Sept. 29, 2016 By Hannah Wulkan
Community members and church leaders clashed at a Community Board 2 public hearing Tuesday about altering zoning regulations to make way for a mega church in Woodside.
The Universal Church, located at 68-03 Roosevelt Avenue, held the public hearing in conjunction with Community Board 2 to allow residents to provide feedback on its proposed expansion, which would nearly double its height and triple its square footage.
The majority of the approximately 50 people in attendance spoke strongly against the project.
Community members expressed concerns with the size, scope, and scale of the project, as well as concerns over how it could affect traffic and transportation issues, could bring in gentrification and impact small businesses in the neighborhood, and could have negative consequences for those residing nearby.
Those in attendance also noted the Universal Church’s reputation for preaching a “prosperity gospel,” which encourages parishioners to give money to the church, combining tactics from religious sermons with self-help seminars.
The proposed church would be the East Coast headquarters for the Universal Church, an international network of churches based in Brazil with over 6,000 locations worldwide, with a dozen in New York City alone.
The proposed structure would contain 67,950 square feet, compared to the existing building that has about 18,000 square feet, and would stand 79 feet tall at its highest point, dropping to 66 feet for the majority of the building.
It would include six stories, including one at the basement level, and would contain an enlarged worship space, classrooms, offices, and rectories, among other features. The church also broadcasts sermons every Sunday morning, and the expanded building would include production facilities for that programming.
The number of rectories would increase from one to 10, more than tripling in space from 5,053 square feet to 18,619 square feet. According to the presented plan, the rectories could house 30 people, including visiting clergy members and their families.
The plan for the expansion also includes the construction of a 150-car parking garage, with an underground level that would extend under the church structure, in addition to a ground level and 1-story parking deck.
If the zoning variance passes, the Church plans to complete the project in three stages. First, it would build the new structure, then demolish the old building, and finally build the 150-car parking structure on the site of the old building.The project is projected to take at least three years to complete.
The zoning on the church property currently allows it to build up to 45 feet tall, and it is required to have 30 feet between its building and the property line. The requested variances would waive those requirements, allowing the church to build up to 79 feet tall and out to 10 feet from the property line.
“We’re not trying to build something big, we’re trying to build something useful,” said Eric Palatnik, the lawyer representing the Universal Church at the hearing.
Palatnik explained that the church has outgrown its current space, as it has nearly 1,000 families who regularly attend services. However, he added, the point of the expansion is not to grow the size of the congregation, but to allow more space for the current programming.
Several pastors and members of the Universal Church spoke on its importance as well, sharing personal stories about how the church had helped them in their lives.
Though not addressed at the meeting, information provided by the church indicates that if the zoning variances are denied, the church will still build a new structure that complies with current zoning laws.
“In the future and absent the proposed action, the applicant would construct a new, as of right Church with 50,029 square feet and 10 accessory parking spaces,” reads a transportation study provided at the meeting.
Following the presentation from the church, community members had a chance to raise their concerns, with nearly 20 residents speaking against the church at the hearing.
“My fiancé and I just bought a condo in the one of the buildings across the street, and now I know why so many people in the building sold right before we got there,” one woman said at the hearing.
“Gentrification doesn’t happen overnight, gentrification happens when audacious individuals come in to the community under the guise of something as benign as religion and take this community’s property and the essence of what makes it so unique away,” said the Political Director of the Filipino American Democratic Club of New York Marian Guerra at the meeting.
“This is the Filipino community’s top priority and emergency,” said Aries Dela Cruz, the president of the Filipino American Democratic Club of New York after the meeting. “Communities are displaced or destroyed when they don’t recognize danger or the threat in front of them.”
He added that the church would almost be like a gated community, with visitors going in and out and not interacting with the surrounding area, which would create traffic issues and could detriment local businesses.
“When faced with real community scrutiny, the megachurch developers failed to make the case as to why the community should support their request for special land use rights and permission to build this community-killer,” dela Cruz said.
Individuals also raised concerns over the use of union labor and ethical building practices for the project.
“I think the church will go through a very challenging review because the members of community had very serious issues that they brought up last night,” said Lisa Deller, the chair of Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee, on Wednesday.
“Community concerns are a very significant part of the review process for projects like this, we try to listen to the community and we take their concerns very seriously.”
The project will go before the Community Board for another public hearing on November 3, and then it will be heard by the Board of Standards and Appeal.
The Community Board’s decision is advisory, with the BSA making the ultimate determination.