Top Rock to buy huge Queens synagogue for teardown
Deal with Forest Hills Jewish Center wins approval from attorney general
Joseph Yushuvayev and Uri Mermelstein’s Top Rock Holdings and RJ Capital are in contract to buy the Forest Hills Jewish Center, not as a synagogue but as a tear-down development site.
Public documents show the memorandum of contract was signed last year but filed this week with the city. That’s because the deposit was only just released after the New York state attorney general approved the sale of the religious space, at 106-06 Queens Boulevard.
“We are going ahead with FHJC,” Mermelstein said by email. “We should close next year.”
One hang-up was a prior contract held since 1945 by Cord Meyer Development Company, which sold the site to the Jewish center in 1949 but placed restrictions and limitations on the property.
After congregation leaders explained what they wanted to do, Cord Meyer agreed last May to drop the restrictions, paving the way for Top Rock to sign the contract in July 2021.
A previous deal to redevelop the site reportedly fell through in 2019. That project was for a mixed-use tower that would include a new space for the congregation. The Top Rock plan could be similar, if the synagogue cannot find a suitable new location.
The site runs a whopping 280 feet by 140 feet, with the back side along Austin Street and the front facing McDonald Park, a green space that separates the tract from busy Queens Boulevard. The location provides the potential for sweeping views over the low-rise area.
But any plans for rental housing are kaput for the moment, with the 421a tax break having expired in June and no replacement or property tax reform in sight. Any multifamily developments built without the tax break are likely to be condominiums.
RJ Capital’s website features a rendering of an eight-story project at the site with 36,000-square-foot floor plates and floor-by-floor layouts, but Mermelstein said Top Rock has not settled on what to build, and any plans for the temple to come back to the site are also undecided.
Slate Property Group has a major development in the works immediately west of the site.
Forest Hills Jewish Center has been looking to sell for about 20 years because its space is outdated, deteriorating and expensive to maintain, the Queens Chronicle reported last fall. It is also not wheelchair-accessible.
For purposes of flexibility, the congregation did not want to make the deal an exclusive sale and leaseback, Donovan explained.
“If the timing works for both sides, they would be very interested [in returning to the site],” Donovan added. “They have been there for 100 years and it’s a conservative congregation and so there is no driving on Saturday.”
That means the Jewish center needs a spot where its 400 members can walk to services. Through Donovan, the temple is negotiating a four-year lease a few blocks away. “They will be able to continue their programs,” he said.
The Jewish center’s large buildings include a 1,400-seat sanctuary that is too large for the temple and out of date, given the more intimate way many religious institutions now like to conduct services.
However, the center does aim to save its numerous stained glass windows as well as a 20-foot-high golden ark holding the torahs. “It will be installed in the new space,” Donovan said.
The site also includes a recreation center, senior center and day care. A local preservation group has been advocating for landmark status for the property, which would throw a major wrench into Top Rock’s plans.
The temple did not return a request for comment.
Top Rock knows Forest Hills well. It and SYU Properties and RJ Capital paid $31.7 million last year for the former Parkway Hospital site at 70-35 113th Street. That project is expected to include 236,000 square feet of market-rate rentals and 83,00 square feet of senior affordable housing.
Top Rock also made a major bet in Midtown with the purchase in June of the 139,000 square feet of offices above the Puma store at 609 Fifth Avenue for $100.5 million. It intends to convert the space into high-end condominiums.