Residents of Bartlett Street and supporters of Hillel Academy gathered in the first-floor conference room of the John C. Robin Civic Building at 200 Ross St. to present evidence regarding Hillel Academy’s proposed facility changes.
At issue was a second-story addition to an existing two-story school structure located at 5685 Beacon St. and a review of two options to utilize property at 5706 Bartlett St. for elementary and limited secondary school use.
Minimal discussion was held regarding the Beacon Street property. Conversely, impassioned dialogue surrounded the Bartlett Street utilization.
Renderings, photographs and testimony were offered to the Zoning Board, both in support of and opposition to alterations to the building located on Bartlett Street. That property, which is owned by Hillel Academy and formerly housed Congregation Kether Torah, is at the heart of a neighborhood dispute.
Since 1957, Congregation Kether Torah utilized the Bartlett Street property as a synagogue. In 1994, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh purchased the Bartlett Street property, which happens to abut its Beacon Street campus. After purchasing the property, Hillel Academy permitted Kether Torah to continue use of the building. Around 1994, Hillel Academy relocated its Boys High School from the Beacon Street campus. Citing “space and other considerations” as reasons for the move, attorney Joel Aaronson of Reed Smith explained to the zoning board that while Hillel’s Boys High School students now reside in the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center, they had spent the past 20 years virtually “wandering in the desert.”
Dan Kraut, Hillel Academy’s CEO, informed the board that operating disparate campuses creates logistical and financial constraints. Specifically, by relocating the Boys High School to the Bartlett Street building from the JCC, Hillel Academy can centralize its students. This move would allow Boys High School students access to Beacon Street campus facilities and limit teachers to one campus as opposed to shuttling during the day throughout Squirrel Hill.
Despite Hillel Academy’s desire for centralization, several residents of Bartlett Street expressed concerns. Fears of increased noise and traffic, reduced street-parking availability and property devaluations were all expressed. Several residents called Hillel a “bad neighbor” and cited a “history of neglect” by presenting photographs of unshoveled walkways and references to poorly maintained landscaping and lack of trash removal.
Outside of the municipal building, after the hearing, Aaronson acknowledged Hillel Academy’s prior reluctance to invest in the Bartlett Street property and cited the futility of putting money into a building that would ultimately be renovated.
While numerous Bartlett Street residents raised concerns over Hillel Academy’s prior behavior and future intentions, attorney Alice Mitinger, of Cohen & Grigsby and chair of the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment, reminded attendees of a special exception within the municipal code permitting schools limited uses within residential areas.
Aaronson maintained that Hillel Academy met the exception enumerated by 911.04.A.63 of Pittsburgh’s municipal code.
Ray Baum, president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, agreed and informed the board that SHUC unanimously supported Hillel Academy’s proposal.
“I think it’s pretty clear they meet the requirements. That’s why we support it,” said Baum after the hearing.
Whether Hillel Academy satisfies the municipal code’s special exception should be determined within 45 days, according to Mitinger.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.