December 6, By Christian Murray
Scores of congregants from a Woodside church attended Community Board 2’s monthly meeting Thursday to support their leaders who seek a zoning variance that would permit the construction of a 5 story structure on the corner of 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
The leaders of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, located at 68-03 Roosevelt Avenue, want to build a mega church on the site in order to expand their congregation and cater to growing programmatic needs.
The church aims to build the structure, which would total 67,950 square feet, on its current parking lot. The church needs a zoning variance in order to go ahead with its plans.
The new church, which would replace the existing structure, would be erected on a site where buildings are only permitted to be up to 45 feet tall and must be at least 30 feet from the property line.
The variance requested would alter those requirements, allowing the church to build its 79 feet tall structure and permit it to be within 10 feet from the property line at the rear of the site.
The existing church is a one-story 17,860 square feet structure that was once a nightclub. The main service area seats 650 people and there is one rectory.
This building would be demolished if the church is granted its variance and it would create room for about 150 parking spaces.
The new building would seat 996 people for religious services and would also include classrooms, a business center, gym, a production studio, offices and 10 rectories. The rectories would house visiting clergy members and their families.
The church in order to be granted the variance must show, among other items, that the existing zoning is causing an unnecessary hardship and that the new building would not alter the character of the area.
The decision as to whether the variance should be granted will ultimately be decided by the Board of Standards and Appeals. However, before the BSA rules on it, the community board is required to make a recommendation. The board is expected to vote on the church’s BSA application on January 5. The recommendation is merely advisory.
Landuse attorney Eric Palatnik described the current 69th Street/Roosevelt Avenue location to be a “dark, dank corner…where there is crime up and down the block.”
He said that the church has been in discussion with the community board for some time and has modified its plans following its feedback. One significant change has been the inclusion of a public plaza along Roosevelt Avenue.
“We want to make it a beautiful neighborhood,” Palatnik said.
The church said that it would provide lighting and security for the plaza.
“The board was concerned that we were creating a dead zone [where the new parking area would be] so the church decided to build a public plaza and liven up the street,” Palatnik said. “It will open up the intersection.”
Community Board 2 Chair Denise Keehan-Smith agreed that the church has made such adjustments based on ongoing conversations.
Some community board members at Thursday’s meeting questioned whether the church needed a building of such scale given the size of its membership.
Church officials said that each Sunday about 700 parishioners attend services. The number is divided among four services, with the 10 a.m. mass catering to about 300 to 400 members.
“With only 700 congregants why the need for such a big building,” queried board member Carol Terrano.
Palatnik, who responded to Terrano, did not answer her question but instead brought up the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law that protects religious institutions from discrimination during the zoning process.
Former Community Board 2 Chair Joe Conley took except with Palatnik’s citing of RLUIPA.
“It is very disingenuous that you have brought that up three times,” Conley said, adding that board has always been supportive of the district’s religious institutions. “We stand proudly behind churches and for you to keep interjecting…that if somehow that if you don’t get your way that you’re going to call it religious persecution is an outrage.”
Several church members, many wearing white sweatshirts with a rendering of the new facility on the front, spoke passionately on behalf of their institution and how it has turned their lives around.
Eduardo Puebla said the church helped him overcome a 15-year drug addiction.
“I was 15 years with a drug habit especially crystal meth,” he said. “They showed me how to come out of my drug addiction.”
A young woman spoke about how the church had helped her overcome depression and aided her when her parents no longer wanted her.
“I had nowhere to go and coming to the church helped me see a real family,” she said. “You are worried about this being a bigger building…we are making a bigger space for a bigger family and making a bigger miracle.”
The project, if it were to go forward, would lead to the loss of parking during the 2-year construction phase.
The new church would be built on the existing parking lot, and once completed the existing church would then be demolished and the parking would go in there.
Some Woodside residents are concerned that the development would lead to traffic problems and parking issues (particularly during construction) that would reduce business for nearby restaurant owners in the area now referred to as Little Manila. Many of these residents held up ‘No’ signs during the meeting.
Other members of the Filipino community claimed that the development would encourage other property owners to construct large buildings. This they claim would be the beginning of gentrification.