Councilman Corey O’Connor moderated a contentious communal meeting at the JCC in Squirrel Hill last week, fielding questions over proposed changes to Hillel Academy’s campus.
Specifically, efforts to modernize the school and accommodate a growing student body will alter both the Beacon Street and Bartlett Street portions of the campus. Construction facilitating a new science laboratory and gymnasium will elevate the Beacon Street side of the main building while either demolition or restoration of an adjacent building — the former Congregation Kether Torah — will facilitate a new boys’ high school on the Bartlett Street side of the campus. Additionally, efforts to improve traffic conditions near Hillel Academy’s Beacon Street entrance will be made, according to plans revealed at the meeting.
The gathering included remarks from Joel Aaronson, a partner at Reed Smith; Dan Rothschild, founder and CEO of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, an architecture and urban design firm located in Pittsburgh; Bartlett Street residents; Hillel Academy parents; and Ray Baum, president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. Aaronson and Rothschild, who are both working with Hillel Academy, provided an overview and illustrations of the proposed renovations.
While O’Connor ensured an amicable discussion, a diversity of opinions was shared by attendees. During his presentation, Aaronson emphasized that planners had the best interests of students at heart.
“We have to do what is best for the school,” he said. “This is important for the health of the school — this isn’t [just] some nice thing. We need to educate the students in a first- class way. What we’re proposing allows us to do so in a rational way.”
Rothschild echoed that point and noted, “We’re not adding to the footprint, [we’re] increasing traffic flow, doubling parking capabilities, modernizing a great Squirrel Hill institution.”
Several attendees, who identified themselves as Bartlett Street residents, took issue with Hillel Academy’s proposal. One woman claimed that she would prefer to see the boys’ high school, which is currently housed in the JCC, relocate somewhere other than on Bartlett Street. Another accused the school of having a poor maintenance record at the Bartlett Street building.
Proponents of the plan countered by citing the school’s leadership and its commitment to ensuring a clean and properly maintained facility. To those who claimed that a school on a residential block would lower property values, Aaronson noted the abundance of schools within the city’s residential blocks, including the Linden School, Colfax School and Pittsburgh Allderdice High School.
“The notion of having schools in residential areas is not foreign,” said Aaronson. “It’s part of the fabric of the city of Pittsburgh.”
Calling Hillel Academy “an essential part of the community,” Ray Baum, president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, took a nuanced approach in his remarks.
“We believe that schools improve property values,” he said. “We believe that the Orthodox Jewish community has a hugely important role in Squirrel Hill.”
Baum praised the Jewish community’s efforts to support the city of Pittsburgh.
“The Jewish community invested over $50 million in the community 20 years ago,” he said. It “intentionally kept institutions in the city of Pittsburgh. It keeps children, families and seniors in the city.”
Moving forward, Aaronson explained that Hillel Academy will flesh out its plans, create a more finished product and make an application to appear before the zoning board. Once the hearing is scheduled, the zoning board will listen to the issues presented and determine whether to approve Hillel Academy’s submission, which Aaronson emphasized will conform to current zoning requirements.
“We can work out agreements that protect everybody’s interest,” Baum said. “The best thing is to try and work
together to reach a consensus.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.