Project to preserve and re-use Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights gains momentum, focus and nearly $3M in st – cleveland.com

Posted By on July 2, 2022

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio The future of Park Synagogues Conservative Jewish congregation lies in Pepper Pike, where it is expanding a new religious and educational campus established in 2007 at Shaker Boulevard and Brainard Road.

But an effort to plan a new, long-term future for the congregations old main building in Cleveland Heights, a globally-admired, mid-century modern masterpiece by architect Eric Mendelsohn, is gaining traction and focus, thanks in part to nearly $3 million in new grants from the state of Ohio.

In June, the state announced that the synagogue had received $1 million from its capital budget to repair and upgrade electrical and mechanical systems in the Mendelsohn building. Last week, the effort received another $1.8 million for the removal of lead and asbestos.

The latter grant came through the states Department of Development through its new Ohio Brownfield Remediation Program. It was one of 25 grants totaling more than $50 million awarded to Cuyahoga County projects, which accounted for 26% of the statewide total of $192 million in brownfield grants.

Im encouraged by the support from the state and it gives me hope that funding a very large, complicated project is possible, said Naomi Sabel, a partner of Cleveland-based Sustainable Community Associates, the real estate development firm engaged by the congregation in 2021 to explore new options for the building and the parklike 28-acre property surrounding it.

Mendelsohn quartet

Built in 1950 at 3300 Mayfield Rd., the Mendelsohn building is one of four synagogues in the U.S. designed by the German-Jewish architect after he fled Nazism in 1933. The other examples are in St. Louis, Saint Paul, and Grand Rapids.

Photos of the landmark Eric Mendelsohn Building at Park Synagogue's 28-acre campus in Cleveland Heights.Courtesy Park Synagogue, Ardon Bar-Hama

Park is known for having a sanctuary shaped like the prow of a ship, with a massive copper dome on top that gives the building a distinctive silhouette. It is also showing signs of age, including leaks and crumbling mortar in parts of its cream-colored brick facades.

Last year, the congregation listed it for sale, raising alarms among preservation advocates over the possibility that it could have fallen into unsympathetic hands.

The congregation allayed those fears last September when it partnered with Sustainable Community Associates to come up with a plan to preserve and adaptively reuse the building and, possibly, add new development on the surrounding 28 acres.

Founded in 2002, the firm has completed $100 million worth of projects in Oberlin and Cleveland over the past two decades, with an emphasis on reviving urban neighborhoods by renovating or building new apartments mixed with retail.

After surveying Cleveland Heights residents, the Sustainable Community partners, Naomi Sabel, Josh Rosen, and Ben Ezinga, say theyre focusing on converting the synagogue building into an arts and cultural education facility.

Future options

The surrounding property, flanked by residential neighborhoods to the east, west, and south, and by Mayfield Road to the north, could become a site for intergenerational and senior housing for residents looking to downsize from single-family homes in the community.

Photos of the landmark Eric Mendelsohn Building at Park Synagogue's 28-acre campus in Cleveland Heights.Courtesy Park Synagogue, Ardon Bar-Hama

Were hearing from a lot of folks that they are not wanting to own their old home in Cleveland Heights anymore but they desperately want to stay in the community, Rosen said. They want to continue being Cleveland Heights residents, they want to continue being Cleveland Heights taxpayers, and there are not enough housing options for them.

Adding new housing to the synagogue property could boost the citys tax base, Rosen said.

Cleveland Heights lost 37% of its commercial, industrial, and residential tax base between 1960 and 2018, declining from $1.3 billion to $838 million in inflation-adjusted figures according to data compiled for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer by Cleveland State University researchers. It was one of the top 10 tax base losers among 226 Northeast Ohio communities analyzed in the study.

A map based on inflation-adjusted, assessed property tax values for 226 communities in seven Northeast Ohio counties shows gains and losses channeled by highway-induced suburban development between 1960 and 2018. County auditor information was gleaned by Cleveland State University researchers through the Ohio Department of Taxation.Northern Ohio Data & Information Service, Cleveland State University

New housing could potentially be inserted on the old Park main property along Mayfield Road, now used as a parking lot for school buses, Rosen and Sabel said.

We want to keep as much of the parklike atmosphere as possible, but there are really great opportunities to add density, Sabel said.

The consultants have hired Raymond Bobgan, the executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, to explore cultural and educational uses for the Mendelsohn building that would avoid duplicating other facilities in and around Cleveland.

Precedents for using a synagogue as an arts facility include the recent conversion of the Temple-Tifereth Israel in University Circle into Case Western Reserve Universitys Maltz Performing Arts Center, and the earlier conversion of Bnai Amoona, the Mendelsohn synagogue in St. Louis, as the home of the nonprofit COCA, the Center of Creative Arts.

Images of the newly completed expansion of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at Case Western Reserve University, which incorporates the historic Temple-Tifereth Israel synagogue.Roger Mastroianni for Case Western Reserve University

Raising a profile

While Park Synagogue is revered by architectural historians, it is less widely appreciated in Northeast Ohio, in part because it isnt visible from Mayfield Road. Its set far back from the road on a hillside flanked by trees because Mendelsohn wanted to emphasize a spiritual immersion in nature.

The Sustainable Community partners aim to raise the buildings visibility by applying to have it listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

Architectural historians in U.S. Germany, Ireland and Israel have also launched an effort to list at least two of Mendelsohns postwar synagogues in the U.S., including Park, as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

I find it surprising that the Cleveland [Heights] building has such a low profile, Kathleen James-Chakraborty, a professor of art history at University College Dublin, said in a recent interview. The others are better known and more appreciated in their community.

James-Chakraborty called the project to reuse Bnai Amoona in St. Louis one of the most successful community arts centers in the country.

Photos of the landmark Eric Mendelsohn Building at Park Synagogue's 28-acre campus in Cleveland Heights.Courtesy Park Synagogue, Ardon Bar-Hama

Sabel and Rosen said that while theyre increasingly focused on the idea of building an intergenerational neighborhood with new housing around a synagogue repurposed as a cultural facility, they will continue consulting with elected officials and residents through the summer and into the fall. And they plan to apply for Ohio historic preservation tax credits next spring.

They also said they want to provide an example of real estate development that harmonizes with community aspirations in Cleveland Heights, in contrast to bitter controversies that dogged recent projects, including new apartments in the Cedar-Lee-Meadowbrook neighborhood, and the Top of the Hill project at Cedar-Fairmount.

Were trying to break out of the mold of negativity around development projects, Rosen said.

The congregation, meanwhile, is happy with the progress so far.

Park Synagogue is so pleased with the collaborative efforts of Sustainable Community Associates to preserve and repurpose our historic Mendelsohn building as we transition our activities to our eastern campus, congregation President Susan Ratner said in an email.

We are thrilled that the State of Ohio recognizes the value of this landmark building and its importance to the Jewish and non-Jewish community, she added. We look forward to the next steps as the planning process continues for the creative re-use of one of Clevelands most significant buildings.

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Project to preserve and re-use Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights gains momentum, focus and nearly $3M in st - cleveland.com

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