Sunday, September 7, 2008

Waterbury, CT - Neighbors Of Waterbury Yeshiva Complain Of Campus Neglect

Waterbury, CT -- Seven years after the city signed a 50-year contract giving a group of Orthodox Jews planning on establishing a Yeshiva the rights to use the former University of Connecticut campus, neighbors of the campus say they have not lived up to their end of the bargain.

Leaders of the Hillside Neighborhood Association say the Yeshiva has failed to bring enough Jewish families into the neighborhood, has allowed its properties to deteriorate and has failed to maintain the once-grand Benedict-Miller house. The neighborhood association has asked the city to review and enforce the 2001 contract that leased the former UConn properties to the Yeshiva. The request will go before the Board of Aldermen on Monday.

When the University of Connecticut moved out of the Hillside neighborhood, seven buildings on eight acres of land comprising the old school were rented out by the city to the Waterbury Tamuldic Institute. The Yeshiva Gedolah moved into the former campus. The yeshiva promised to maintain the buildings and grounds of the old campus, and move at least 100 families into the city. At least a third of them would live in the Hillside neighborhood within seven years. In addition, a committee was to be formed to advise on the care and maintenance of the Benedict Miller House at 32 Hillside Ave., the 22-room Victorian house built by Charles Benedict, a brass mogul.

Leaders of the neighborhood group were not happy to see UConn go, but were hopeful that their concerns about campus maintenance and neighborhood in general would be addressed in the contract between the Tamuldic Institute and the city, which the group helped draft. But seven years later, empty buildings owned by the Yeshiva pepper the neighborhood. Several are falling into disrepair. And neighbors say there is no communication with the Yeshiva.

Yeshiva representatives declined to comment. "I have no comment on what they had to say," R’ Shalom Siegfried, vice president of the yeshiva, said.

Mayoral aide Steve Gambini said the city has no complaints about the yeshiva's compliance with the 2001 agreement. "We feel comfortable that the yeshiva has held their end of the bargain," Gambini said. Up until now, no one has been responsible for enforcing the contract, he said.

According to the contract, the city was supposed to get $60,000 plus a 3 percent increase each a year, for the former UConn campus of seven buildings on eight acres at the heart of historic Hillside neighborhood. The Yeshiva has paid its rent, Gambini said.

Nowhere near 33 families have moved in, said Joe Reynolds of the Hillside Neighborhood Association. On a recent tour of the neighborhood, he pointed to one home occupied by a young Jewish family near the school and a half a dozen empty houses, many owned by the Yeshiva. The empty houses once were used to house Yeshiva students, but the use of the buildings as dormitories violated city zoning laws, and the students were moved to a former hotel. Some of the houses have started to fall into disrepair. Reynolds pointed out a sagging roof on the entryway of one. Two used tires stood on each side of the entryway.

In a 2006 interview, R’ Siegfried said that about 120 families have moved into the Hillside and Overlook neighborhoods. The school, which had about 90 students in 2001, has grown to about 300 kindergarten to college level students. Waterbury’s Jewish community is building new homes and a shul in a 54-lot subdivision off Boyden Street.

City records show that the Yeshiva Gedolah owns 10 properties on Hillside, Pine and Buckingham streets, including the hotel used for student housing at 133 Pine St. All buildings except for part of the hotel used by students are on the city's tax rolls.

One building that is part of the campus is of particular concern to the neighborhood. Shep Wild, who lives next door to the Benedict-Miller mansion, said the building is one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the country and the "greatest historic building" in the city. But the building, which was renovated just before UConn moved out, is wearing signs of neglect, with plants growing from gutters and exterior woodwork that is starting to rot. Wild said a clause in the contract that calls for a committee made up of members of both the Yeshiva and the neighborhood needs to be enforced to make sure the Benedict Miller house is maintained.

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