Woodside residents are not happy about a controversial neighborhood church’s plans to expand its building and add 150 parking spaces.
On Sept. 27, architects for The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, located at 68-03 Roosevelt Ave., presented their plan at a public hearing. Currently, the building is in an area zoned for manufacturing. The church is seeking a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to reclassify the space as residential, according to Jessica Rubenstein, spokesperson for land-use attorney Eric Palatnik.
This change would allow the one-story building to reach five stories; the current 45-foot building would be demolished to make way for a new 79-foot structure. The new building would be 30 feet higher than any surrounding structures.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which started in Brazil and has locations worldwide, is looking to make this space its East Coast headquarters.
Residents who showed up to the meeting expressed several concerns with the plan and pointed at the church’s controversial practice of prosperity gospel, which is the belief that donating to the church can increase one’s financial wealth.
“Simply put this church preys on poor immigrants by literally selling them false hopes,” a Woodside resident was filmed saying at the meeting. “They are practicing what is called the prosperity gospel – the idea that if you give money to God or give money to the Universal Church, God will make you rich is a truly disgusting and exploitative practice.”
Woodside also has a large Filipino population and several Filipino residents who live near the church, an area dubbed “Little Manila,” attended the meeting to voice their opposition.
Groups like the Filipino American Democratic Club of New York expressed concerns with parts of the plan, including the height of the project and parking issues it would bring. Aries Dela Cruz, president of the club, argued that developers did not thoroughly think through many aspects of the plan.
An 11-foot fence surrounding the property would create a “dead zone,” Cruz said, and the block would be devoid of any retail space and could encourage loitering.
He also said that the three-year construction period would severely impact traffic in the area. The church is located near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and Roosevelt Avenue is notorious for congestion issues. The 150-space parking lot would have an entrance and exit located on the avenue.
“The fact that they’ve chosen exit and entrance right on Roosevelt Avenue – that’s wild,” Cruz said. “It’s egregious. I don’t see any other facility on Roosevelt Avenue that does that.”
The area is also home to many ethnic restaurants and businesses that Cruz argues would suffer. Customers who come to Woodside from other neighborhoods or boroughs to eat at these restaurants already have problems parking, and construction equipment and debris would exacerbate those issues, he said.
“We know that the biggest problem on Roosevelt Avenue is traffic and parking,” Cruz said. “Every business tells us loading and unloading is a nightmare.”
Nelson Canter, the church’s attorney, said the church is looking to give their facility a facelift because the current space is too cramped. The new design would add 10 rectories, expand the sanctuary from one story to two stories, add classrooms for religious education and a recording studio to televise services for its congregants nation and worldwide.
Canter said parking would be provided to the community from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. when it’s not in use by the church and that this would “ameliorate” the parking problems rather than exacerbating them.
The church’s existing capacity is 400 to 500 people but the expansion would allow for an occupancy of 996. In a previous interview, Rubenstein said the church currently can fit around 900 congregants in its space.
Cruz said he is worried that if 900 congregants can fit in the space now, the expansion would allow for an explosion of people to be driving in and out of already crowded arteries.
Lisa Ann Deller, chair of the Land Use Committee for Community Board 2, said the board shared similar concerns.
“It’s a very large project and there are a lot of issues, a lot of concerns,” Deller said. “We have zoning for a reason.”
Deller was told by church parishioners that, out of the three services the church holds on Sunday, only one is heavily attended– approximately 600 people worship during that hour. The church has to provide five findings to support their case for a variance but Deller said they have been “very unclear” as to why this variance is necessary.
The church can build higher as-of-right but not the full five stories unless the variance is granted.
Church representatives will present the plan again at the CB 2 meeting on Nov. 3 in Sunnyside. The BSA has not scheduled a meeting to discuss the church’s variance yet, according to Deller.
Cruz said his organization is working to gather more people to attend the community board meeting in November to show the representatives that Woodside will not give “special permission” to any developer to alter the character of the neighborhood.
“If we can allow this to happen with just a church who knows what other developers are going to start coming into Woodside?” he said.