KENSINGTON — An iconic Unitarian church is finding itself at odds with a group of its neighbors upset about a church plan to sell six acres of open space on its property for development.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley is considering subdividing part of its hillside land into as many as 11 parcels which would be developed for single-family homes to raise money for repairs to its 53-year-old church building and the surrounding landscaping and patio areas.
The parcels, located on Lawson Road and Highland Boulevard in Kensington and Craft Avenue in El Cerrito, will be worth an estimated $350,000 to $400,000 apiece, according to Linda Laskowski, chairwoman of the church's land use task force.
Laskowski said the church needs a new roof, its kitchen and bathrooms need to be remodeled and handicapped access needs to be improved, along with other work, and the congregation currently has no other means to pay for it.
"It's a lot of stuff that normally happens to a building after 50 years," she said.
However, a group that calls itself UUCB Neighbors has expressed concerns about development, saying that they don't want to lose the views of San Francisco Bay and the "parklike feel" of the land, which the neighbors use for hiking, dog walking and other outdoor activities.
UUCB Neighbors spokeswoman Pansy Kwong, who lives on Craft Avenue, said her group is looking for alternatives to help the church do the repairs, but they haven't come up with any specific ideas so far.
Kwong said that, besides concerns about the loss of use of the open space, neighbors are also worried about increased traffic if homes are built on the property.
She said she has 43 Kensington and El Cerrito residents on her email list.
"It's a very special little spot, with views of the Bay," Kwong said. "Eleven houses would change the environment and give us years of construction."
Laskowski said her committee has already met with the group and discussed the possibility of scaling back the development plans if it will make the project more acceptable.
"We could go for less than 11 lots," she said.
The land is already zoned for residential development and plans won't require a variance from Contra Costa County, Laskowski said.
A fire road across the property would be paved to provide access to the new houses and the new street would connect Craft Avenue and Lawson Road
"The land slopes down to Highland from the church," Laskowski said. "There are no active fault lines, and it is very close to bedrock so it would be pretty easy to put piers down to prevent landslides."
If the congregation is prevented from selling any of the open land, it may have to sell the entire property, including the church, to a developer, she said.
"We want to keep it as a church, but it's not a cheap building to maintain," Laskowski said.
Kwong said the neighbors"understand what the church's bind is," and added, "The last thing we want is for the church to go under."
The church was founded in Berkeley in 1891. The original building still exists on the UC Berkeley campus on the north side of Bancroft Way next to Zellerbach Auditorium, Laskowski said.
Work began on the current church in 1959, and the congregation relocated to Kensington in 1961, she said.