Muslim Community Center opposition still strong

Opponents contact Homeland Security

A week and a half before the Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting to decide the fate of the controversial Muslim Community Center, spokespeople for both sides said there goals had not changed.
The hearing about the former warehouse site at 109 East 24th Street is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, March 14, in the Bayonne City Council Chambers.
The Bayonne Muslim Community hopes to open a complex where its members can learn, pray, and enjoy recreational activities, many of them for children. Some neighborhood residents oppose it, saying they are concerned that the center will diminish their quality of life, citing parking, traffic, noise, and privacy.
The center controversy has drawn national media attention.
A special Jan. 19 meeting was adjourned early after it took more than three and a half hours for the group’s first three witnesses to finish their presentations. Attendees asked many questions, and when the 6 p.m. meeting went beyond 9:30, Board Chairman Mark Urban ended it, since the meeting likely would have gone past the 10 p.m. cutoff time.
Two more project witnesses will testify on March 14. Then the board may make a decision about whether to approve the project.
“Nothing has changed on our side,” said Waheed Akbar, secretary of the Bayonne Muslim Community. He said a traffic expert and professional planner will speak on Monday.
“The traffic engineer’s going to explain how to remediate the parking situation,” Akbar said. “He’ll talk about the surveys he’s done.”
The plan for the project has been approved for just fewer than 40 spaces, although the Bayonne Muslim Community said that additional spaces would be available if the center used valet parking.
Meanwhile, some neighborhood and city residents remain united in their opposition to the center, according to Joe Wisniewski of East 23rd Street, who lives one block away. He said the opposition group has met since the January hearing and is hoping to get more Bayonne residents admitted to the City Council Chambers this time. His said center proponents stacked the chambers last time with people from outside Bayonne.

Parking and quality-of-life issues

Wisniewski cites parking issues.
“They’re allocated for 36 parking spots. They had said they’re going to have hundreds of people there,” he said. Valet service for a mosque is very unusual. Having that makes it clear there’s not going to be the parking area that they need.”
William Finnerty, the attorney representing the Bayonne Muslim Community, said there is sufficient parking for what is being planned.
“There’s more than adequate parking and on-street parking for the activities we’re talking about,” he said. “The only day you may have more people coming to pray is Friday afternoon, when there’s nobody in the area and there’s no impact on anyone.”
Finnerty said that there are a bar, laundry, and school in the area without onsite parking and that no one has complained about those places.
Wisniewski said he believes there are up to 3,000 practitioners of the Muslim faith in Bayonne, and he questioned how hundreds of them attending the proposed center would affect that east side neighborhood, which he described as peaceful and quiet.
Akbar said issues related to the community center have been considered and will be addressed. He said he hoped the opposition is not due to bigotry, but strictly to the issues already raised.
“The more and more you hear things, you don’t want to think it’s anything else besides that,” Akbar said. “You think it could be something else besides parking, noise, and even pollution. They’re not going to be anything more than they were before, when we weren’t there. I definitely hope the reason is not something else.”
Wisniewski said his opposition is not related to ethnic, religious, or cultural differences.
“Whether it’s a ShopRite or whether it’s a movie theater, we would not like a big commercial entity there,” he said.

Concerns about center attendees

Wisniewski did say, however, that his group had contacted the Department of Homeland Security to weigh in on the matter.
“We want to make sure that the people coming to the mosque are law-abiding citizens and that there will be no problems there,” he said. “We want to make sure that anybody coming in there is not a threat to the community.”
Wisniewski said he was more concerned about the people who would come to the neighborhood because of the Muslim center than the ShopRite.
“I guess whether it was a mosque or a ShopRite, there are more concerns with a mosque, more underlying factors, than with a ShopRite,” he said. “The main thing is that it’s a residential area, and we want to maintain the integrity of the area. With the mosque being involved there would be more threats to the neighborhood.”
Wisniewski said he felt that way because many of the people who came to the Jan. 19 Zoning Board hearing at City Hall were from outside of the city and the area.
A resident a half block away from the community center site was stronger in his reasons for being against the Muslim center.
“I don’t want it there. In a post-9/11 world how could you not be concerned? I’m concerned for my family’s safety,” said Donnie Rutan. “It’s a proven fact that any terrorist attack that has ever been recorded has had something to do with the people of the mosque in that area,” he said.
But another Bayonne resident strongly disagreed with Rutan’s assessment.
“Most Italian Americans living in Bayonne, such as myself, would bristle were someone to associate us with the Mafia due only to our ethnicity,” said Donna Farina, a university professor. “In the same way, it is outrageous to make blanket accusations against any religious group. I have friends and colleagues who are Muslim and I don’t want them to be insulted in this way.”

Joseph Passantino may be reached at

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group