The Civic Scene: Fresh Meadows leery of new Bukharian shul

By Bob Harris

At the public hearing held a couple of weeks earlier the applicant explained that it needed the larger-than-permitted building on this corner R-1 zoned lot because they wanted a special upstairs room where the women could sit. They said that they didn't need parking because they do not drive to worship on their day of prayer. They wanted to make the whole lot a basement room for study with moveable chairs and an overflow room during holidays. Since this basement room was underground, it would not be considered part of the building for floor ratio purposes, but it still could hold a lot of people. This area is zoned R1.Although six of the eight CB 8 members voted for the variances at this earlier hearing, the whole board voted against the variance by a vote of 23-13 on March 12. About 20 people from 80th Road came to speak against the variance at both meetings. People also came to support the variance. The neighbors said there is just no parking on that block or on 182nd Street because people park there for the express buses to Manhattan and shoppers and employees park for shopping on Union Turnpike, just one block away. While the group wanted to have the City Planning Department certify that there was no need for parking because the people walk to their house of worship on religious holy days, the neighboring homeowners complained that right now every morning and evening people from this congregation drive to the neighborhood to pray in a house two buildings away from the proposed temple. Since there is usually no parking on the block, these people park in homeowners' driveways, leaving the homeowners either stuck in or out of their driveway.While it is true that very religious people do not drive on holy days, they do drive to daily morning and evening prayers and to special events such as the naming of a baby, an important anniversary or an engagement party. Some neighborhoods have wide avenues or a lot of parking areas and one community facility could fit in there if not too big. But this area has no available parking. The neighbors convinced the CB 8 members that this house of worship must have parking.There was concern that if piles had to be driven into the ground or if a heavy steam shovel was used, then nearby foundations could crack. Just diagonally west from this property is the large Hillcrest Jewish Center, which has a pool in the basement. Any shaking of the ground could cause the walls of the Hillcrest pool as well as the walls of the building to crack. The expediter said they would not drive piles, but ….A few years ago the Queens Civic Congress, due to complaints from member civic associations, had the City Planning Department write a special zoning for community facilities in residential neighborhoods, which were zoned R1 or R2 or now R2A. Large out-of-context houses of worship, medical facilities and other buildings were being built in one-family residential neighborhoods. While they could fit in R4 or R5 zoned areas, they do not fit in residential areas of one family homes.One of the people who spoke at this meeting was a man named Tyler Cassell, president of the North Flushing Civic Association. He warned that his residential community, still waiting for down zoning to R2A, was being inundated by community facilities. He warned the board to make sure there is adequate parking on site. It is interesting that Councilman John Liu was the previous president of this civic and became interested in politics while fighting this issue.The sad problem is that the Board of Standards & Appeals and even the Department of City Planning hear this specious argument that religious people only walk to their house of worship and sometimes grant parking variances instead of requiring adequate parking spaces. Some blocks also are being choked by cars parked by people visiting or working in a community facility. The current case about St. Mary's Hospital wanting to expand in Bayside is an example of this problem.GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The New York Chapter of the AlA or American Institute of Architects has withdrawn its secret request to change the hard-won zoning rules, which protect the size of side and back yards and to permit large buildings on small lots. There will be more time to “discuss” the issue. As community boards heard about the proposals they were voting against them.

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