By JEFF CLEMETSON | Mission Times Courier
Two years ago, a plan to build 24 homes on a narrow strip of land along College Avenue just south of Del Cerro Boulevard was scrapped by developers. The ColRich development had been controversial due to traffic problems it could have caused because of a limited ingress and egress to the property. The project was not supported by the Navajo Community Planners, Inc. (NCPI), but was ultimately approved by City Council, only to be abandoned by developers just after approval when the land was sold to All People’s Church.
All People’s Church (APC) purchased the six-acre property to build a permanent church for its congregation and plans were submitted to the city to construct a building with offices, a gym and a meeting hall that could hold 900 parishioners.
In April of 2019, the church first presented its plans to the Del Cerro community at a special meeting of the Del Cerro Action Council. Pushback by the community was immediate, with residents again concerned about traffic issues and possible uses for a such building like a school or daycare facility.
On Nov. 5, APC presented its most recent plans for the site to the Del Cerro Action Council and on Nov. 11 the NCPI board heard a report from its subcommittee for the project, as well as comments from over 80 residents who attended the online meeting that spoke in favor or opposition to the church.
Subcommittee member Jay Wilson presented to the NCPI board updates on the project, which now include a new traffic signal and an opening in the median on College Avenue that would allow people to turn left onto southbound College Avenue from the church parking lot and left into the church parking lot for people traveling south on College.
Wilson said the proposed light would be equipped with technology that would only be triggered when drivers are turning in or out of the lot and that would be primarily on Sundays.
“The traffic has always been a concern by us, but the traffic report showed very little traffic and not showing any real traffic at all during the week, although it would on Sunday mornings,” he said.
Another change in the project was moving a parking structure closer to College Avenue and away from neighboring homes on Marne Avenue located above the property.
Wilson reported that the number of Sunday services would be two or three to accommodate all the members and to alleviate parking issues because the project only provides around 350 parking spaces. Another issue addressed in the subcommittee report was the height of a cross on the church, which Wilson said the church could build “by right.”
“That’s not a subject that we would be involved with,” he said.
Wilson reported that there are still a number of items that still need to be “considered and ironed out” between the city and All Peoples’ Church that are currently being addressed in the cycles report for the project. When those issues are addressed, APC will make a formal presentation to the Del Cerro Action Council and ask for a recommendation. Wilson said that would likely happen in January 2021. The NCPI board would then schedule a meeting to vote on the project before it goes in front of the city’s Planning Commission and then to the City Council for final approval.
Comments from the NCPI board were few, with board member Marylin Reed raising some concerns about the about the new intersection and whether a current traffic study was used by city staff in determining whether the new intersection and traffic signal is feasible.
Marcela Escobar-Eck, a representative from the Atlantis Group that is designing the church building, assured that the traffic study is a new one and was conducted pre-COVID.
In addition to traffic and other concerns were raised by neighbors in public comments and on the online chat function during the meeting, there was some support for the project from nearby residents and church members who spoke in favor of the project.
Allied Gardens resident Nick Taylor, a staff member for APC, spoke in favor of the project.
“I work with youth in the neighborhood and was a youth myself and honestly any resources and places of support for young people in the neighborhood I believe is a positive thing,” he said.
A handful of others voiced support for the project, including a resident on Marne Avenue, arguing the church would bring increased business to the area; the building has aestheticly pleasing architecture; and crime would be reduced by replacing a plot of land often used for homeless encampments with a secured building.
Still, a majority of those attending the meeting voiced opposition to the project and accused those in support of the project of being either church members or employees.
Traffic concerns and parking issues dominated the discussion on problems with the church, but there were also some concerns that the church would be built far above height restrictions in the general plan, with some neighbors saying the church will build a 50-foot tall building featuring an 11-foot cross above it.
Kristen Byrne, a communications specialist hired by APC, clarified the confusion over the height of the church in a conversation with the Mission Times Courier following the Nov. 11 meeting.
“The project is asking for a height variance, but there was a lot of talk about it being a 50-foot building and that is not true,” she said.
Byrne said that the height limit in the community plan is 30 feet. APC is asking for a variance because more than 88% of the building is proposed to be between 32 and 35 feet. Also, there are tower elements to the building that vary between 40 and 48 feet tall. Atop one of the towers there is a seven-and-a-half-foot cross proposed, she added.
Less clear than the height variance complaint was an issue brought up by several Del Cerro residents about a home on Marne Avenue they said was recently purchased with cash by an LLC. They said they believe that the church had purchased the home through the LLC to possibly tear down and replace with another access point to the church, in case the new intersection on College Avenue is ultimately rejected by the Planning Commission or City Council.
When asked about the validity to the claim, Escobar-Eck said she was unaware of any such purchase. However, in a statement to the Mission Times Courier, APC asserted that “The church did not purchase the home at 5688 Marne Avenue. It was purchased by a member of the church who plans to lease the home. There are no plans to propose using this property as a second access to the church property.”
In an additional statement, APC Pastor Robert Herber said, “It is our desire as a church to be an asset to the community, and we have a high commitment to being a good neighbor. We believe that we offer many benefits, from providing youth programming to offering support to families and seniors. All Peoples Church is a non-denominational church and anyone is welcome.
“For the last two years, we have made a concerted effort to communicate with the community, attending nearly all Del Cerro Action Council meetings to provide updates, presenting to the Navajo Community Planners, and meeting with adjacent neighbors. We will continue to be transparent and work with the community throughout the review and approval process.”
That will be a tough challenge for the church, as evidenced by some residents who feel that the site itself, and not any particular project, is the problem.
In her opposition to the project, Del Cerro resident Mardine Davis alluded to the history of the property and its inability to attract a project that has the consensus of the community.
“As far as land use goes, this [property] has not been developed,” she said. “It was not developed when the rest of Del Cerro was developed for a very good reason — it’s not feasible. There’s no access to it.”
The Del Cerro Action Council will be the next public body to see the project and will be the first to make a recommendation. That could be as early as its very next meeting in January, Wilson said.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.