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Queens Chronicle

Trees Topple, But Church Will Stay Standing: Locals

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Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2007 12:00 am

A dispute over the fate of a historic Maspeth church turned ugly last week, as a housing developer began toppling the property’s centuries-old trees. This, amid renewed calls to preserve the church’s “sacred” grounds as a public green space.

Standing outside the former St. Saviour’s Church at 57-40 58th St., last Saturday, civic leaders accused the property owner, Maspeth Development, LLC, of axing the trees in an effort to undercut their argument for turning the site into a park.

Crews showed up at the site last Tuesday and began clearing the trees from the southwestern corner. The work not only threatened one of the neighborhood’s few remaining historic sites, asserted a Middle Village civic association member, Christina Wilkinson, it also endangered the wildlife living there.

“What kind of reprehensible person orders the destruction of trees where migratory birds are nesting?” she asked at the rally. “It’s a sorrow and shame to see. It’s like watching someone die.”

Such recriminations, however, did not sway the developer: Hours after the rally, crews arrived and began cutting more trees.

Frenzied locals reportedly stood below the cherry pickers to stop them from hacking more tree limbs, while others phoned police. Upon arriving, cops issued summonses and ordered crews to leave, witnesses said. City Sanitation officials also slapped the developer with a $300 fine for leaving severed trunks on the sidewalk.

The exchange marked the latest salvo in an almost two-year battle between residents and the developer over the future of the 159-year-old church, as well as the 1.5 acres of undeveloped land surrounding it.

Founded by Maspeth pioneers and built by architect Richard Upjohn in 1847, St. Saviour’s served as a place of worship for over a century — until fall 2005, when Maspeth Development bought the site and applied for zoning changes that would allow for 70 units of housing.

Since then, the Juniper Park Civic Association of Middle Village has fought to block all development efforts — securing stop-work orders, filing a lawsuit, which failed, and lobbying the city to deny the requisite zoning changes.

Last February, the civic group even filed a request with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the property as “a cultural landscape.” But they were rejected on the argument that the church building was ineligible because of damage suffered during a pre-Christmas fire in 1970.

Middle Village Councilman Dennis Gallagher later drew the group’s ire for endorsing a compromise last year that would have allowed the property owner to build housing on the wooded grounds surrounding the church, while leaving the building intact.

The group swiftly rejected that proposal and began lobbying the city to preserve the entire site. Members gathered signatures, staged rallies and sent letters urging the mayor to turn the property into a city park.

To date, they are still awaiting an official response to their proposal.

At Saturday’s rally, Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said he had requested a meeting with the mayor in hopes of pitching the idea of a land swap. But city officials told him there would be no talks, since Gallagher had already voiced opposition to the land-swap plan. The Mayor’s Office could not be reached for comment.

Nor has the developer granted a meeting with civic members or Avella — who vowed to continue stonewalling the developer and owner in his own way, as long as they continue to brush him off. “They can ignore me by not returning faxes or calls, but they can’t ignore my position on the council as chair (of the zoning subcommittee),” Avella said. “I am absolutely not going to vote for a zoning change.”

The property owner did not return calls.

Civic members also used last weekend’s rally to take a swipe at Gallagher, alleging he had green-lighted the tree-cutting. But Gallagher Chief of Staff Margaret Keta said those charges were bogus. The councilman had, in fact, asked the developer to “maintain the existing character of the property to the best of his ability until a determination of the site plan is finalized,” she said.

Whatever the case, many residents said they remain undeterred — no matter how many trees fall. “We may have lost a couple of trees, but we will replant them if we have to,” said Civic President Robert Holden. “We’ve been blessed with so many victories already that, no matter how many trees fall, we’ll fight to make sure the church stays standing.”

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