Residents express zoning, traffic concerns about North Mayfair mosque proposal
by BRIAN NADIG
The debate on whether to allow a Yemeni mosque and community center in North Mayfair has nothing to do with cultural issues but is all about traffic and zoning, according to residents at an Oct. 16 community meeting.
American Muslim preacher Yusuf Estes, who converted from Christianity to Islam about 20 years ago, gave a presentation on the role of mosques, calling them a “safe haven” and important gathering place for Muslim and non-Muslim members of a community. “It’s more than a place of worship,” he said. “A mosque also is a place to congregate.”
About 125 people attended the meeting, which the North Mayfair Improvement Association hosted at Palmer School. Project officials acquired the properties for mosque and community center last December.
Some residents said that while they appreciated Estes’ comments about Islam, his talk was a distraction to what the meeting should be focusing on. “It’s purely a zoning issue,” a woman said, while a man said that the mosque would “be in the middle of the neighborhood.”
Resident Chris Lambesis told Yemeni residents the meeting that he hopes “we become good friends and neighbors” but that the mosque would be “15 feet from my bungalow” in the 4800 block of North Kentucky Avenue. Lambesis said that he is worried that the mosque would lead to an increase in noise and in foot and vehicular traffic in the alley behind his home.
At issue is the fact that the mosque would be located on a triangular-shaped parcel that is bordered by an alley on all three sides, with no direct access to a street. The mosque would be built inside a former auto body shop and would be located across one of the alleys from a former car rental facility at 4854 N. Elston Ave., which would be converted into a community center.
The car rental site has 37 parking spaces, which would be used by both the mosque and community center, said project organizer Naser Nasser. Under the city’s zoning code, the combined capacity of the mosque and community center would be 296, he said.
Plans call for the main doorways to the mosque to be located off the alley that runs parallel to Elston, and for both parking entrances to be accessible only from an alley that runs southwest from Elston, with the only exit from the parking lot being on Elston. The traffic flow in and out of the parking area was designed to prevent use of the alley behind the homes on Kentucky, said project architect M. Vazir Ali.
Nasser said that the guards would be used to direct traffic in the lot and that signs would be posted prohibiting vehicles which are existing the lot from turning into the alley, from which other alleys and side streets could be reached.
Nasser said that the mosque would have between 100 and 150 members and that many of them would be walking to services since they live within a couple of blocks of the site. “We’re neighbors,” he said, listing area blocks where Yemeni families reside. “Some have lived 20, 30 years in Mayfair.”
The busiest time for the mosque would be between 1 and 2 p.m. on Fridays, which Nasser referred to as “our Sabbath,” and that smaller crowds of about 10 to 20 people are expected for each of the five daily prayer sessions, which start as early as 5 a.m. and run into the evening depending on the time of year, Nasser said. “There will be no loud announcements or calls to prayer,” Nasser said.
Some residents expressed concern that traffic backups on Elston would impede motorists exiting the lot and that those drivers would then use the alley instead of Elston. Nasser said that the Friday afternoon service usually ends at 1:35 p.m. and that traffic on Elston is not congested at that time.
Some residents asked Nasser if his organization was affiliated with prayer gatherings that reportedly are being held without the proper zoning in a storefront at 4809 N. Elston Ave. The religious group Dar al Hadeeth promotes the facility, which some residents referred to as a mosque or a social club, on its Facebook page.
Nasser said that his organization, the Islamic Community Center of Chicagoland. does not own or rent the storefront at 4809 N. Elston and that his project would meet zoning requirements. He said that he plans to apply for a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals to allow for religious assembly inside the former auto body shop.
Programming and hours of operation for the community center would not be finalized until input from the community is gathered, Nasser said. Some of the recommendations are English-as-a-second language classes, computer workshops, after-school tutoring for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and farmers markets, which would be held in the parking lot, he said.
Nasser said that the association and other community groups would have the opportunity to have their events announced at the mosque and that the center would be available for community meetings. In response to residents’ concerns, Nasser said that measures would be taken to make sure visitors to the center and mosque do not loiter in the alleys.
Some home owners criticized a project rendering because it showed trees behind the site instead of homes. Nasser said that the rendering was rushed into production so it would be ready for the meeting and that it would be updated.
One resident said after the meeting that there may not be a lot of other development options for the site of the proposed mosque since it does not front any street and that the project would be feasible if foot and vehicle traffic to the site can be contained to the Elston side of the property.
Lambesis, who serves as chairman of the Mayfair Civic Association’s Zoning and Development Committee, invited project officials to give an update on the proposal at the association’s meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave. Lambesis said that both associations should be discussing the project due to the site’s proximity to Lawrence, which is the boundary separating the membership area for the civic and improvement associations.
Improvement association president Lynn Burmeister said that the association’s board previously presented some of the community’s concerns to Nasser and that the association was informed that there would not be an entry door at the rear of the mosque, along the alley behind the homes on Kentucky.
Burmeister said that in recent months an increasing number of Yemeni residents have become active in the association. She said that one of the goals of the association has been to reach out to a wider group of residents.
“We struggled to find ways to reach out to those not on our membership lists,” Burmeister said.