New Life Church, with its lively music and real-life stories,
has experienced skyrocketing attendance since 1995, and the group
has pushed to expand by building a new auditorium. However,
neighborhood resistance has inhibited the construction of this
auditorium.

The church has had trouble getting approval for the project from
city planners.

In order to accommodate increased attendance, New Life purchased
the former Delta Zeta sorority house on Washtenaw Avenue and Hill
Street in August 2002.

Since buying the property, New Life has attempted to build an
auditorium in the acre behind the 10,000-square-foot building, said
Joel VanderSchel, an administrator with New Life.

But New Life’s ambitions hit a snag when city leaders
rejected the group’s plans for the site.

After hiring an architect who drew up the site plan, New Life
sent the proposal to the Department of City Planners at the
Planning and Development Services. There, a nine-member planning
committee voted to postpone deciding on the project three
times.

VanderSchel said New Life was required to obtain a site plan as
well as a special exception plan because of its proximity to
surrounding residences, such as sororities, fraternities and
co-ops.

Nearby residents have caused the city to turn down the church at
the planning-commission level, said Larry Pickel, the building
official for the Planning and Development Services.

The proposal has yet to get to the point at which the members
could apply for building permits, he added.

Permits are required for any new construction, alterations and
additions that are larger than 200 square feet, or any repairs
whose estimated cost is more than $600.

Groups applying for permits must have their overall site plan
approved, which takes into account neighborhoods and surrounding
inhabitants, Pickel said.

VanderSchel said he thought the many “vocal
neighbors” who have vehemently opposed the construction and
complained of increased traffic and size of the construction site
contributed to the city’s decision.

“The planning commission seems to be taking the complaints
of the opposed people weightier than any other side,” he
said.

Matt Turner, a sophomore at Washtenaw Community College and
resident of the co-op, “Truth House” — two
buildings down from New Life — said, “I am worried
about the increased traffic flow which could make it difficult to
get out of my driveway into the street during service
times.”

Already, restricted parking spaces in that area could lead to
blockage, as Sunday services can bring in many parishioners, Turner
said.

Increased traffic flow also concerned Jesse Tevelow, an LSA
senior and member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

He said that there is already too much traffic on Washtenaw.

Because pedestrian disregard for crosswalks occurs throughout
campus, VanderSchel questioned why this would especially affect
this project.

“It’s funny as well because they are trying to make
decisions on the basis of students breaking the law,” he
said.

Pastor Dave Winningham of the University Lutheran Chapel, a
supporter of New Life’s growth efforts, agrees with
VanderSchel. Winningham said he is aware of the high percentage of
parishioners who are pedestrians, yet also pointed out that a high
volume of pedestrians is also a problem on Friday and Saturday
nights.

The need for a larger location equipped with a new auditorium
was spurred by the fast growth of the New Life community.

When VanderSchel, who has been a member since 1995, began
attending New Life, the congregation included around 50 people.
Today, Sunday mornings can attract about 700 people, he said.

Services have bounced around to 10 different locations, and now
take place in the Modern Languages Building.

“It’s been a challenge, especially from a church
perspective. We are trying to grow and build a community and need
bigger places to meet because of our explosive growth in the last
several years,” he said. “The concept is to hold
accessible services for the students — it would be such a
short walking distance from campus.”

Awaiting the next public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday Oct. 5,
VanderSchel hopes the plan won’t be overturned again.

New Life feels the project needs closer review to show that the
auditorium construction will benefit the community, but
“it’s a complicated matter,” VanderSchel said.

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