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Construction of synagogue halted as leaders cite lack of funds

The Advocate

STAMFORD — Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Stamford has stopped construction on a $7 million synagogue because the congregation ran out of money last year to fully build, landscape and furnish it, according to leaders in the group.

The Jewish congregation had expected to finish the building, which is shaped like an open book, this month. Backers of the project say they still hope to finish the religious center at 752-760 High Ridge Road by next year.

Neighbors, however, are frustrated, saying the site is unkempt and the entire project is poorly planned.

Leaning back in his office chair during an interview, Rabbi Yisrael Deren sighed and explained “the situation was one where we had the option of either borrowing more money to go ahead and complete it or slowing the construction down considerably and raising the money.”

Deren said the lack of money is distressing, but the group is too far into the project to stop now. More than $3 million is still needed.

Part of that total includes more than $1 million owed to at least four contractors who have current mechanic’s liens on the property for work done between 2003 and 2004, according to city land records.

A mechanic’s lien entitles anyone who provides work — such as carpentry, plumbing and painting, or supplies building materials and supplies for the project — to claim compensation for services. If the lien is not paid, the contractors can begin foreclosure proceedings to recoup their losses.

The four companies that have liens on the property are: Riccardi Bros. Inc. of Greenwich, which is owed $21,000; Steeltech Building Products of South Windsor, owed $25,142; Main Enterprises Inc. of Stratford, owed $120,697; and Norwalk-based P&H Construction, which was the principal builder and is owed $920,303.

“At the end of the day, no one is going to be left holding the bag,” Deren said. “Everybody will not only be paid, but hopefully we give them the opportunity to make even more money.”

Deren said the congregation had been “somewhat naive” about how much money it could raise. He hopes two recent donor grants totaling about $1 million, which the congregation must match, will help erase the liens and move the project forward.

The rabbi anticipates moving to the new center by the end of the 2006 school year; the congregation currently leases space from Agudath Sholom on Colonial Road. Chabad-Lubavitch is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement with its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.

When workers vanished about eight months ago, weeds began growing rampant and a fence enclosed the property. Neighbors said they suspected something was financially awry.

“That does happen in construction projects occasionally, but if they didn’t have the money, why even start,” asked Edward Pirro, who lives on Crystal Lake Road.

Jodi Hoff, who moved to Brandt Road in 2000, decided to move in June. She feared the area would be too urban with too much traffic from the synagogue. Besides, she said, “it just never seemed like it was going to get finished.”

Another resident, Eva Astrom on Hartswood Road, said even with a lack of funds the congregation should clean up along High Ridge Road, which has an abandoned trailer and a pile of boulders.

“That project should never have been here in the first place,” she said. “I think it’s an eyesore, and it’s way too big for the area there.”

Meanwhile, neighbors say they are still dealing with construction mishaps. One mistake caused a dozen trees to be chopped down at the rear of the property, which must be replaced. Also, contractors built below the water table, forcing the use of a generator to continuously pump water from the site. The additional costs were not anticipated, Deren said.

Construction started on the building in 2003 after the congregation received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals in 2001. Asked why construction started without all the money, Lubavitchleaders said seeing part of a building was more important to the Jewish community than seeing no building at all.

Richard Redniss, the land-use consultant for the project, said many nonprofit organizations go through the same thing. In a situation like this, construction liens are common guarantees for contractors who may be worried about a full and timely payment, he said.

“We found, that over the years, that many nonprofits end up optimistically beginning construction and then run into delays and cost overruns and unexpected problems,” he said. “It’s happened many, many times.”

Located on the former site of the Turn of River library, the new synagogue will include a preschool, a center for families with special needs children, adult studies programs, a banquet hall and a meditation garden.

Parents of children in the Jewish preschool and members of the congregation said they are confident that the new building will be finished within a year. They asked neighbors for a little more patience.

Not only will Jews benefit from having another community center in the city, neighbors will reap higher property values, they said.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s become so long to build the building,” said Dinah Miller Marlowe, who has one child enrolled in the school and two other children who have graduated. “We are very looking forward to having our children utilize the beautiful building.”

Parents Arkie and Randie Engle are eagerly anticipating the new building, where their 1-year-old daughter will attend preschool.

“I have full confidence that it will be constructed by the time our daughter enters the preschool,”Arkie Engle said. “I sort of see any delays as a bump in the road, and this is a worthwhile project, and anything worthwhile is worth waiting for.”

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