Zoning board approves mosque for Elston-Lawrence site
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, where another mosque has been operating in a nearby 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 site of the planned mosque if a more suitable location could be found, 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, which has no direct access to a street, is surrounded on all 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 located across an alley from the mosque.
The zoning board approved special use requests to establish a religious facility and a community center in a commercial zone and to operate an accessory, 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 ½ hours, as both the Islamic Center and project opponents brought a large contingent to the meeting. Members of the Mayfair Civic Association testified against the project, while officers of the North Mayfair Improvement Association voiced support for the project.
Residents living near the site have expressed concern that the proposed mosque would increase traffic on side streets and in alleys and that it would bring hundreds of pedestrians to an alley which is used by area businesses. A row of bungalows on Kentucky is located behind the site.
“It’s undoubtedly the worst location I’ve ever seen. It’s on an alley,” said attorney John Pikarski Jr., who represented area home owners. “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 are 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 which those crossing the alley could activate by pushing a button, serving as a warning to motorists. In addition, a recessed entryway to the mosque is planned to address concerns that the building is not setback from the alley.
The fact that Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) did not oppose the project and that the city Department of Planning and Development issued a letter of recommendation for the plan created an uphill battle for his clients, Pikarski said. Laurino reportedly testified that the location was not ideal for a mosque but did not take a stance for or against the proposal.
The department’s suggestions included closing off the alley, installing speed bumps or posting a crossing guard, Pikarski said.
Project renderings that were presented at the zoning board’s hearing differed from those displayed at the community meeting in 2014, Pikarski said. The revised renderings lacked several of the decorative features which were once proposed for the buildings, he said.
The North Mayfair association hosted the community meeting. At the time Lynn Burmeister, who serves on the association’s executive board, said 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 reach out to a wider group of residents.
Stringer said that now that the project appears to be moving forward, she hopes that the mosque will become a good neighbor and that residents’ pedestrian safety and traffic concerns 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.”