NISKAYUNA -- The Town Board unanimously approved a special use permit for the Holocaust Memorial proposed for 2501 Troy Schenectady Road on Thursday evening.
The 4-0 vote, with Councilman Bill McPartlon absent for a family emergency, represented a victory for Dr. Michael Lozman and members of his group, Capital District Jewish Holocaust Memorial.
"I'm delighted," Lozman told a crowd of media outside Town Hall just after the vote was taken. "It's been a lot of hard work and it's been going now for almost two years and a lot of perseverance.
"But you know, we're doing the right thing," Lozman added. "The project itself has its own personal value, its own intrinsic value. It serves everybody. It's not just a Jewish memorial, its a memorial for all those who have been killed due to hatred and prejudice. So it speaks for everyone."
Lozman first proposed construction of the memorial -- to be located on two acres of land adjacent to Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery donated by Albany's Roman Catholic Diocese -- in November 2017. In March 2018, the project was approved by the town's Planning Board.
The memorial became controversial, with many people speaking for and against it during a public hearing that packed the Niskayuna Town Board's meeting room in April 2018.
The Town Board scheduled a vote on the special use permit four times in 2018 and postponed the vote each time at the applicant's request. Because the space is zoned for residential use, the special use permit was required before the project could move forward.
Lozman and his group later met with members of the Jewish community and, in meetings facilitated by Neil Golub of Price Chopper/Market 32, revised and redesigned the project.
The new memorial design, unveiled in early May, includes a large Star of David-type structure that, after construction, will be about the size of a traffic rotary. Holocaust subjects such as "Names," "Numbers," "Final Solution" and "Never Again" are on the "walls" of the star. Six large, slanted stone towers rise from the center of the Star of David.
Lozman said there is still work ahead.
"The next step is to go back to the architect and get some current figures on the cost of development and then we need to get into the developing of funding for it, then we'll be all on our way," Lozman said.
Lozman, who believes the new design won approval of Capital Region residents, also said working with both the Town Board and Planning Board was an "exceptional" experience.
"They are the most professional group you can imagine," he said. "I am indebted to all of the them, we couldn't have asked for a more satisfying experience, as difficult as it was. Niskayuna should be just very proud of who they have representing them."
Representatives also spoke about the process, as members voted.
"This project and this experience and this process has been extraordinary," said Councilwoman Denise Murphy McGraw, who also thanked Golub for his part in the process. "He was able to put his personal contacts to use, he was able to work with the group and bring in world class designers, world class architects ... and try to make the project something that more people in the community would be supportive of.
"I want to thank the people who invited me into their living rooms and took time to talk to me about their concerns, they meant a great deal to me," McGraw said. "I wanted to hear from everyone and what they really cared about, what they liked about it, what they didn't like it."
McGraw also was pleased that everyone involved in the hearings respected one another. During the April 2018 hearing, she said, no matter what someone said, they received applause. "It was one of our finest moments," she said.
Supervisor Yasmine Syed said she was grateful for the pause the memorial committee took during 2018 into 2019. "They didn't have to take it, they didn't have to take as long a pause as they did," she said, "but the members did so with the intention they wanted to present the town and the residents with something that was truly remarkable."
Councilwoman Lisa Weber said she voted "yes" because Lozman and his group met and exceeded the requirements of the special use permit as outlined in town code.
"The applicant actively participated with our conservation and tree councils and Planning Board and having addressed setback and drainage issues, parking and bathrooms," Weber said. "Extensive plans for foliage were made and remade in order to screen the memorial from busy Route 7 and from neighbors who understandably want to keep their treed view a treed view."
Councilman John Della Ratta said he was proud to be a member of the community, proud to have the community's religious leaders and proud to have Niskayuna's community and neighborhood leaders.
"This particular project does deserve a special use permit," Della Ratta said, "but it's the process that we've got here I think we should all be very proud of. And I want all our residents to know that this Town Board has considered all the options that all these people have spoken about."
Niskayuna and Capital Region residents spoke for and against the revised project during two well-attended forums held May 15 and May 22. People in attendance at Thursday's meeting -- there were at least a dozen empty chairs in the 100-seat room seat -- used the meeting's "privilege of the floor" session to make their final points.
Eleven people spoke during a 40-minute privilege session. Five were for the project, five spoke against; one did not offer an opinion.
Among the statements:
* Marina Franchild of Dean Street said she did not like the original project, but loves the revised version. "Just looking at it makes my heart soar, it makes me feel what I'm supposed to feel. I think it's a beautiful memorial," she said.
Franchild also said she believes the Most Holy Redeemer location and gift of donated land represents a reconciliation between the Catholic church and the Jewish community.
She believes the memorial group should be responsible for security at the site. "There's just not enough manpower for the Niskayuna Police Department to protect the memorial," she said. "I know there will be vandalism, I have no doubt."
* Dr. Paul Uppal, founder and trustee of the Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple in Niskayuna, also supported the memorial. "We applaud the town for not holding one, but two public hearings," he said, adding that visitors who tour the memorial will come to realize that hate, bigotry and intolerance must not be repeated.
* Charles Lester of Troy Schenectady Road said his mother always fought to keep the street residential. He said he fears that with the approved special use permit, other town-sanctioned changes could now happen on Troy Schenectady.
* Margaret Wexler echoed Lester's comments. "We want our neighborhood to remain residential," she said.
* Neil Golub answered people who talked about a change in location, a place where Holocaust Memorial and education programs could be taught. He said the community already has those programs.
"I haven't heard one Niskayuna resident talk about the education programs we already have in our schools," he said. "The programs are outstanding, it's time Niskayuna residents stood up and found out what's going on because too many don't."
Memorial planners must return to the Planning Board for final site plan approval. Town Planner Laura Robertson said Lozman and his representatives could be back on the Planning Board agenda by July.
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]