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Queens Chronicle

St. Savior’s Becomes Community Flashpoint

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Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2006 12:00 am

The debate over St. Savior’s Church got more heated last week, as tensions between a civic group trying to preserve the property and a politician trying to broker a compromise with its owners boiled over into angry exchanges and character attacks.

At a meeting of the Juniper Park Civic Association Thursday, Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R Middle Village) and a throng of supporters stormed out of the auditorium at Our Lady of Hope School in Maspeth after civic President Bob Holden refused to give Gallagher speaking time to defend himself against a litany of attacks.

“You have your own civic group now, so go speak there,” Holden said, referring to the Middle Village Maspeth Civic Association, which was founded by a Gallagher associate and held its inaugural meeting in the same auditorium last week. “And take your cheerleaders with you.”

Holden denied accusations by Gallagher’s camp that the Juniper civic was responsible for scrawling the councilman’s name across the wooden fence surrounding St. Savior’s. Holden then dumped ripped copies of Juniper Berry, his group’s 5,000 circulation monthly magazine, on the auditorium floor, claiming he had found them scattered on the street in his neighborhood. He added, “This was the response.”

Gallagher said he had nothing to do with ripping the magazines, which accused him of “declaring war” on the civic in this month’s edition. In the past, the magazine had praised the councilman for his preservation work in Middle Village and Maspeth.

But lingering questions over the fate of St. Savior’s Church have strained the relationship of these one time allies to its breaking point. Holden has signaled that he will settle for nothing less than full preservation of both the 159 year old church and the 1.5 acres of undeveloped land surrounding it. Gallagher initially supported this position, but later decided the community would have to compromise with property developers. Since then, the two sides have reached an impasse.

The Juniper civic is circulating an online petition asking Mayor Michael Bloomberg to purchase the property for use as a city park. The Parks Department is aware of the issue, but has not been approached directly about the possibility of purchasing the pvoperty, according to spokeswoman Abby Lootens. If sold, the property could fetch between $6 million and $10 million.

Real estate company Maspeth Development LLC bought the church in October 2005, and immediately applied for zoning changes that would allow it to build 70 units of multifamily housing. Since then, Holden has fought tooth and nail to block those efforts.

In March, a consortium of community leaders and elected officials—including Holden and Gallagher—requested that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate the property a historic landmark, thereby blocking private development rights. But the commission rejected the request, citing a 1970 fire that the commission said made the church ineligible.

Preservationists got a reprieve in April, when the city halted demolition work on the property after construction workers discovered dislodged asbestos particles in the ceiling tiles.

In the weeks that followed, Gallagher said he supported the Juniper Park Civic Association in its legal effort to obtain a permanent stop work order at the site. The property owners later promised to halt demolition and leave the church building intact—but only in exchange for the community’s approval to build around it.

Gallagher endorsed the compromise. Holden dug his heels in against it.

“We are very disappointed our councilman chose to negotiate with the developer,” Christina Wilkinson, chairwoman of the Committee to Save St. Savior’s, wrote in an e mail this week. “We are also disappointed in the fact that he has given up on obtaining landmark status for the complex.”

Following its split with the councilman, the civic association filed a lawsuit calling for a permanent halt to demolition and new construction in July. Queens Supreme Court Judge Patricia Satterfield threw out that lawsuit and lifted the restraining order barring demolition. That move has made it possible for developers to not only resume construction, but destroy the church at will.

Yet the developers have not done so. Instead, they said they are biding their time by keeping the property on the market while they await a zoning change from the Department of City Planning.

It is another question whether those zoning changes will come any time soon. City planning officials have taken a hands off approach to the conflict, refusing to make a decision on the proposed zoning until community members, developers and elected officials resolve the issue on their own terms, said Joy Chen, a planner for the Department of City Planning.

In the meantime, the developers are keeping their options open. The church property currently falls under a unique zoning category, M1 1D, which permits developers to build large industrial facilities, according to Gail Grass, a broker representing the owners.

“We have received a lot of offers from different companies, some of them industrial, some of them residential,” said Grass, who declined to discuss specific offers. “Nobody from the Parks Department is calling us, but we’ve had a lot of interest from moving companies, even people from the entertainment industry.”

That the owners haven’t accepted these offers yet is a sign of good faith, Gallagher said. “They’re clearly still interested in residential development in that area and are willing to compromise out of respect for the community,” he said. “But we can’t keep dragging our feet on this issue. The owners aren’t going to wait forever.”

This willingness to compromise has only hardened Holden’s resolve to continue opposing development of any kind on church land. It has also emboldened him to escalate attacks on a councilman he believes has turned his back on the fight to preserve the church.

At Thursday’s meeting, Juniper civic members accused Gallagher of supporting large scale property development and claimed he had repeatedly used his office to green light private building projects in their neighborhood, despite vocal objection by residents and civic leaders.

Gallagher was precluded from speaking at the meeting, but later denied his critics’ claims. “The idea that I’m helping real estate developers at St. Savior’s or anywhere is so far from being true,” he said. “The same group lauded me for pushing zoning applications to downzone the area and protect it from multifamily dwellings.”

He added, “I’ve been a leader in the fight against overdevelopment.”

The civic group also alleged that Gallagher—who is currently raising money for a potential bid for elected office, but hasn’t specified which office—accepted a $500 contribution from Stadtmauer Bailkin LLP, the law firm representing the developer at St. Savior’s; and two more $250 donations from the Parkside Group, the lobbying firm representing Maspeth Development LLC.

In an interview Tuesday, the councilman said he has a close working relationship with Parkside lobbyist William Driscoll and said he had taken small donations from a number of different lobbyists and law firms. “I think it’s offensive to allege that because I’ve accepted these small donations, that I’m selling out my community,” he said. “That is a scurrilous, baseless attack. I would never sell out my community.”

The councilman also pointed to his efforts in gathering more than 10,000 signatures and leading a protest at City Hall against a plan—supported by the Parkside Group—to develop the Cross Harbor Tunnel in Maspeth. That plan was eventually defeated in the City Council.

But whether the civic association’s accusations prove credible may already be beside the point for some residents. At Thursday’s meeting, a woman claiming to be a dues paying member said the recent string of accusations and denials were “an embarrassment” to the community and only distracted from the real issues at hand—namely, how to best preserve the character of the neighborhood.

Before she could finish speaking, however, her microphone was shut off and she was asked to leave, amid loud jeers from the audience.

Welcome to the discussion.