Residents unhappy with mosque’s alley location
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.
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 an important gathering place for Muslim and non-Muslim members of a community. "It’s more than a place of worship," Estes said. "A mosque also is a place to congregate."
About 125 people attended the meeting, which the North Mayfair Improvement Association held at Palmer School. Project officials acquired the properties 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." Lambesis said that he is concerned 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 on a triangular-shaped parcel that is bordered by an alley on all three sides, with no direct access to a street, in the interior of the area bordered by Lawrence, Elston and Kentucky avenues. There are commercial uses on Lawrence and Elston avenues, and there are eight homes on Kentucky Avenue.
The mosque would be built inside a former auto body shop, and it would be across one of the alleys from a former car rental facility at 4854 N. Elston Ave., which would be converted into the community center.
The car rental site has 37 parking spaces, which would be used by both the mosque and the community center, project organizer Naser Nasser said. Under the city zoning code, the combined capacity of the mosque and the community center would be 296, Nasser said.
Plans call for the main doorways to the mosque to be on the alley that runs parallel to Elston Avenue 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, project architect M. Vazir Ali said.
Nasser said that the mosque would have traffic aides who would direct traffic in the lot and that signs would be posted prohibiting vehicles which are exiting 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 walk to services because 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 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays, which Nasser referred to as "our Sabbath," and that smaller groups 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," he said.
Some residents expressed concern that traffic back-ups on Elston would impede motorists exiting the lot and that those drivers would 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 is 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 religious assembly inside the former auto body shop.
Nasser said that the programming and hours of operation for the community center would not be determined without the participation of residents. 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 ensure that visitors to the center and the mosque do not loiter in the alleys.
Some residents 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 because 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 is the 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 discuss the project due to the proximity of the site to Lawrence Avenue, which is the boundary separating the membership area for the two community associations.
North Mayfair association president Lynn Burmeister said that the association’s board previously presented some of the residents’ 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.