East Side neighborhood in the spotlight
Debate over mosque approval at upcoming zoning board
by Rory Pasquariello
Reporter staff writer
Mar 01, 2017 | 3760 views | 0 0 comments | 250 250 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A grey warehouse with a sizeable parking lot and garage surrounded by a barbed wire fence at the end of East 24th Street off Avenue F is the site of the proposed Muslim Community Center that many East Side residents oppose. Liquid containers surround the neighborhood, and a 260-foot wind turbine towers over it from the south. It’s a quiet, dead-end street.

A group of teenagers are hanging out in an open garage and driveway two doors down from the warehouse. During rush hour, they have space to ride bicycles around the front of the home, and up and down 24th Street.

“I don’t want anything big around here. Because I like how peaceful it is around here,” said one 17-year-old. “Nobody bothers you that much.”

A six-story, 189-unit apartment building was approved for another empty site across the street in early January. The building will stretch to East 23rd Street and feature commercial space on Avenue F. Combined with other developments in the area and proximity to the 22nd Street light rail station, the quiet neighborhood may soon spring to life.

The teenager said his opposition to the mosque is not based on religious prejudice, for which media coverage is constantly on the lookout. Buzzfeed News and WNYC both covered a January meeting about the mosque, with WNYC noting one participant wearing a “Make America Great” hat, and recounting the President’s name spray-painted on the current Muslim Community Center in October.

“I don’t care about any of that,” said the teenager. “I’m not pissed about the mosque coming here.” In an apparently unconscious nod to NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), he went on, “I just don’t like that it’s on my block. So like, it’s going to be mad packed. Usually it’s quiet and peaceful. Now it’s going to be a lot of people coming in and out.”

The 17-year-old does not attend the meetings, but many people there agree with him.

“We’re a mixed neighborhood,” said Melanie Flora after last month’s meeting. “We have blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanic. Everyone is welcome. We just don’t want the noise and traffic.” Flora also attended the council meeting to approve the six-story apartment building, complaining that her property’s sunlight will be affected.

Joe Wisniewski, also an East Side resident, said at that meeting, “This has been a two-year battle, and people have to know that it doesn’t belong in our community.” He said the mosque would disrupt the “integrity” of the neighborhood, which consists mainly of one- and two-family homes.

Loarte’s is a one-family home, soon to be across the street from a six-story apartment complex.

Zoning board members are voting to grant a parking variance for 36 parking spots, which neighborhood residents say they need for parking themselves.

The zoning board weighs more heavily whether the neighborhood can sustain an increase in traffic than whether residences want the building. A traffic engineer testified that his study concluded that roads can comfortably withstand increased traffic and parking. Further public comments will be heard at a March 6 meeting.

In response to discussion over parking at the meeting, Bayonne resident Omar Sandhu asked the board to clarify who is allowed to use public parking spaces. One zoning board commissioner replied, “Sandhu, just for the record to be clear, public parking is for everyone, regardless of race or religion.”

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“I’m not pissed about the mosque coming here. I just don’t like that it’s on my block.” – 17-year-old resident

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In favor

Bayonne Muslims, the group looking to convert the warehouse, is currently renting the basement of St. Henry’s Church, which was vandalized in October. The event worried locals who came out to support the mosque, and energized local activists. Also, “Stop the mosque” signs which started showing up in windows of some Bayonne homes last year led to an additional vandalization of a local pastor’s home, further compounding the issue.

A nurse living on the East Side who preferred to remain anonymous, said she has “no objection.”

“I welcome it,” she said. “But I have too many neighbors against it. I don’t want my window smashed, so I don’t want my name in the paper.”

The effort to convert the warehouse to a Muslim Community Center, which includes community and prayer services, first stirred controversy at a zoning board meeting in January of 2016, when City Hall was overcrowded with residents opposed to the mosque’s construction for similar reasons now.

Cities across the country have been sued in recent years for denying permits for mosque construction without good cause, including Bernardsville, which was sued by the U.S.Justice Department in November for denying a similar proposed mosque for discriminatory reasons. Another building in Yonkers was due to be converted into a mosque last year until a group of residents successfully had the building designated a historic landmark. That case is currently making its way through the courts.

The upcoming zoning board meeting on March 6 will be held at Bayonne High School at 6 p.m., for anticipated high turnout. The board gives preference to neighborhood residents to speak at the hearing. One witness, an urban planner, is left to testify, followed by public comments.

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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