Has Bayonne failed its Muslim community?

The unintended consequences of benign zoning rules

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The Bayonne Zoning Board’s decision on March 6 not to approve a local Muslim group’s plan to convert a warehouse on 109 East 24th Street into a Muslim Community Center has prompted the city to reckon with the consequences of its newfound reputation. Since the vote, one Planning Board commissioner resigned after criticizing a mother who spoke out against the plan, the mayor of Hoboken tweeted “I would welcome a mosque in Hoboken,” and the U.S. Department of Justice contacted the president of the local Muslim group to inquire about possible discrimination.
“We don’t know if we want to step away from the property altogether and give up or pursue the state and federal court route,” said Waheed Akbar, president of Bayonne Muslims. “We’re speaking to some lawyers and haven’t come to a decision yet.” They expect to decide in the coming weeks.
Bayonne Muslims’ application failed to meet zoning ordinances that mandate parking minimums; in this case, about one parking space for every two prayer mats. Occupancy for Islamic places of worship is measured in prayer mats. The original application cited an occupancy of 216, which was later reduced to 135 as part of a plan to split prayer services into multiple sessions, thereby reducing the parking requirement from 81 to 62 spaces. As of March’s meeting, the group was seeking a variance for 36 spaces, far below what is required.
At previous hearings, the group said it intended to integrate shuttle service into the application, and it followed through with it. The organization made an agreement with management at the nearby South Cove shopping center— nine blocks away—to allow for short-term parking. The Bayonne Planning and Zoning Division had even included short-term parking in South Cove’s redevelopment plan to accommodate the group. Yet, shuttle service never made it into the final application.
“We had a contract in place with South Cove and a shuttle service company,” said Akbar. “It was originally a part of our application, but we got the sense from the zoning board that they weren’t open to it, and our lawyer said to just take it out because it isn’t going to help anyway.”
Bayonne City Planner Suzanne Mack confirmed, “They never had that in their final application.”
Whether a breakdown of communication between Bayonne Muslims and the zoning board is to blame for the city’s Muslim community having to look elsewhere for a new place of worship is unclear. The vocal prejudice of neighborhood residents seemed to not influence the board’s decision. “This is purely a zoning issue,” said Zoning Board Chairman Mark Urban multiple times at that the March 6 meeting. “I really do hope that if it doesn’t get passed, that you are submitting an application for another location. But this little dead end street is not suited.”

Are parking minimums the problem?

The true culprit preventing the Bayonne Muslims from the expanded prayer space they need may be laws requiring parking minimums. Opponents of the proposed mosque were careful not to invoke race or creed. Exceeding parking minimums by 26 spaces likely would have resulted in a rejected application, no matter the location. The East Side neighborhood is not the only one in the city that places a premium on street parking, or that remains dependent on it.
Since their invention, cars have been a transformative technology in American society, but also a nuisance, especially when it comes to parking. Driving, for the most part, still saves time and energy when compared to walking, public transport, or ride-sharing. It remains the preferred mode of transportation in Bayonne. But cars eat up the most limited resource in cities – space.
“If you look at Bayonne, [zoning board member]who voted for us, mentioned in the process that everywhere you look in Bayonne is the same story and same situation,” said Akbar. “There isn’t a place in Bayonne that doesn’t have a parking issue.”
In this case at least, Bayonne zoning laws unintentionally enabled some to exclude and discriminate against their own neighbors. If the Bayonne zoning laws resembled those of Buffalo, for example, this whole dispute might have been avoided.

The Buffalo model

In January, Buffalo became the first and only city in the country to remove parking minimums from its zoning rule book. The issue of parking is simply not the Buffalo Zoning Board’s problem. Developers, private businesses, and even people seeking to build a new place of worship decide how much parking to provide or whether to provide it at all.
Buffalo’s reasoning for such a radical move is that the city struggles mightily with sprawl and traffic congestion to the point where city planners are wary about giving residents any more reason to drive a car. In Newark, new developments within 1,200 feet of a public transit station are exempt from parking minimums; similar rules exist in Manhattan.
“I would be against following the buffalo,” quipped City Planner Suzanne Mack, citing disparities between Buffalo and Bayonne in size, density, geography, and general residential needs. “Long story short, parking requirements that exist now are very standard.” Mack cited the Institute of Transportation Engineers Handbook, a standard set of planning and zoning rules adopted by many municipalities across the country. It was referenced many times throughout the Bayonne Muslims’ hearing. “They’re not made up,” Mack said.“They come out of somewhere.”
Mack admitted, however, that Bayonne’s zoning laws are behind the times, and the City is changing. “We’ve dropped the parking ratio all over the city by writing new redevelopment plans,” she said. The old residential parking minimum requirement was 1.25 spots to every new unit built. Today, that ratio is 1:1. “But,” Mack said, “it’s not a standard because we haven’t updated the ordinance yet.”

The Master Plan

Zoning laws are updated through the Master Plan process, which is supposed to take place every eight years, but rarely does. Bayonne last updated its Master Plan and zoning ordinances in 2002. Currently, the City is undergoing a major overhaul of the Master Plan that will see new parking minimum requirements, as well as a litany of other rules that will determine how developers should build (how tall, how much parking to provide, etc.)
“Because our Master Plan is so old and defunct, we have a lot of problems,” Mack said.“Things have changed.” As evidence, Mack cited the 16 redevelopment plans she has worked on in the last two years. “Which is unheard of,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing them if our Master Plan and zoning ordinance was up to date.”
Redevelopment plans supersede ordinances, and are increasingly used by developers, who often grow frustrated constructing buildings in 2017 based on ordinances from 2002.
Even when Bayonne’s zoning laws are finally updated, the Bayonne Muslims’ application may still be insufficient. By that time, the group may have decided to convert a building that suits its needs better, a possibility that highlights the group’s other issue – limited properties suitable for a place of worship. Waheed Akbar called the problem a “double-edged sword.”
“Right now, Bayonne is a tough place to purchase anything,” he said. “If we buy another warehouse we have to go to a zoning board again which we don’t want to do, and there are no churches for sale right now.” A church would be ideal for a new mosque because they predate and often have exceptions to zoning rules that make it difficult to convert pre-existing structures that were not used as a place of worship. Akbar remains optimistic that a better site will turn up. As for the controversy that swirled around the zoning board meeting, Akbar said, “It is what it is.”

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