Know Your Limits

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Tyler Cassell has watched his hometown of Flushing change drastically in recent years, and the results, he says, have been devastating. But it’s not due to drugs, or crime, or rundown homes, says the president of the North Flushing Civic Association. The problem, he says, is all the churches.

“They’ve taken over our community,” says Cassell. According to surveys he’s conducted over the years, the neighborhood has 44 churches, up from seven a decade ago. The blocks around his house read like a page from a religious directory: the Pure Presbyterian Church, the Islamic Center, St. Paul’s Roman Catholic and the Kung Mern Sern Tao Church. They occupy lots where 19th- and early 20th-century single-family homes once stood. And, say Cassell and some of his neighbors, they bring a host of problems, including out-of-context architecture, noise and traffic.

For years, neighborhoods around the city have been powerless to limit the proliferation of churches and other “community facilities.” A 40-year-old zoning law allows community facilities–from churches to day care centers to schools–to be built “as of right,” without any input from the people who live in the area. Adopted to encourage the development of institutions that serve local residents, the law grants these facilities privileges over the homes they surround, including the right to build bigger.

Cassell insists the rule is outdated, claiming that many of the congregants come from other communities.

Several City Council members agree, and they are working on legislation to change the zoning rules. Aware of Cassell’s concerns, Queens Councilmember Tony Avella, chair of the Council’s zoning subcommittee, with the support of Flushing Councilmember John Liu, is trying to tweak a law requiring religious institutions and doctors’ offices to provide better onsite parking. Right now, city law says these facilities must provide parking based on the number of chairs that are fixed to the floor. Avella contends that many doctors and churches purposely circumvent this rule by using folding chairs or not providing seats at all.

“It’s a perfect first step,” Cassell says of Avella’s proposal, which as of late October was under discussion with officials at the Department of City Planning.

The churches, however, fear that the councilmember’s proposal could hamper their ability to serve their parishioners. Noting that the 150 Korean churches in Flushing serve the poor and operate with limited resources, Reverend Chung of the Council of Korean Churches of Greater New York asks, “Are we expected to take money away from providing services and use it on parking lots?”

Chung, who asserts that a sizeable majority of congregants live in and around Flushing, also wonders what other motives opponents in the area might have: “I hope this isn’t just a measure to keep a growing number of immigrants from moving into the neighborhood.” Avella calls the charge ridiculous.

Meanwhile, in Greenwich Village, Councilmember Alan Gerson is taking on larger institutions, including New York University. Noting the numerous new buildings the school has built in recent years, some of which have raised the ire of the neighbors, Gerson plans to introduce legislation early next year requiring institutions that take advantage of the community facility provisions more than three times in a defined area to undergo a public review process. The institution would have to present its proposal to community boards, the borough president and City Council.

These larger institutional structures have significantly altered the “feel, function and character” of the Village, says Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which supports Gerson’s efforts. According to Berman, NYU has used the community facility bonus to construct 11 high-rise buildings since the late 1980s, all of which are at least twice as large as the surrounding buildings.

Some community institutions warn that delaying or limiting their expansion could actually hurt neighborhoods. Restrictive measures, argues NYU spokesperson John Beckman, could negatively affect “not only the city’s already distressed economy, but also the redevelopment of lower Manhattan.” Brian Conway of the Greater New York Hospital Association adds, “This will certainly make it more difficult, and more costly, for hospitals to provide needed services to the community.”

At the same time, some city planners believe the proposals are not strong enough. “This is a very timid response to a very serious problem,” says Norman Marcus, a zoning expert and former counsel to the city’s Planning Commission. The as-of-right privilege has been like a “cancer on residential neighborhoods,” and focusing on parking is like treating a symptom while allowing the disease to spread, he added.

Clearly, both legislators face an uphill battle. Historically, the city has been reluctant to make comprehensive zoning changes. In 2000, then-Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose introduced a package of zoning reforms, most of which didn’t make it out of the Planning Commission. One of his proposals called for restricting the height of community facilities in certain neighborhoods, an idea heavily contested by a number of institutions, including the hospital association.

Still, Gerson is determined to accomplish reform: “This needs to be understood as an adoption of good, rational planning and not an attack on institutions.”

Aimee Molloy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.