MONTREAL – In the face of overwhelming opposition from citizens, Côte St. Luc has withdrawn its earlier support for a Sephardi group’s proposed construction of a synagogue and centre for advanced religious studies.
At its second reading, the city council voted 4-2 against a bylaw amendment that would rezone the land the Fondation Sépharade Kollel Avrechim owns on Mackle Road from residential to institutional, the first step toward enabling it to build a five-storey community centre. In March at first reading, the council passed the bylaw based on preliminary architectural plans submitted by the Fondation.
Mayor Mitchell Brownstein said the city received 162 emails from citizens during a 15-day public consultation, all of them opposed to the project. Another three emails expressed possible support if it was in another location.
The reversal by the council means the opening of a register, which citizens living in or near the area could sign forcing a referendum, as required by provincial law, will not take place.
“We now have a legal obligation to act and not create a false sense or belief that this process can go forward,” said Brownstein, who invited the Fondation to come up with a revised proposal.
The council’s decision concludes another chapter in the Fondation’s quest since 2015 to build its own premises in Côte St. Luc, a majority Jewish suburb of 32,000. Led by Rabbi Yehuda Benoliel, the Fondation was established in the city in the late 1990s and is currently located in a residential dwelling on Parkhaven Avenue.
It says membership is growing and more space is needed.
In 2017, a similar scenario played out when citizens were against the Fondation’s plans to build a smaller centre on another property zoned residential, also on Mackle. The city vowed to help the group find a more suitable location and, in 2019, sold it the current property, which is further away from homes, in front of the public works yard and across from Maimonides Geriatric Centre.
Opponents find the proposed building too large, both in terms of height (79 feet) and the land occupied. There would be no on-site parking and the setback was just six feet from the sidewalk.
Councillor Mike Cohen said during the second reading, held virtually, that, “in my 16 years on council, this has been the most divisive issue I have been involved in.” He regrets that positions have been along denominational lines with four Ashkenazi councillors against and three Sephardi councillors in favour. (The third Sephardi councillor, Oren Sebbag, withdrew from the meeting before the vote.)
Cohen, who had voted for at the first reading, said he switched based on some flaws in the preliminary design, not due to any concern over the growing presence of Orthodox Jews in Côte St. Luc.
“We are lucky to have them in our community…We have a lot of mending to do in our community,” said Cohen, suggesting the council work with the Fondation to “educate our community about who they are and what they do.”
Councillor David Tordjman, who is Sephardi, expressed profound disappointment, deploring “the alarmist rhetoric that the nature of our community will change” every time a new institution is proposed. Tordjman, who is running for mayor in the November election, criticized the city for not acting fairly with the Fondation, which he said has over the past three years “followed every directive” to make its project acceptable.
The result is more places of worship are being established in residential homes, a phenomenon, he charged, that has been “willfully ignored for the last 30 years for fear of making waves or losing votes.”
Dida Berku, one of the two councillors who voted against the bylaw amendment at first reading, reiterated the position she has held since 2017: that the Fondation should agree to relinquish the home it uses on Parkhaven, as well as at least two other properties it now owns elsewhere in Côte St. Luc. These are dwellings in residential zones that are being used as religious institutions or rabbis’ homes and on which no municipal tax is levied, she said.
Brownstein said he plans to introduce a bylaw that will require the institutional owners of all “non-conforming” properties to either succeed in being rezoned or be located to non-residential sites, such as strip malls.