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Westwood rejects B’nai El-Miriam Academy deal

B'nai El building in 2019

The Village of Westwood trustees voted June 4 to reject an application to rezone the former B’nai El property for use by the Miriam Academy, a private high school for students with learning disabilities.  

The decision stalls and could kill property ownerCongregation Shaare Emeth’s sale of the property to the Miriam Foundation, which operates the school and has Jewish roots.

“I think the community is super disappointed by this,” said Andrew Thorp, executive director of the Miriam Foundation. “We think we would have made a great neighbor and certainly a great community asset and ultimately a great fit for us in terms of operating a school there.”

According to residents, the trustees voted 3-2 against the proposal. The Westwood trustees either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.  

Part of the property is in Frontenac, whose City Council has approved Miriam’s permit request.

After an April meeting to consider the proposal, Fred Berger, the chairman of the Westwood Board of Trustees, said that the owners of B’nai El, 11411 N. Forty Drive, violated its residential zoning by leasing parts of the building to a number of different schools and by storing cars for a nearby dealership. 

In addition to serving as a synagogue, the building has been used by schools for Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran and deaf students. 

Also in April, Berger wrote in letter to Westwood residents that the owner of B’nai El also stored cars for Frontenac Honda “in violation of Westwood’s ordinances, and did not inform the Village about this, and the Village accidentally found about this illegal use.”

Berger told the Light that the property “has been used illegally for some period of time now without proper permits from the Village of Westwood, so there has been a disregard and disrespect with respect to our ordinances by the owners of that facility, and that is something that concerns me. I don’t know why you reward somebody for bad behavior. But in any event, I’m going to look at all the factors.”

Mike Lefton, Shaare Emeth’s president, said of Berger’s charges last month: “I can’t comment on the validity of any of that. I also don’t see the relevance of that to the issue at hand, which is the use of the property by Miriam.”

The Miriam Foundation’s Thorp told the Light after the trustees’  votethat the school had “overwhelming support from the residents” of Westwood. 

Jim Graham has lived next to the B’nai El property for about five years and liked the Miriam proposal. 

He and his wife “felt that the school has a wonderful reputation. They do great work, and it’s a small private high school. … No athletic fields, no late-night meetings. No late-night lighting on the parking area. No school buses,” Graham said.

Graham, who is not connected to the Miriam Foundation, and Susie Luten, the president of the foundation who does not live in the village, visited 16 or 17 homes around the property in May, he said. Graham said he did not hear any comments from residents in opposition to the proposal at Westwood meetings. He said all of the residents he spoke with — except for one individual — “were immediately favorable” to the Miriam Academy plans.  

“Voters in Westwood elect trustees to represent them, and here we have got some trustees that are not representing the people at all,” Graham said. “They are directly opposed.”

In the April letter to Westwood residents, Berger outlined his list of concerns about Miriam’s proposed use of the property. 

He cited a nearby planned St. Louis County Library development and the Miriam school and stated that the projects have the “potential to have a substantial and adverse impact on local traffic.”

Thorp and Lefton both said they thought trustees rejected the proposal because they want the property to be used for homes. 

But after a developer reached an agreement with Shaare Emeth to purchase the property in 2017, Westwood did not approve a rezoning that would have allowed the developer to build homes on lots smaller than an acre.

Graham said he likes the Miriam proposal better than previous efforts to build homes on the property.  

Lefton, asked whether Shaare Emeth was considering legal action against Westwood, said, “We’re exploring all of our options.

“Hopefully we can find a way through this, but we need to kind of step back and explore what our options are,” said Lefton, whose congregation has owned the property since it merged with B’nai El in 2016.

Thorp said the foundation is looking at other possible locations for the school, which operates in Parkway United Church of Christ in Town and Country. The foundation would like to expand the school to 120 students from 55 and open in a new location for the 2020-2021 school year. 

One destination could be the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy campus, 1138 N. Warson Road, Thorp said. That school listed its property for sale last year and has announced that it plans to move into University City. 

“We have been looking at a number of different locations, so we have done some preliminary examination of [Epstein], so nothing is final,” Thorp said. “We are starting from scratch again.” 

He said the foundation is not considering legal action against Westwood.

Still, he said, “We certainly don’t feel like we were treated very well.”