Dozens of congregants from The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Woodside attended a Community Board 2 meeting on Dec. 1 to speak in favor of a plan to expand the church to nearly double its current size.
Located at 68-03 Roosevelt Ave., the church serves about 700 congregants during four Sunday services. 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 build higher and wider.
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 about 40 feet higher than any surrounding structures.
The architect for the project, Mothusi P. Phometse, presented the plan at a community meeting in Sept. and to the community board several times but tweaked the plan after listening to the board’s concerns.
The new plan would add a public plaza on Roosevelt Avenue and light fixtures along the corridor. These additions are in response to the board’s concern that demolishing the current building on Roosevelt Avenue would create a void corner and dead space.
Owners argue that the extra space is needed to expand their congregation and to accommodate programmatic needs. Currently, the main service room can seat 650 people. The new building would seat 996 and include a conference room, rectory for visiting clergy, a spa and gym and a television production studio to record and transmit their services to those who cannot attend a service.
It would also feature five classrooms, counseling and meeting rooms, dining facility and baptismal and communion rooms.
The existing building is 17,860 square feet while the proposed structure would be 67,000 square feet and would include 150 parking spaces.
Congregants at Thursday’s meeting explained to the board how the church changed their lives and why the additional space is needed.
Gustavo Hernandez, a Woodside resident and member of the church, said the youth group provides young people with important programs that they cannot find elsewhere including sports programs and singing, dancing and acting groups.
“We bond with the community,” Hernandez said. “We talk to many youth and most of them come from work to home or school to home. Many of them are looking for programs and we offer programs. We don’t charge a cent for you to participate in the groups.”
Eduardo Puebla, a new member of the church, said the congregants of the church helped him battle a 15-year drug addiction.
“They showed me how to come out of my drug addiction,” Puebla said. “I was 15 years with a drug habit especially crystal meth, coke and so many other things. Once you get into those things it’s hard to come out.”
Puebla said the youth volunteers showed him how to respect himself and build up his self-esteem. He argued that people worrying about the height of the building should think about how many more people the church can help.
Many members talked about how the many programs, including programs for single mothers and teenage girls, helped build their self-confidence or how the church gave them jobs after long bouts of unemployment.
But many in the Filipino-American community who are business owners in the area are concerned that a two-year construction period would cause traffic problems and pollution and would dissuade people from driving to the area to eat at the restaurants.
Some also argued that by granting a variance to build a structure of this magnitude, it would open the flood gates for other developers to construct buildings that are out of character.
A woman named Beatrice, who moved into a condo behind the church three months ago, said many families in that condo moved out as she was moving in.
“If you did in fact try outreaching to the community [to tell them about the project] I believe that’s why they left because they knew this was going to be built,” she said. “First of all, as a person who lives on that street we will not be getting sunlight. Even your rendering shows our street in complete shadow. Not only will we not get light but the traffic is going to be horrendous. We’re not here for a couple of hours a day or week; we live here. This is our sunlight. It’s our community. It’s our traffic.”
Teresa Amarosa, a Woodside resident who works at a nonprofit, said she respects the work the church does, especially as someone who works in after-school programming. But she said she is not convinced that the church needs the additional space.
“I was raised in the Christian faith,” she said. “I have a good understanding of the teachings and of the gospel and one thing that impresses me is Jesus did a lot. He did a lot of social services and he didn’t have real estate,” she said to applause.
Land-use attorney Eric Palatnik told the board that the church is protected under the federal civil rights law Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Board member Joe Conley said bringing that law up several times was “disingenuous.”
“This community is not denying any application,” he said. “The church is there, the church can expand and build as of right. The problem is that you want to go beyond that. This community has supported many churches, many mosques. We stand proudly behind churches and for you to keep interjecting that as a hammer over this community you’re going to call RLUIPA, that if somehow that if you don’t get your way that you’re going to call it religious persecution is an outrage.”
The board will vote on a recommendation at their next meeting on Jan. 5, 2017. The vote is only advisory and the Board of Standards and Appeals will have the final say.