January 19, 2006
Zoning Snafus Keep New JCC Empty
Flashback to last fall, the opening ceremony of YESOD, a first-of-its-kind Jewish community center in the heart of St. Petersburg. This three-story modern stone-and-glass building -- built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors -- was pitched by the JDC as the new heart of the St. Petersburg community.
Now, four months after the impressive opening ceremony that brought together JDC leadership from New York and Israel, North American donors and local community leaders, the center is fully built -- but stands empty.
The center is also the focus of criticism from some of its would-be occupants, who say that they haven't been kept in the loop about planning the center from the beginning, that its opening has been delayed and that they are unsure about when they will be able to move in.
For its part, the JDC says that the delays are a result of bureaucratic snafus in obtaining zoning approval, and that it plans to move local Jewish organizations into the building later this month. JDC also wants to make the building economically self-sufficient; sources suggest that the project has stalled because JDC is also looking for commercial tenants to help achieve this goal.
YESOD, a bright and open space, is similar to state-of-the-art JCCs in cities across North America. It has space to house half a dozen Jewish organizations, a gym, a concert hall and a kosher cafe.
Although hailed as a landmark space uniting under one roof many Jewish organizations that have been scattered around the city, the center was received with mixed feelings by community leaders.
At the time, some criticized the JDC for organizing the center from afar and of not bringing the local bodies into the organizational process.
When the center held its ceremony, with Jewish federation guests from North America in attendance, its administration hoped that it would be ready for operation by the end of the year at the latest.
But the center is still not open.
"Everything has stalled and it is not certain when and how we are going to move," said Leonid Kolton, director of St. Petersburg's Hesed Avraham welfare center, which provides food and other services to Jewish elderly.
The JDC-run Hesed Avraham gave up some of its space in anticipation of the September move -- space that it will need in its more active winter months. Hillel's predicament is more serious: the student group's lease is ending at the end of the month.
In an e-mail message, Jonathan Porath, JDC's country director for Russia, said Hillel will move into the JCC before the end of the month.
But according to Leonid Smirnov, director of JDC in St. Petersburg, the finished building is still going through the lengthy process of receiving final approval from the zoning commission.
Local Jewish organizations should be able to move in at the end of January and "general activity" in the building should begin in the late winter or early spring, Porath said. Meanwhile, the amount that local groups will be expected to pay in rent is still unclear.
There are indications that the nonprofit tenants, St. Petersburg Jewish organizations, will need to pay rent for space in YESOD to cover its costly maintenance. Local Jewish leaders worry that the groups will be expected to pay commercial rates that some organizations cannot afford.
Smirnov says such criticisms and fears are unwarranted because most of the organizations relocating to YESOD are funded by the JDC and thus the JDC would just be paying itself.
"We are not interested in transferring money from one of our pockets to another," he said.
Financial details are still being worked, out, JDC's Porath said. According to Leonid Kolton, the overall situation puts a stain on JDC's image and could even damage the structure of the Jewish community.
The JDC's Smirnov says any large-scale operation spanning almost four years and involving the transfer of many organizations to a newly constructed building will inevitably run into difficulties and complications.
Added Joshua Berkman, a JDC spokesman: "JDC and its partners built YESOD to serve as a first-class facility where Jewish life in St. Petersburg can continue to flourish. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure the organizations that are driving this historic Jewish rebirth can make YESOD their home."