer — whom they do not mention by name but say has no connection to the Bronx — will build “a large apartment complex that will not be affordable to many in our own neighborhood.” They also questioned whether existing infrastructure and parking could support such a concept.

“The sale in question would disregard our community’s best interests and needs,” the letter said.

Waking up to Van Cortlandt Village

Van Cortlandt Village in the northwest Bronx is a well-kept neighborhood that many families have called home for generations. All the residents interviewed by the Bronx Times for this story have lived in the neighborhood for decades, if not their entire lifetime. 

And now it appears —for better or worse — that those not from Van Cortlandt Village have finally “discovered” it. 

Residents say there is plenty to attract newcomers. It is known for low crime, lots of park land, transportation access, ample services for young and old, and highly-coveted housing that has historically been priced lower compared to nearby areas. For instance, the neighborhood is home to Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, the nation’s largest affordable housing co-op founded in 1927. 

If the VCJC building was torn down and replaced with only housing, two current services that the community relies on — a childcare center and senior center — would also be displaced. 

The building rents space to an Early Childhood Education Center operated by the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center and a senior center run by the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA). 

According to Department of Education survey data, 16 families used the early childhood center in 2021-2022 and 96% responded positively regarding its quality. 

The JASA senior center offers daily programming and hot lunches. People aged 65 and older make up over 21 percent of the Van Cortlandt Village population, real estate data shows.

Both centers did not respond to comment for this story. 

Some of VCJC’s neighbors say that despite the building’s public uses and long legacy, they understand why the board wants to let it go. Managing any property is a major undertaking, and the aging and declining membership make it even harder. 

However, they want the board to consider possibilities beyond a private developer and are taking it upon themselves to help generate ideas to somehow keep it in the public realm. 

“We’re trying to get them a better deal,” said Chenven, who said she does not believe VCJC has adequately explored options that provide continued services to the community.

‘It doesn’t feel good’

As of now, neighbors say they will use their personal and professional connections to present more ideas to the VCJC board. 

Some like Dan Padernacht, a real estate attorney who has lived in the neighborhood his whole life, said the board seems open to possibilities. He is among those searching for options, especially services for seniors, that would maintain the nonprofit spirit of the current building. 

“I believe the board is willing to listen to some alternatives,” he told the Bronx Times. “They’re communicating.” And knowing that major real estate deals do not often happen quickly, “there is time,” he said, to research and keep the conversation going.

But some say they want more open dialogue. 

Both VCJC and potential developers have “not been particularly transparent,” said Chenven — “it doesn’t feel good.” 

Stand, the retired architect, told the Bronx Times that arrangements so far have been kept “so quiet — it makes people suspicious.” 

“We’re trying to force some transparency,” he said, because he believes that VCJC, as a religious institution, has more of a moral and ethical obligation to engage than a private company does.

But while a deal is being negotiated, neighbors ponder what the change might mean for them. 

Stand and his wife question whether they could afford to stay in the neighborhood should they choose to downsize. Their days of climbing stairs in their current house are numbered, he said — but he is worried that development trends could contribute to them being priced out of the neighborhood they’ve lived in for nearly 40 years. 

“Would market rate be affordable for us?” he said. “Probably not.”

Reach Emily Swanson at eswanson@schnepsmedia.com or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes