ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s a fair observation that most construction projects have ground to a halt. It’s also fair to note that we live in times of great economic and social uncertainty. However, some building plans continue to move forward, doing what they can now so that they can be ready to put shovels in the ground at a future date. One of those projects is the expansion project for the Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell.

The Chabad Center calls itself “The Heart of Jewish Campus Life.” Open to all Jewish denominations, it serves as a sort of congregational facility for the practicing of Jewish faith activities like prayer services and religious classes, and as a community center for the 3,000 Cornell students of Jewish faith, hosting dining and social events. The center is independently funded and is typically run by a rabbi, a spiritual leader and a religious teacher similar to a priest of a Christian church.

However, the center has found itself struggling to accommodate all of its functions in the 1,700 square-foot space on the main level of its existing home at 102 Willard Way. The 50-person multi-purpose room transitions from sanctuary to dining room to social room during the sabbath, along with meeting space and library functions. The rest of the main level consists of two small kitchens and a smaller multi-purpose room used for childcare space. The second floor and finished attic offer sleeping accommodations for visitors during the sabbath, as well as rabbi and staff offices. They’ve figured out some ingenious ways to convert space quickly to suit their needs, but the need to expand has been on their minds for a while.

About five years ago, the center acquired its next-door neighbor, a rental home at 107 Lake Street, for the long-term goal of expansion space when they were ready. Feasibility studies were carried out two years ago. The time to move forward, if perhaps inopportune in a global context, is now.

The plans, as showcased on the Chabad Center website, would be carried out in two phases. The first phase, which is up for municipal review now, calls for a 140-person dining hall, a commercial kitchen, a classroom and conference room, a second kitchen to prepare Passover holiday meals, a student lounge, a men’s mikvah (a ceremonial bathing room), outdoor deck and ground-level covered parking garage with 10 spaces. The project not only allows for a separation of facilities, it allows more people to be able to attend services, and not be turned away at the door due to safety and capacity issues. The center estimates the costs to fund and maintain the addition at $4.5 million.

The second phase, to be built as funding allows at a later date, would add a fully-functioning synagogue and extensive Judaica library, among other features. Renderings by Jason Demarest, the project’s architect, show a structure with three floors and a circular turret facing the street, but Demarest says those were early plans that have since been scaled back and no longer include the turret.

The design and layout are intended to pay homage to the century-old Tudor-style house next door while also serving the needs of the Chabad Center. A half-timbered facade with slate shingles and extensive brickwork make up the front face of the new structure. As Demarest showed at the Planning Board meeting last month, lighting is designed to partially peer through the brick screening fronting the garage, to give the impression of a window into a residential space. A small addition for the rabbi’s office would also be built onto the existing building.

As one often sees with Cornell and Cornell-affiliated projects, alumni with deep pockets may donate and have facilities named in their honor, including the entire expansion for a $1.8 million donation. If that seems a little steep, the children’s playground can be dedicated for a more modest $100,000.

Unfortunately, the existing home at 107 Lake Street would come down to make way for the expansion, but Demarest stated that the home is free to anyone who wishes to move it to another site. Along with the newly built space, the project incorporates a new driveway, landscaping, lighting and stormwater features. Demarest noted that a concerted effort is being made to preserve mature trees adjacent to the new building’s footprint.

The Planning Board was warm to the proposal, complimenting the use of materials and finding the design respectful to the neighborhood. If approved, the plan is to build the project out over a 12-month period from June 2020 to June 2021.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.