2017-02-08 / Front Page

Universal Church Makes Final Appeal At Community Board 2 Meeting

By Thomas Cogan
The February meeting of Community Board 2 was known long in advance to be the occasion for a final vote on the Universal Church’s application to the Board of Standards and Appeals for a zoning variance that would allow it to tear down its current headquarters at 68-03 Roosevelt Ave. in Woodside and replace it with a larger, taller structure in its adjacent parking lot just to the north.  The vote was taken, but not before a repetition of the debate at December’s meeting between church adherents and several of their Woodside neighbors who saw the new church building as a harbinger of rising rents and neighborhood clearance.  Other meeting events included a visit from Dennis Walcott, head of the Queens Public Library, an application for a sidewalk café and recent news about the Long Island City zoning plan.

The meeting began with the announcement by District Manager Debra Markell-Kleinert that WNET, the Public Broadcasting System station in New York, was recording the meeting so the board could have videos of it and meetings to come.  Board Chairman Denise Keehan-Smith then introduced Dennis Walcott.  The QPL executive director made a disclosure sure to gladden his audience, that the long-delayed, cost-overrun-burdened Hunters Point Library would be opening in September, after being stocked and otherwise made ready during the summer.  He fully expected that this branch library by the East River, designed by Steven Holl and observable just over the water by a perhaps envious Manhattan, will be very popular and heavily-used, given the great residential population increase in the area and the number of schools which have been built and are being built there.

After that, the speakers for and against the Universal Church began their long exchange.  Figures familiar from the December debate reappeared, saying what seemed to be the same arguments as before.  It was free speech time, though even it had to be interrupted to give unrelated speakers some minutes of their own.  City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer came in to praise the WNET deal and express hope that the Universal Church debate wouldn’t divide the community.  But the fact that it was ultimately a BSA decision displeased him to begin with.  He said the BSA was in need of reform, to such an extent that he was against just about anything sent downtown for its judgment.  He said that he didn’t want to hold up the church debate but he took one question, which was about the outlook for the middle school proposed for construction at Barnett Avenue and 48th Street in Sunnyside.  He could only say that the whole matter has a long road to travel.

On one side, the church’s adherents said that it had been a positive moral force for those who had come to it in the hope it would help them break free of drug addiction, bad company or depression (and according to one, accepted them if they happened to be homosexual, as he was); or that as a practical matter the current church was overcrowded and needed more room for members and activities.  On the other, church opponents said a large new building would cast large shadows on neighborhood places and take away their sunshine.  Doubtless of greater concern was the possibility that speculators and developers would look upon a new church as the start of community beautification, which could be continued with a run on property purchases, subsequent rent hikes and removal of local residents, who were proudly described by the anti-church faction as working class.  In short, they charged repeatedly that a new church, built as its proponents wanted it, would lead to gentrification.

All that, former Board Chairman Patrick O’Brien finally told both groups, was secondary.  The basic truth, he said, is that the church property lies in two different zones.  If the church wanted to raise a new building on the very part of the property where the old one now stands it could do so as of right, because it is entirely within the zone that permits it.  It cannot build in the other zone in the broad and tall way it wishes to build if it does not get a variance to that zone’s stated limitations.  Church officials say they cannot build in place.  They say they must build well in back of the old church so the new one will not have the same problem that afflicts the old, that of the constant noise and vibration of the No. 7 elevated trains entering and leaving the 69th Street station or speeding by along the express track for hours each day.  Even if there were a way around that problem (O’Brien said, perhaps a bit complacently, that there were new construction measures that could probably abate such noise and vibration), they would have to build smaller than in the expansive way they believed was necessary, given the constant growth of the congregation.

Just before the vote, Steve Cooper of the board said that some time before the February board meeting the land use committee tried to get church officials and their attorneys to consider building as of right and settling for a church with lower height, which would still provide about 125,000 square feet of room.  The church officials and the others wouldn’t hear of it, the committee said.  Therefore the motion the board voted on was simply to accept or reject the application for the zoning variance.  It was rejected unanimously.  Expect a large crowd of church and neighborhood people at the BSA meeting when it occurs, probably in the spring,

Penny Lee, of the Department of City Planning, reported on the recent public meeting in Long Island City about the zoning study.  Among the complaints:  retail businesses are not meeting the needs of the community; and—no surprise—there are problems of affordability and access to transportation.

The Alcove, a fairly new bar/restaurant at 41-11 49th St. in Sunnyside had an application for an unenclosed sidewalk café having four tables and 12 seats.  Owners Jonathan and Maria Cordero agreed to the stipulation that the outdoor café be closed at 10:00 p.m. on weekdays (the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays) and 11:00 p.m. weekends.  Voting was by raised hands, and all but one voted to approve the application. 





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