After considering both sides of a long-debated proposal, the Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals has granted St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church permission to build a two-story cultural center for religious and educational use, with some conditions.
The zoning board mulled over hours of testimony at a June 1 hearing, and read hundreds of letters both for and against the project, which would add a 36,000-square-foot structure at the corner of Hewlett and Annette avenues.
After determining that the expansion would not have an adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhood, the board granted the church’s request. The potential problems neighbors raised included traffic and parking congestion, a decline in property values, over-taxation of basic municipal services and the potential for fire or other emergencies.
Most of the proposed uses of the cultural center were already occurring in the church basement, the board found, but require additional space.
“The classrooms aren’t proper settings to be teaching language and religion,” Stephanie Zervas told the Herald at the church’s Greek festival last month. Zervas has been a member of the church for 42 years and has three children who attend its classes.
“We have over 300 students who don’t have proper classrooms or a gymnasium to play in,” said Joanna Galanis, a former youth director and school board secretary of St. Demetrios. She also spoke to the Herald at the festival, saying that her children did not have a community center growing up, and she would like her grandchildren see the expansion become a reality.
The only additional programs the church would create are youth basketball and volleyball leagues. Therefore, the board ruled, it is unlikely that the church would be overcrowded after its expansion.
The church also agreed to not use the new space during worship, because that would go against its religious practices. Therefore, the board concluded, the church would fill only half of its 253-space parking lot at any given time.
Leigh Pollet, a real estate consultant representing the residents who oppose the project, who were referred to at the hearing as the Merrick Neighbors Group, said that the community center would be too large in proportion to the residential area where it would be built.
“The introduction of a non-homogenous, urban-neighborhood, commercial-type-use structure is clearly, and intuitively, out of character for this residential neighborhood,” Pollet said.
But the board faulted Pollet’s research on the neighborhood surrounding St. Demetrios, and agreed with Barry Nelson, the church’s real estate expert, who said at the hearing that the surrounding area is not entirely residential but rather mixed commercial, religious and residential. According to Nelson’s research, home values in the area have increased as businesses and religious institutions have been built.
The board also found that the proposed expansion would not pose any substantial safety risks. At the hearing, Paul Scolieri, of the Merrick Fire Department, argued that it is hard for fire trucks to drive down Hewlett Avenue, and that the expansion might exacerbate the problem. But after researching his claim, the board concluded that many cars are parked illegally on Hewlett Avenue, and that has nothing to do with the church or its proposed expansion.
The church has proposed creating an entry or exit on Annette Avenue, but the board denied the request, concluding that the street is not large enough. It also requested that the church build a fence along the street as a buffer between the church and the neighborhood, and that church employees park only in the church parking lot.
The board reserves the right to revoke its decision if St. Demetrios violates any of those conditions.
The timeline for the expansion was not announced, and the church’s director, the Rev. Nikiforos Fakinos, was unavailable for comment as the Herald went to press.