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When Jenny and Walter Tkach moved into their north Flushing home 32 years ago, it was a quiet, close-knit neighborhood of families where they chose to settle down and raise their son.
But now things on 32nd Avenue are quite different.
Its gone theres no way it will ever come back, said Jenny Tkach, who fondly recalls mingling with neighbors.
What has vanished are a lot of the residents in what was once a fully residential area of modest homes on a tree-lined street, where many private homes have now been converted into other uses.
Moving in over the last several years are churches of all denominations, with three alone built on land adjacent to Tkachs two-family, Tudor-style brick home.
I feel crushed and choked in a way, said Tkach, who pointed out several other houses of worship within the same block.
The Massid Hazrat Abubakr Islamic Center with large blue domes that dominate the neighborhood, the Evergreen Presbyterian Church and a smaller Asian organization called Bethel Hall which appeared to be a church all border the rear of Tkachs property.
Next door to the family are two properties owned by the Salvation Army and an Asian organization across the street that looked like a school. Around the corner from the Tkachs small home is the 5,000-member St. Pauls Korean Catholic Church, which also owns three buildings on 33rd Avenue.
The citys 1961 zoning resolution allows churches and other community facilities such as medical offices and schools to build in residential areas with virtually no restrictions.
Queens civic leaders single out Tkachs neighborhood as one of the reasons the zoning code should be altered to limit community facilities in residential areas. The civic activists have said the city should consider the quality-of-life problems the facilities can create, such as traffic congestion and parking issues.
City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has been leading an effort to change the zoning laws governing community facilities to force them to provide on-site parking when building new structures and hopes to announce some new rules this fall.
Because many community facilities are either religious organizations or affiliated with religion groups, attempts to regulate such facilities are often viewed as discriminatory.
Staten Island architect Wallace Kubec, whose firm Diffendale & Kubec specializes in designing churches in Queens as well as other areas, cited a federal law passed in 2000 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act as giving religious groups wide berth in land use issues.
There is a federal law to keep the local zoning crowd from intimidating churches, said Kubec. You really see it more in Queens than in other parts of the city.
The issue of regulating community facilities is at the heart of what civic leaders have described as an inevitable problem the collision of the citys outdated zoning laws with the changing makeup of the city itself.
Activists say the zoning laws give latitude to community facilities because the codes were crafted at a time when the boroughs were less populated and when people walked to their local church, doctors office or school.
Bernard Haber is a veteran of community planning issues who served as chairman of Baysides Community Board 11 for more than 30 years.
Now is the time after 40 years there has to be some kind of update to the zoning laws, he said.
In the past dozen years, more community facilities have been built in Queens than ever before, sparking concerns about the future of the areas residential neighborhoods.
One block goes and the next one starts, Avella said about the proliferation of community facilities. Its spreading.
Those living near community facilities often end up selling their homes to other community facility groups and moving. Avella foresees a crisis down the line.
We are going to create a new middle-class flight from New York City, he predicted, noting residential homes provide a significant portion of the citys tax revenue while community facilities are usually tax exempt. In an era where we certainly need to increase the tax base, residential communities need to be protected from overdevelopment.
City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), a former civic leader in Tkachs neighborhood, agreed.
The problem with community facilities is that they do have a terrible impact on residential neighborhoods, he said. It basically renders a residential neighborhood non-residential.
Avella and Liu point to two areas of Flushing where they say their worst case scenario of community facilities saturating residential neighborhoods has already come true.
There are virtually no more homes on Bayside Avenue between Parsons Boulevard and 146th Avenue, a section now crowded with houses of worship, the council members said.
Another is a portion of north Flushing, where the Tkachs live.
Tyler Cassell, president of the North Flushing Civic Association, has used numbers to show how the civic has changed.
We live in constant fear in our neighborhood when a house is for sale were afraid a public facility is going to buy it, said Cassell, whose civic includes 90 blocks of north Flushing.
Cassell and others from the civic performed a survey and compiled a map of a six-block section of north Flushing to chart the growth of community facilities. In 1990, Cassell said, there were seven properties owned by community groups. By 2000, when a 10-year comparison was done, the civic had charted 41 community facilities in the six-block area.
We know of another four or five in the six-block neighborhood that have blossomed since then, Cassell said of the 2000 map. Of the 23 properties on the Tkachs block, the civic associations map shows 12 community facility-owned properties in 2000 and 11 private properties.
Kubec, the architect, has been working on a project to build a three-story, 20,000-square-foot church in Little Neck for a Korean congregation from Flushing.
Most churches like to be in a residential zone, he said. They like the comfort of being in a low-rise area where their church can be seen, and theres usually a lot of parking.
Kubec dismisses the question of saturation, or whether or not there can be too many community facilities in a residential neighborhood, and described the zoning climate for community facilities in the city as excellent.
Houses of worship are traditionally low-use facilities, he said with masses on Sunday and perhaps one other day a week, rendering their impact on neighborhood parking and the quality of life small.
Churches are the least objectionable because they have such limited hours, he said.
But that argument is losing steam in an age when churches of all denominations play a variety of roles, said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer from Benjamin Cardozo Law School who specializes in church/state issues.
Houses of worship, which today can serve as community and youth centers, social clubs and in some cases homeless shelters, are now engaging in intense uses that otherwise really dont fit in a residential district, Hamilton said.
She has been dealing with cases nationwide which involve houses of worship building in residential areas. The lawyer said there are problems with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA.
It was so carelessly drafted, Hamilton said of the 2000 law. Its not enough to argue that you want to give private homeowners the quiet enjoyment of their property.
As far as the religious discrimination that RLUIPA was supposed to prevent, Hamilton is skeptical.
Show me those cases, she said. Whats outrageous about that is there are a handful of cases across the country out of the millions of zoning disputes every year.
You dont need RLUIPA to legally deal with religious discrimination, she said. The Constitution covers that in spades.
While Hamilton was not familiar with cases in Queens, she said: I think saturation is a perfectly reasonable thing to be talking about.
For those in northeast Queens, saturation by community facilities is one of the only things to talk about.
Its a question of where they belong, Liu said. Theres got to be a balance, and right now there is no balance.
Avella said changes to the zoning code have been slow because of the complexity of the laws and the community facilities issue.
Attempt to regulate houses of worship and all of a sudden youre attacking religious freedom, which is nonsense, he said. You cant put up a religious institution without a fire escape . Its up to local government to make proper and fair restrictions on community facilities.
Cassell, who lives near the Tkachs, said anybody who wants to better understand the impact of too many community facilities on a neighborhood should come over and spend a Sunday with us.
Jenny Tkach said she appreciates the beauty of the mosque behind her home and thinks the youth activities offered throughout the week by the church across the street are great. But Tkach admitted to feeling defeated when it comes to her quality of life.
Im not really happy here, said Tkach, who said she regularly turns down offers from people and community facilities groups to buy her home.
How could I be? My friends have left and I really dont have any neighbors.
Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.
©2002 Community Newspaper Group
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