2016-10-05 / Front Page

CB 2 Holds Forum On Woodside Church Expansion

By Thomas Cogan
A community information forum sponsored by Community Board 2 met at St. Sebastian’s Parish Center in Woodside last week to argue about the plans of another church several blocks away at 68-03 Roosevelt Avenue.  The Universal Church Inc., an American branch of a church based in Brazil, has submitted an application to the Board of Standards & Appeals for a variance that would permit it to build a larger and higher church building than the one that stands at that address right now.  The church’s case was bolstered by a model of the proposed new building and several illustrations showing how it would fit amidst its surroundings.  Included in those surroundings are the elevated No. 7 train tracks, several business structures and, as was made quite plain at the meeting, a neighborhood of residents. 

Most prominent of them is a Filipino community called Little Manila, though Latinos, Irish and others have their shares in the community also.  Many of those community residents showed up to resist the proposal, which they said would produce a monstrous building that would for various reasons worsen life for all those living near it.  The information forum is expected to be followed by another version of the proposal and the protest, at November’s C.B. 2 meeting and the BSA meeting, which will probably occur early next year.

Official language says that the applicant, Universal Church, seeks development of a five-story building, with a maximum height of 79 feet, which would include three valet parking decks and 10 rectory facilities, containing 67,172 square feet of floor area.  Eric Palatnik, attorney for the church, attempted to allay those who came to protest by saying that the proposed building’s dimensions were no greater than, and indeed were far smaller, than those of St. Sebastian’s buildings (including a church that was formerly a movie theatre and a school, rectory and parish center).  Most persons in the audience were quite unmoved by that, some saying the St. Sebastian’s buildings were built when there was more room in the general area, while the proposed project would be built amidst a settled neighborhood that would be adversely affected by its greater height. It would literally overshadow the lower buildings around it, they said.

Palatnik said the new building would be built on what he called a “useless” parking lot behind the current church building, the back end of which stands close to Roosevelt Avenue while the entrance faces that parking lot of doubtful worth.  He said the church could be rebuilt where it now stands as-of-right, meaning that it could built just as large as the proprietors want it to be, the way it would be as a new building set back from Roosevelt Avenue.  But built as-of-right, it would still suffer proximity to the rattle of the No. 7 elevated train on Roosevelt that shakes and bothers the current church and its members.  In order to build on available church land, however, the church would need that variance, to nullify current zoning that limits the height of any new building to 45 feet if it is not being built as-of-right.  Given the variance, Universal Church leaders could build a new home that would be as much as 79 feet high at its tallest point and 66 feet at another.  It would front on 69th Street, away from Roosevelt Avenue, which would presumably give building and congregants peaceful relief from the No. 7 elevated.  Where the old church had stood there would be a few surface parking spaces and an entrance to an underground garage with 150 parking spaces, on three levels and with valet parking for church visitors if that particular promise were kept.  Palatnik said the garage could be open to the neighborhood for parking whenever the church didn’t need to use it.  He added that some neighboring buildings rise fairly high themselves (65 feet or thereabout), if not so high as a church with a small section rising to 79 feet.  And he said the 900-member congregation would largely come in from outside for worship and then depart, not adding to local crowdedness. In response, some said they were not fond of accommodating such a large number of religious commuters.

When the pastor of Unification Church, David Messina, called a congregant or two to the front to testify how the church had aided them to overcome drug and alcohol addiction or clinical depression, one man in the audience said they should sign the speakers’ list, the way he and others had to.  One of those sign-ups got his turn and things turned accusatory, as he said the church practices an acquisitive “prosperity gospel” that is “disgusting” and “exploitative.”  He said everyone should study the church’s record, apparently on the internet.  Another charged it with fiscal malfeasance and yet another said that during its 20 years in the neighborhood it has improved nothing.  A last protester said if construction of the new church is permitted, the neighborhood could expect three or so years of disruption by builders in its streets.

One the other hand, some complained about construction as a denied opportunity.  Peter Corrigan, a carpenters’ union man, said it was evident that union labor was being excluded from the project, and that there was further evidence of the church’s bad employment record.  He was followed by Michael Donnelly, who wanted a description of those who would be hired.  Palatnik said bids had not been put out yet.

One speaker from the Philippine faction said that Little Manila and the smaller ethnic settlements represent “what America’s about” and shouldn’t be threatened by forced change.  She was followed by a woman who brought up gentrification, saying that Unification advanced the “benign” cause of religion and concealed its true plans of real estate development.  But another protester said the large new church was a “fortress” that would actually condemn the neighborhood to a state of decline, where there would be no prospect for improvement.

With most of the audience very much against the church’s project, the steady assault went on, with Palatnik and the church group mainly defending themselves against charges of dishonesty or all sorts of malign intent.  More of that is surely what can be expected when again they clash at the Community Board 2 meeting, Thursday, November 3.  The board will probably vote on the matter then and that decision will be presented for the Bureau of Standards & Appeals’ consideration some time thereafter.

  

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