From Main Street to the altar – Trend of churches locating on Broadway storefronts has some bothered, others facing reality

April 10, 2009
By

Domenic Testa, 11-month-old Caterina Testa and Fr. George are shown outside St. Anthony’s Church following last week’s Palm Sunday service. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Palm Sunday falls on the last Sunday of Lent (the Sunday before Easter) and marks the beginning of Holy Week.

Domenic Testa, 11-month-old Caterina Testa and Fr. George are shown outside St. Anthony’s Church following last week’s Palm Sunday service. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Palm Sunday falls on the last Sunday of Lent (the Sunday before Easter) and marks the beginning of Holy Week.

By Seth Daniel

seth@reverejournal.com

This Sunday, Easter Sunday, residents from many quarters of the city will celebrate the religious holiday at their various churches, and in one district of the city – the business district – at least three churches will be singing their praises amidst nail salons, pizza shops and various other places of commerce.

Just about everything has gone down on Broadway over the years, but one thing that hasn’t is church.

However, a new trend in the Broadway business district the last year has been for storefront churches to occupy what used to be traditional storefront businesses.

The trend has made some city councillors unhappy, people in the business community concerned, and the city treading very lightly around the issue to avoid a court case.

Others, though, think that the churches might just be a symptom of a business district that is struggling to stay viable.

“We ought to have a place for the business district,” said Ward 3 Councillor Arthur Guinasso, noting that he didn’t want to inhibit anyone’s ability to worship. “I don’t think it’s the place for a church. It’s not fair to all the other businesses…It’s just not a proper place.”

Ward 6 Councillor Charlie Patch agreed with Guinasso, with both of them recently putting a fact-finding motion in to the City Council.

“I’m certainly not against religion, but I think you have a downtown area there full of commercial buildings with limited parking, and I don’t think it’s the right place for a church meeting hall,” he said, noting that the lack of parking is his main concern.

For at least one of the churches, the hope is that its presence on Broadway can make a difference for the youth.

“Our goal is to help people in the city of Revere and to invest in juveniles here,” said Pastor Salvador Duarte of Ministerio Palabra Uncion y Fuego Church. “We chose the main street, Broadway, because we think the main way to make things better is to teach people about God and how they can get better…Why we chose Broadway is because we have a lot of people walking up and down there, and we see a lot of juveniles on the corner there.”

He added that he has members from Revere, Everett and Chelsea.

Treading Lightly

It is a very delicate issue when it comes to where a church can and cannot locate.

Naturally, most would want businesses in the business district and churches in a more residential area. That’s traditionally how it’s gone, but state zoning laws exempt churches and many other nonprofit organizations from the city’s zoning regulations. The only thing the city can control is parking and setback requirements.

“Nothing can really be done about it,” said Mayor Tom Ambrosino. “The Legislature has made a clear policy choice on this, which I don’t think is wrong…We have decided to tread lightly with churches. The last thing we want to do is be in Superior Court fighting a church. The policy is tread lightly with these churches.”

About one year ago, Pastor Duarte’s church, the Spanish-speaking Ministerio Palabra Uncion y Fuego, located itself in the old West Coast Video Store in the 300th block of Broadway.

Soon after, the city’s Inspectional Services Department issued a cease and desist order on the church for lack of parking. Now, however, they have struck an agreement with the city that allows them no more than 60 occupants – though no one is counting people at the door.

The zoning formula requires one parking spot for every five seats, and the church has 12 spots behind the former storefront, which allowed 60 people.

Meanwhile, two more churches have opened up just across the street.

The Renewed Life Christian Center opened up at 333 Broadway behind Designer Optical, and holds Sunday services twice a month and a Bible Study every Thursday, according to a sign on the door.

Likewise, the Maranatha Church, formerly of Everett, appears to be holding services at 329 Broadway (the old Revere Journal building) in a space that they have completely renovated into a worship center. However, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) denied the church a parking variance earlier this year. Just how that figures into their situation is unknown and probably is a consequence of treading lightly.

A Business Plan

Despite not being able to do much to detract churches from the district, city administrators said they didn’t feel it was the best use for the district – at least from a planning perspective.

“Everyone has that right to religious freedom,” said City Planner Frank Stringi. “I don’t think it’s the most desirable use in the downtown area. It takes away some of the vitality and diversity of the business district. It is what it is, though, and the city can only do so much.”

The mayor said he is comfortable with a few churches in the district, but wouldn’t want to see too many.

“The city would prefer diverse uses in its General Business districts,” he said. “We certainly don’t want five churches on Broadway. That would not be our preference – or five nail painting places, either. Sometimes, though, you can’t control these things.”

Ward 4 Councillor George Rotondo, who represents the Broadway district, said he isn’t entirely in favor of the churches occupying storefronts.

“Personally, I do not feel that churches should be in a business district,” he said. “What troubles me is when a business district does not have a church and churches open up in storefronts and take away from the business district. Once allowed, there’s not really anything you can do about it.”

Guinasso said it might be a wise idea if more existing churches were to share their spaces, renting out time periods to churches that don’t have permanent spaces. That, he said, would keep the districts orderly and would provide much-needed revenues for existing churches. Some churches in Revere have already begun doing that.

Several business owners have expressed frustration with the parking situation caused by the churches on Broadway, leaving them with no parking when church services are being conducted.

However, Pastor Duarte said his church is only there three times a week, and only for a couple of hours. He added their presence helps the local businesses.

“We help the economy because we have a lot of people who go to church,” said Duarte. “When they leave church, they decide to go to the stores and buy things. I think our neighbors are kind of happy. We are there for a couple hours, and we have people who walk into the stores, and we help the economy of Revere.”

Hospitable Environment?

For Revere, churches in the business district are a very foreign idea. Having been mostly a residential community with distinct boundaries between home and business, such a mix of uses bothers some people. That’s compounded by the fact that numerous business districts in urban areas have seen their death once storefront churches began to locate there.

But is it the presence of churches that drags down those business districts, or are the churches a symptom of an already trouble-laden and struggling business district?

“Churches are a symptom of a failing district,” said Rotondo. “The churches are filling a void due to a deteriorating economic scene on Broadway caused mostly by arrant adolescent kids running around selling drugs, drinking and being hooligans at all hours of the day. It’s the old broken window theory.”

Laurie Leone, executive director of the Revere Chamber of Commerce, didn’t go quite so far, but said that some of her members find frustration with the business climate on Broadway.

“Many [storeowners on Broadway] recognize and lament the character of the pedestrian traffic,” she said. “If you’re trying to have a nice business and you have one, you’re going to get graffiti; and if you put out flower pots or spiral hedges, they’re going to get broken, stolen or burned up. If you want to have café tables outside, they’ll get taken, and who knows who will come sit in them. There’s also a huge problem with litter…Many businesses have to have a buzzer and cameras and alarms.”

That climate, she said, could be creating empty storefronts – leading property owners to rent to churches.

She said that maybe it’s time to renew a drive to restore the business district on Broadway.

“There should be downtown revitalization, and there would be good people and businesses that would participate,” she said.

Rotondo echoed Leone’s comments, noting there needs to be an overlay zoning district on Broadway, regulations that allow businesses to build higher, create more parking and streamline the storefront facades from Fenno Street to Pitcairn Street.

However, for now, maybe not having churches in the district is only a matter of prayer.

“The question you have to ask yourself at this point is if you want an empty office space or if you want a church there,” Rotondo said. “I would rather see a business there, but the fact is we’re not going to see a business there, and the property owner would leave his property and default on his taxes. We certainly don’t want that.”

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