Muslim youth center raising red flags

A new Muslim youth and community center planned for Coney Island Avenue has nearby residents who live behind the site worrying about the traffic impact, and how a new building that doesn’t look like anything nearby will affect the appearance of their block.

The two issues have those living on residential Stratford Road, between Ditmas Avenue and Dorchester Road, suspicious of the plans by the Islamic Circle of North America to construct the center on a vacant lot where a Victorian house stood till it was demolished for development in 2006.

“People are not too crazy about it because it would change the whole character of the block,” said Henry Pinsker, who lives a few doors down. “It’s not going to look Victorian.”

Residents fear size will be an issue because zoning laws allow community facilities like the youth center to be considerably larger than a private residence built on the same lot.

“But, there’s nothing to complain about because there are no plans yet,” Pinsker noted. “I wish they were across Coney Island Avenue. Then, I wouldn’t give a darn.”

The distance of the site from the corner also has raised some red flags, even though the proposal likely meets requirements set forth in the city’s zoning code.

“I really don’t see it in the middle of the block,” said Annette Strawder, who lives across the street. “This is a residential area. It doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Having the entrance on Stratford Road would be a burden, she added.

“You put one of those places in, and the next thing you know, the street starts to fill up.”

There is a need, however, for such facilities in the neighborhood, given the lack of parks within walking distance.

“You want kids to have a place to play,” remarked Janice Thomas, who was visiting Strawder. “There are no places for kids between the ages of eight or nine and 16 or 17. We do need churches and other types of places to invite kids in to play. But, are they opening it to other kids from different cultures?”

That is up in the air, said Azeem Khan, the Islamic Circle’s assistant secretary general. Khan said it was “too early to say” whether the center would be open to the entire community. He did say, however, that the group “would like to make as many programs as possible open.”

The group plans to have the entrance on Coney Island Avenue, according to Khan, but that, too, is less than ideal from the residents’ perspective. Because the block is so shallow, the row of houses facing on Stratford Road have their garages on Coney Island Avenue.

Putting the center’s entrance on the main drag could limit traffic problems feared by residents, but opens up the Pandora’s box of how the Stratford Road streetscape will look with the rear wall of the center sandwiched in between two Victorian homes, possibly not lining up with the façades of the adjacent homes.

Even though it seems strange, that arrangement is probably perfectly legal, said Ryan Fitzgibbon, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Buildings. “We have to look at the plan, but most likely it would be fine,” she said.

Nonetheless, Khan was quick to say that the group would try to minimize the difficulties of the location.

“We are trying our best to have it not look so awkward,” Khan said, noting that residents’ worries about traffic and appearance were “Totally understandable.” Soundproofing will be included, he noted, stressing, “We really want to build something that meets our needs and at the same time doesn’t cause any frustration for the neighbors.”

Before construction begins, Khan added, the group plans to “bring stakeholders in, to see if they understand our vision, and see if they have suggestions so we can incorporate ideas from people in the community.”

The center is urgently needed, Khan said. The location was chosen because the neighborhood has “a high Muslim population and also a high-needs population. The poverty level is very high, women’s needs are highly neglected among the existing Muslim institutions, and the needs of children and youth are also neglected. There are no recreational facilities available for young Muslim people, especially those from an immigrant background, whose parents send them to school and tell them to come home right away. They don’t have positive outlets. They need mentoring, and to be among their peers, and to have a safe place to ask the questions they don’t ask their own parents.”

There are no firm plans as of yet, and no date for construction to begin, because the Islamic Circle must still raise a significant amount of money to bring its plan to fruition, though Khan said the group is planning to put up some sort of temporary facility at the site so they can begin using it for programs now held in far-flung locations.

Plans for the temporary building are still being developed, Khan added, noting that it probably would include no more than space for a classroom or meeting space that could hold 50 people. It would not contain any recreational facilities. The group is hoping to start the temporary building within the next few months.

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