At a public meeting on Aug. 9, some Village of Westwood residents as well as advocates for the Miriam Foundation spoke up to clarify what they saw as inaccurate statements by Fred Berger, chairman of the Village of Westwood board of trustees.
For months, the Miriam Foundation had negotiated with Westwood to try to obtain a permit to rezone the former Congregation B’nai El property, invest $5 million in a renovation and use it for a high school for students with learning disabilities.
But Berger and two other trustees ultimately voted in June to reject the permit request.
At the meeting on Friday, Berger, an attorney, said that before he voted to reject the proposal, he had concerns about Miriam taking ownership of the property because a lawyer for the nonprofit “started talking about selling the property within a couple years of building it.”
“No, he didn’t,” said Laurie Caro, a Westwood resident and past president of the Miriam Foundation. “That never happened and you know it.”
“You want to tell me I’m not telling you the truth?” Berger asked at the meeting at Frontenac City Hall.
“Yes,” Caro said.
This was one example of numerous disagreements over the accuracy of Berger’s public statements during months of discussion among representatives for Miriam, Westwood and Congregation Shaare Emeth — which in 2016 merged with B’nai El and took ownership of the property.
The property now sits vacant without a new owner.
“Miriam has moved on, and as a resident, I’m moving forward,” Caro told the Jewish Light. “It did cost Miriam a lot of time and money, and that’s a big deal for a nonprofit, but I’m here as a Westwood resident and the property is still a concern. We want to see what needs to be done next.”
Berger declined to answer questions from the Light.
Months before the trustees voted, they sent a survey on the Miriam proposal to residents of Westwood, which has a population of 278, according to the 2010 Census. The Village of Westwood is centered around a country club with a predominantly Jewish membership.
In the survey, Berger asked residents whether they supported the Miriam high school development or an option for 10 single family, unattached homes. Residents could also vote for both options or neither. A majority stated that they supported the Miriam deal, according to documents obtained from Westwood through an open records request.
After the survey had been sent, Miriam Foundation President Susie Luten sent a letter to the Westwood trustees questioning why they had included an option for single family homes in the survey when the proposal before the trustees was to consider a petition for the high school.
Shaare Emeth and the Miriam Foundation had already reached an agreement to sell the property, which sits in both Westwood and the City of Frontenac, pending approval from the two municipalities.
“We believe it is not appropriate to suggest to residents that there is currently a choice between a high school and a development of single family homes,” Luten wrote.
Berger responded by stating in an email to Andrew Thorp, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, that Berger had been approached by a “third party regarding the residential use of the property.”
But in 2017, when a home developer reached an agreement with Shaare Emeth to purchase the property, Westwood did not approve a rezoning that would have allowed the developer to build homes on lots smaller than an acre.
In a letter attached to the survey, Berger also only used bold text for one sentence: “The City of Frontenac’s Planning [and Zoning] Commission believes the traffic may be a problem and has recommended that the Frontenac Board of Alderman not approve the Miriam School Development until all facts are known.”
That was also inaccurate, Luten stated in her letter to the trustees.
The Frotenac planning and zoning commission had yet to hold any meetings on the Miriam proposal and had not made any recommendations to the board of aldermen. The day after Luten sent the letter, the Frontenac commission unanimously approved a permit for the Miriam school to use the property.
This was not the first time the property was to have been used as a school. Since 1989, the B’nai El building has been used by schools for Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran and deaf students. It has been vacant since 2012.
“It seemed like it was an appropriate usage; it would be less volume than when it was a synagogue,” said Frontenac Mayor Kate Hatfield, who said the board of aldermen would have approved the proposal had Westwood supported it.
Despite the Miriam Foundation’s concerns with the survey, a majority of respondents on two occasions — an initial survey and then a revised one following the Luten letter — said they supported the Miriam proposal. In the second survey, 51 households responded; 27 said they were in favor of the Miriam development and another three said they were in favor of either the Miriam development or 10 single family homes.
At the meeting last week, Berger said that he never released the survey results “because Miriam complained it wasn’t objective. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.”
Thorp said there were no plans to resell the Miriam property, as Berger had said, but rather only if, “God forbid,” the high school failed in 10 or 15 years.
“I don’t believe the mayor, [Berger], ever had any intention of allowing the school to be there,” Thorp said.
The Miriam Foundation, an organization with Jewish roots, has since found a different home for its high school: the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy property in Olivette. The deal has not been finalized but Thorp said, “The great part about it is there is actually a municipality that is welcoming us. Zoning should not be an issue for us as we move forward as it’s already a school.”
As for Westwood and B’nai El, at the meeting last week, the trustees discussed adjusting the boundary line to move the property entirely into the City of Frontenac.
That would allow Barry Simon, whose proposal was rejected by the trustees in 2017, to build homes on lots of less than one acre without Westwood having to adjust its ordinance.
The trustees and Frontenac have not started discussion of such a proposal.
Hatfield, the Frontenac mayor, said “it’s not something that has been presented to the city. I think it would depend what the terms are.”
Berger, meanwhile, pushed back at the meeting against Caro’s assertion that he was not telling the truth. “I have little left of my word and my reputation, and I’m not going to be called a liar,” he said.