The College Park City Council approved the detailed site plan Tuesday for a new Hillel cultural center in the Old Town neighborhood, marking the next step in a project that has been in the works for more than five years.
Maryland Hillel is a Jewish campus organization that connects University of Maryland students to Kosher dining plans, religious services and student organizations.
The new 39,105-square-foot Hillel cultural center will be on Yale Avenue, next to Fraternity Row and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. The site, which is currently a parking lot, previously housed this university’s police headquarters and was used for Hillel services in the 1970s.
The current Hillel building, a 16,700-square-foot center on Mowatt Lane, is too small to maintain all of the programs hosted inside the building, according to Hillel finance and operations director Shawn Laing.
“We’re so confined with our space that we have now,” Laing said.
This university and Hillel are doing a “land swap” for the new site, exchanging the university-owned parking lot land for the current Hillel location, Laing told The Diamondback.
According to the detailed site plan, the new two-story Hillel building will include a main dining area, kitchen areas in compliance with Kosher dietary standards, a café open to the public, lounge areas and a vegetable garden. Multi-purpose rooms and flex spaces will also exist for religious services, prayer rooms and recreational facilities.
The city council approved the detailed site plan Tuesday without any significant recommendations.
Senior journalism major Judith Altneu goes to Hillel almost every week for Friday night religious services and dinner. Altneu said she is looking forward to the expanded Hillel space, because the current building becomes very packed on Fridays when multiple religious services happen at once.
“The lobby can be really full and hard to move around,” Altneu said.
Stephanie Fishkin, a junior public policy and sociology major, said she feels grateful to have an active Hillel on campus after growing up in an area with few Jewish students in her grade. Hillel has allowed her to feel supported and feel engaged in her Jewish identity, Fishkin said.
“I think we have so much engagement at Hillel and it would be great to have a space to spread out more and really support the awesome clubs that we have in student organizations,” she said.
The new Hillel building will require about 14 months of construction, Laing estimated. The new space could open by fall of 2025 if the project is fully approved to begin construction by May or June, according to Laing.
Construction on a new Hillel building was supposed to begin in 2019 but was delayed to 2021 because of the “time it took to design the building, get plans approved and secure funding for construction,” The Diamondback reported at the time. In November 2022, Hillel announced that a new building would open in fall 2024.
Despite progress on the detailed site plan, approval hurdles still lie in the way. The building must be approved by county authorities before construction can proceed.
The Old Town College Park Historic District Local Advisory Committee discussed the new Hillel building in an Oct. 25 meeting and determined that the current plan does not align with the historic district’s “design compatibility standards.”
The new plans for the building include a white exterior with dark gray metal accents — colors that some council members and historical district committee members said divert from the neighborhood’s traditional brick structures.
The committee previously met with Hillel in 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the Old Town advisory committee approved a similar site plan for a new Hillel building, but the building was slated to have a red brick, metal and glass facade.
The local advisory committee voted last month to support the new building plans on the conditions that Hillel looks into changing the facade of the building and investigate the possibility of preserving a maple tree on the property.
The city council also approved a prior iteration of the detailed site plan in 2018.
But Hillel ran into funding issues during the pandemic, according to the organization’s attorney Larry Taub. Because detailed site plan approvals only last for three years, Hillel had to go through the approval process again this year, Taub said.
It might have been worth the wait, Taub said.
“We’ve redesigned the building [to] what we think is even a better design, and it’s something that’s going to be really enjoyed by the University of Maryland community,” Taub said.
During a Nov. 7 work session, several city council members echoed the Old Town committee, sharing concerns that the building would not blend into the Old Town neighborhood. Council members also voiced opposition to the small number of planned parking spots and the removal of a large tree on the property.
Laing said during the work session that Hillel, students and alumni chose the new color and design ideas purposefully to make those features most welcoming to community members who provided feedback.
District 3 council member John Rigg cautioned fellow council members about drawing out discussions on building aesthetics during the work session.
“I’ve seen this council and prior iterations, before many of us were here, go deep down the road of dictating aesthetics on building materials and architecture and I just I don’t think it’s a productive use of time,” Rigg said.
Rigg said he believes the new building, along with the existing St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, will create a “nice religious hub” for students and residents in Old Town.
“I think it will serve our student residents a lot better than kind of having Hillel stuck way out onto the west side of campus would be,” Rigg told The Diamondback. “It’s a project that I’m excited about.”
With the city council’s approval of the detailed site plan, the Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission will review the plan on Nov. 21. This committee will consider recommendations from the city’s Old Town advisory committee and council.
The project will then be presented to the Prince George’s County Planning Board, which will consider recommendations by the county historic preservation commission and city council.
If approved by the planning board, Hillel will develop construction plans and apply for city and county construction permits.