A group of Sheepshead Bay residents who claim that a planned mosque is using a zoning loophole to skirt parking requirements lost their latest attempt to halt the controversial project, after the Board of Standards and Appeals unanimously rejected their claims today.
Though it hasn’t attracted as much attention as Park 51, the Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, the mosque planned for 2812 Voorhies Avenue, on a residential block between East 28th and East 29th streets, has inspired protests, a lawsuit and challenges before the Department of Buildings.
Bay People, an organization formed to oppose the project, claims the mosque will increase traffic and noise in the neighborhood, decreasing property values. But the group has also come under fire for what is seen as its anti-Muslim bias.
In several DOB complaints lodged earlier this year, Bay People contended that the mosque, which is affiliated with the non-profit Muslim American Society, must provide on-site parking because of the number of worshippers expected at the property.
But DOB, which had already approved the project, shot down the challenges, finding the mosque would comply with zoning rules. The BSA voted 5-0 to affirm DOB today and is expected to issue a written decision shortly, according to Howard Goldman, a land use attorney who represented Bay People.
Goldman said the decision would have an impact across the city, allowing any house of worship to design prayer rooms in such a way to avoid providing parking. “Any house of worship can now follow this ruling,” Goldman said, adding, “It may require that there be an amendment to the zoning resolution to eliminate this loophole.”
Developer Allowey Ahmed bought the property — comprised of a vacant lot and a lot with a single-family home — for $800,000 in 2007, from a couple who had owned there since 1974, according to city property records. Last October, he got the green light from DOB to erect a three-story brick building, with a 2,465 square foot structure on a 4,500-square-foot lot, department records show.
For Bay People, the sticking point is the way the mosque’s proposed worship rooms are divided into two separate spaces: a 138-person main assembly room on the first floor and a 75-person secondary room overlooking the main space, according to plans submitted to DOB. (Goldman believes the second space is intended as a prayer room for women.)
New York’s zoning code requires that houses of worship — mosques, churches, synagogues, or otherwise — provide one parking space for every 15 occupants of a site’s largest assembly room, or 9.2 parking spaces in the case of the Sheepshead Bay mosque. But facilities that are required to provide fewer than ten spaces are, in fact, exempt from the parking obligations altogether.
The Bay People argue that the mosque developers designed the assembly rooms, which they say are meant to be used simultaneously for prayers, to evade the parking regulation. “They manipulated the size of the men’s worship room [the main room] to come just under the number that would require any parking at all,” Goldman said, “and I think that was very intentional.”
If the rooms were counted as a single assembly hall for zoning purposes, he said, the mosque would be required to provide 20 parking spaces, cutting into the size of the building.
But Lamis Deek, an attorney for the developers, said the wall between the rooms was a permanent partition required by fire regulations. “This is a real pulling at straws,” she said. (The construction manager on the project declined to comment without speaking with Deek first.)
This is not the only front where Bay People are fighting the mosque.
In February, they filed a nuisance claim in New York state court seeking to block the project. The developers fired back with counterclaims for malicious prosecution, defamation and abuse of process, seeking at least $56,000, plus punitive and other damages.
In September, Kings County Supreme Court Judge Mark Partnow dismissed both filings, but Deek said that both parties have appealed.
Bay People has maintained that they do not oppose the project on xenophobic grounds, but Deek said the organization had launched a campaign to persuade city officials that the mosque would act as a terrorist recruitment center. “When that failed, they then attempted to mask their initial intent … with what they knew to be a frivolous legal claim,” she said.
Goldman declined to discuss the issue, saying it was irrelevant to the BSA case, but he maintained that the lack of parking spots would cause significant congestion on the block.
Bay People, the Muslim American Society and Ahmed did not return requests for comment.