Zoning board approves mosque request
by BRIAN NADIG
The Zoning Board of Appeals at its Sept. 16 meeting approved a plan to open a mosque near the Elston-Lawrence intersection, near where another mosque has been operating in a storefront without proper zoning for years, according to area residents.
The approval comes nearly 2 years after many residents expressed opposition to the project at a community meeting at Palmer School. A group of residents living near the site spent about $17,000 hiring a zoning attorney, traffic expert and a land planner to fight the proposal.
"Obviously we’re not happy with the decision," resident Lisa Stringer said. "We’ve never objected to building a mosque in the neighborhood. Let’s just find the right location."
Two commercial property owners in the area testified at the meeting that they would purchase the planned site of the mosque if a more suitable location could be found it, Stringer said.
The mosque would be located in a vacant industrial building at 4846 N. Elston Ave. that was once used by an auto body business. The triangular parcel is bordered on three sides by alleys that run parallel to Elston Avenue, Lawrence Avenue and Kentucky Avenue.
The Islamic Center of Chicagoland Inc. also is planning to open a community center at 4856 N. Elston Ave., where a car rental agency once operated. The community center would be across an alley from the mosque.
The zoning board approved requests for special use to establish a religious facility and a community center in a commercial zone and to operate an off-site parking lot for the mosque. The community center’s 33-space parking lot also would serve the mosque.
The board’s hearing reportedly lasted about 2 1/2 hours, as both the Islamic Center and opponents of the proposal brought large contingents to the meeting. Members of the Mayfair Civic Association testified against the proposal, while officers of the North Mayfair Improvement Association expressed support for it.
Residents living near the site have expressed concern that the mosque would increase traffic on side streets and in alleys and that it would bring hundreds of pedestrians to an alley that is used by area businesses. A row of homes on Kentucky Avenue is across the alley from the site.
"It’s undoubtedly the worst location I’ve ever seen," attorney John Pikarski Jr., who represented area home owners, said. It’s on an alley. They say that there’s going to be 100 to 150 people in the mosque, but they’re averaging 267 (across the street)."
Islamic Center officials have said that they do not own or rent the storefront at 4809 N. Elston Ave. where prayer services have been held, but several civic association members contend that some of the center’s members attend services there.
Center officials reportedly are seeking to install a flashing signal that people crossing the alley could activate by pushing a button, serving as a warning to motorists. A recessed entryway to the mosque is planned to address concern that the building is not set back from the alley.
The fact that Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) did not oppose the proposal and that the city Department of Planning and Development issued a letter of recommendation for the mosque created an uphill battle for his clients, Pikarski said.
Laurino testified that there are only 12 buildings in the city that are surrounded by alleys. "A building like this would never be built in Chicago today," she said. "Unfortunately, buildings with no direct access to a public street or sidewalk do sparingly exist and one is located in my ward."
However, Laurino did not say that she was for or against the proposal.
The department’s suggestions included closing the alley, installing speed bumps or posting a crossing guard, Pikarski said.
Project renderings that were presented at the zoning board hearing differed from the ones that were displayed at the community meeting in 2014, Pikarski said. The revised renderings lacked several of the decorative features that were proposed for the buildings, he said.
The North Mayfair association hosted the community meeting. Lynn Burmeister, who is on the association’s executive board, said at the time that a group of Yemeni residents who were seeking to open the mosque had become active in the association and that the association was trying to attract a wider group of residents.
Stringer said that she hopes that the mosque will become a good neighbor and that residents’ concerns about pedestrian safety and traffic can be addressed. "At this point everyone needs to sit back and regroup," she said. "You don’t want to be in an adversarial relationship with your neighbors."