2016-12-07 / Front Page

CB 2 Holds December Meeting

By Thomas Cogan

The December 1 meeting of Community Board 2 began at 6:30 p.m. and, it was announced, subsequent meetings will also begin at that time and not the old one, 7:00, so board members and others in attendance can go home at a reasonable hour.  That consideration was severely tested from the start, as December’s meeting, being either as long as any other or longer than most, lasted until 10:00.  One might have known  that would happen, since the Universal Church, 68-03 Roosevelt Ave., was in its final appearance before Board 2 or any of its  committees and had brought in so many of its congregants to speak and support its cause that there was barely room for the board and other attendees.

There were enough of them to prompt Debbie Markell-Kleinert, the board’s district manager, to warn them that the meeting might be in violation of the city’s fire and police department safety regulations.  Having decided that the room at Sunnyside Community Services was at capacity, she stopped further entrance but left dozens of church supporters and comparatively few critics in place on both sides of the room. 

Everyone knew in advance that the board was not going to vote that evening on accepting or rejecting the Universal Church’s building plan but would delay it until January.  At the December meeting it would simply hear one last round of testimony from the church and opponents of the building plan, though the latter was numerically overwhelmed by the church’s spokespersons and its cheering members.  Lead speaker for the church was Eric Palatnik, a representative attorney who wanted to show that the church’s expansion program, involving the razing of the current building which stands close to Roosevelt Avenue and replacing it with a new one built on vacant property closer to 38th Avenue, south of Roosevelt, would not result in a high, monolithic structure overshadowing the local community as critics are saying it would.

The charge from critics is that the highest building height in the immediate vicinity of the current church is 40 feet and that the proposed structure would be twice as high, with its highest point being 79 feet.  Palatnik said the 79-foot height would apply to just one-third of the building, with the other two-thirds being 69 feet or shorter.  While that would be much higher than 40 feet, he said there are other buildings not much farther away that are 70 feet in height, so the church wouldn’t stand out disproportionately.  Its proposed square footage, 67,172, would be little more than half the 125,480 s.f. it would be allowed if building as of right closer to Roosevelt.

The church has submitted plans to the community for building the new church, has already acted on suggested moderations and might act on further ones.  Ultimately the plan will be submitted to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which will rule on the church’s application for a variance to allow the new building to go up mainly on the southern segment of church property, close to 38th Avenue.  There, zoning differing from that of the northern segment would prohibit construction of any building higher than 40 feet.  The variance would allow building as high as is allowed as of right in the northern segment, i.e., 79 feet.  Building away from Roosevelt Avenue, church officials and representatives say, would spare both the new church and its congregants the disruptive force of noise and vibration provided by the No. 7 elevated trains running along Roosevelt.

A thick, profusely illustrated handout showed the new church as it would look, its entrance facing 69th Street.  Where the current church stands, a plaza would be built at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 69th Street.  Palatnik said it would greatly beautify what is now a walled-off stretch between church and avenue.  Architect Mothusi P. Phometsi said that he “couldn’t think of a better design than what we’ve got here” and boasted that there wouldn’t be a better-looking building in Woodside.  Sam Vargas of the board asked if the church would be built by union labor and Phometsi replied that the matter hasn’t been decided yet.  Carol Terrano of the board asked how many of the congregants lived in Woodside and the architect told her three quarters of them.  Terrano, a Woodside resident, said she could not recall seeing anyone present in the room out on the local streets.

Palatnik returned, to bring up RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, whose purpose, he and the handout said, was to “ensure that zoning laws do not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justifications pursued through the least restrictive means. . . .” 

Any conflict between RLUIPA and a zoning code or how it is applied must be concluded in accordance with this federal civil rights law, the attorney said.  Joseph Conley, board member and former chairman, took strong exception to Palatnik’s invocation of RLUIPA, calling it “disingenuous” and asserting there was no evidence of discrimination against the church or its members.

The meeting was given over to several pro-church testimonials and a few denunciations of the plan, mainly from the Filipino delegation from the Woodside neighborhood known as Little Manila.  Basically the pro-church case said that a large membership needed larger facilities to conduct worship and carry out its social work, this last part being promoted by several men and women who spoke of being delivered from depression, drug addiction and other maladies after seeking relief at the church.  The greatest objection to construction of a new church was that it would be outsized and cause local disruption when as many as a thousand congregants came in each week for Sunday services.  One person complained, “You just moved the project from the train side to the residents’ side,” implying that residents in and around 38th Avenue would be burdened in manifold ways by a sizable church and its many members.

After church proponents and opponents had departed there was something of a normal CB 2 meeting, but it lacked energy.  Still, it transpired that the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) people now wish to have a crossing over Newtown Creek.  Dorothy Morehead of the environment committee mentioned it and Alexis Wheeler of City Planning said that three different plans are being looked at.  The BQX light rail train is supposed to travel in one way or another from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria.

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