Office Building may Start to Hold Church Services

Broadway has traditionally been a business district, but a new proposal to locate a church in the middle of that busy business district has some in the City wondering if such changes in use are a positive step forward for the downtown.

Alex and Sandra Umana of 965 Broadway, Chelsea, have proposed locating the Nueva Vision International Church in the basement of a building at 350 Broadway, which has traditionally held offices, retail and day care facilities. The 50-seat church currently meets in the Chelsea Boys & Girls Club, but wishes to move to a larger, more centralized location.

The building is owned by Gerald Snierson, and the space would be leased to the church.

However, the plan has met some roadblocks from the City, which is requiring Nueva Vision to secure parking variances for the project. The church proposal is not providing any parking plan with the request.

The proposal, though, brings up a larger question.

That question is whether or not it is desirable to begin locating several houses of worship in what has traditionally been the main business district. Such questions have popped up in several other surrounding cities, including Revere and Everett – where city leaders there have struggled with the same question and also the fact that not much can be done by law to limit the siting of a church.

One of the major problems is that during business hours, churches typically are closed – resulting in what, by and large, equates to an empty retail space. Conversely, most businesses are closed during the times when houses of worship operate.

As more and more churches locate to the business district, it can lead to a downtick in foot traffic and an appearance that the business district is empty, and not thriving. That, typically, has not been a problem for Broadway in Chelsea, which has a thriving merchant population. Many worry that allowing such changes in use could upset the business apple cart.

City Manager Jay Ash said that churches are mostly exempt from the city’s zoning regulations, with the lone exception being parking restrictions.

“We have a limited ability to affect houses of worship, but parking is one area where we can realistically deny a permit,” he said. “It’s not ideal to locate houses of worship in your main business district because every little store plays off the traffic generated by every other little store. With a house of worship, there is limited usage and usually on off hours, like Sunday. It really doesn’t contribute to the vibrancy of downtown.”

That being said, there are already a couple of smaller churches in the business district, as well as a church with very limited parking at the old St. Andrew’s Club property near City Hall.

None have had any major problems reported, and Umana makes a strong argument that putting his church on Broadway will be more convenient for those who attend because it is closer to their homes.

“This is a really beautiful spot for the people who come to the church,” said Umana. “A lot of our members are very excited that the church is going to be so close to their home. They tell me they won’t have to take a taxi anymore or find a ride. Many have told me that they can just walk around the corner or up the street. We are trying to see if we can get this location. I hope and pray that we can get this place.”

Umana said that the church would be meeting for services mostly on Sunday (morning and evening), Friday evenings and Wednesday evenings. Other than that, there might be smaller gatherings, but for the most part the space would be unoccupied during business hours.

He said that would help with the concern about parking.

Additionally, he said that his church has two vans that pick people up from Revere, East Boston and Everett. He also said that most people don’t drive to the church, but rather car pool.

“People might think it’s 50 people and that means 50 cars,” he said. “It’s not like that. Not everybody has a car. The church has its own vans and we pick people up and bring them to the church…Our church is very close. If a member has a car, they will put it to work and pick up families that do not have transportation. For these reasons, I don’t think parking will be a problem.”

Umana added that they didn’t know they would be required to get parking variances from the City when they put down money to lease the space. He said it was told to him that the use was okay.

“We have already spent a lot of money for this, so I hope that we can get it okayed,” he said.

The matter will be discussed before the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals on April 12 at City Hall.

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