Representatives from the Clifton Mosque on Pershing Meet with Frustrated Neighbors
At the urging of Councilman Tony Latona, Clifton administration organized a Town Hall meeting for Tuesday, September 12, between the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) and the neighbors who live near it to discuss the issues with parking and traffic congestion. All councilpeople were present (Lauren Murphy via Zoom) except for Rosemary Pino, who was absent. Latona said that there have been meetings and discussions for years with no resolution. “The only thing we haven’t done is put everybody in the same room.”
The Islamic Center of Passaic County’s Clifton location is located on Pershing Road. It opened in 2016 as an expansion of its existing Paterson location. There is a newer, third branch, in Prospect Park. Mayor Ray Grabowski started the meeting by thanking the representatives from ICPC for participating and acknowledging that the city is aware of the problems with parking. He asked that everyone focus on possible solutions, not on the problem. Grabowski also reminded everyone about the important freedom for everyone to follow (or not follow) their religion and stressed that the city was in no way seeking to disrupt that. Houses of worship are afforded specific legal protections under RLUIPA, which ensures that these entities are not burdened with unfair restrictions or exclusions that other property owners would not face.
City Manager Nick Villano said that the city received the application for the mosque several years ago, on the property which used to be owned by a small church. The mosque quickly grew in popularity and soon complaints started coming in from residents whose driveways were being blocked by worshippers or who reported increased speeding in the area. He acknowledged that the elders of the ICPC have tried to assist in improving the situation and added that the city had recently painted lines at several corners in an attempt to guide where people could and could not legally park.
Muslims are obligated to offer prayer five times a day. The 1:15 pm service on Fridays seems to be the busiest, Villano said. The popularity of this service creates excessive congestion and parking difficulties in the neighborhood. There have already been a couple of meetings between the city and the mosque to address the problem. Ticketing and issuing summons is not the solution, he said. There is a need for additional parking to appropriately accommodate the growing congregation. The church, which previously owned the property, sold some of its land to TD Bank before it changed hands. That unused grassy space between the two lots might be usable as additional parking, Villano suggested.
City Clerk Nancy Ferrigno read into the record a letter from Police Chief Thomas Rinaldi. It enumerated several problems with the parking situation and also some of the steps ICPC has already taken to address the issue. Some suggested options include restricting parking on the west side of Pershing. This would effectively widen the road for visibility to increase safe driving. A similar proposal on the east side of Urma would also help. A traffic study indicated that residents would still have enough parking on the opposite side of the street, the letter said. Starmond Avenue could become a forced exit, directing all vehicles towards Clifton Avenue instead of Van Houten, which is congested by CHS traffic at the same time as Friday services letting out.
Before opening the floor to the public, Grabowski reminded everyone that their comments must be restricted to the topic at hand and gave them a three-minute limit, though he seemed willing to extend that if needed. Several residents from the neighborhood spoke, addressing the problems and sometimes, offering potential solutions.
Gina Scaduto is a resident in the neighborhood who did have a few suggestions, including removing a portion of the grass on the mosque’s property to create additional parking. She also suggested busing people from some other location to alleviate some of the traffic. Scaduto asked about the allowed capacity at the mosque, which Fire Chief Frank Prezioso answered later in the meeting. Prezioso shared that the permitted occupancy is 491 standing people at the mosque; 351 if they are seated in chairs.
Robin Gibson said that the traffic cones ICPC started putting out have helped in the last few weeks and wanted specific timelines for suggestions to be put into practice, asking, “When are you going to close off the west side of Pershing? When are you going to remove the grass and build more parking?”
A speaker from Starmond said that his property abuts the mosque and visitors to the mosque take up a lot of the parking in his cul-de-sac. He asked about converting the cul-de-sac to permit parking only to prevent others from parking there. He added that the people he’s interacted with from the mosque seem “very nice” but the parking situation has gotten out of control.
Another resident, from Lawrence Court, said that ICPC has been very responsive in the past year or so regarding the parking and traffic issues. He expressed concern that if the grass area were paved for parking, it would negatively affect the property values on Lawrence. He added that permit parking was requested for his street 13 months ago and is still pending, apparently highlighting the long process.
Mary Fran Simmons, who lives on Pershing, said that she approached the Council three times in 2016, when the mosque first opened. She said she was unfairly condemned for espousing hate against Muslims but her grievance was, and remains, with quality of life issues and access for emergency vehicles. Simmons claimed her father died because hospice and the ambulance couldn’t reach her house on time when he needed them.
Other speakers addressed what they characterized as “erratic driving” and speeding in the neighborhood, asking for better enforcement and reminders to the congregation about obeying all local traffic and parking regulations.
Following the public portion, Grabowski invited the elders to take the floor and address the issues. Ibrahim Fahmy, president of the ICPC, said that they are the biggest mosque/masjid in New Jersey and, between their three locations, service 25,000 members. He thanked Councilmen Gibson and Latona for the suggestion of using parking cones, which he said has helped. Fahmy said that ICPC altered the timing of their Friday services, which has already alleviated some of the problems. He also said that they are constantly reminding the congregation to be respectful, not to speed, and have tried to funnel them out to Clifton Avenue instead of going through the neighborhood as they depart. Part of the issue, he explained, is related to the nature of how Muslims pray. Unlike most other houses of worship, which have a specific membership and congregation, mosques serve as a place of worship for whoever happens to be in the area when prayer time arrives. This means that, instead of having a dedicated congregation, the mosque sees different worshippers depending on the day and time.
Fahmy said that having the police come to speak to the congregation might be useful and added that if people at the mosque are breaking the law, they should be held accountable. He encouraged everyone to let him know when there are issues - “please tell us what’s affecting your quality of life.”
Fahmy offered a few possible actions, in addition to the ones ICPC has already taken, to address the issues in the neighborhood. “We don’t want to just shift the problem around,” he said, echoing a comment from one of the area residents. He would be in favor of speed bumps, he said, to slow traffic. Restricting traffic to right turns only from Urma and Pershing between 12-3 on Fridays, forcing those cars towards Clifton Avenue instead of Van Houten, would increase the flow of traffic, he said, since even one car waiting to turn left onto Van Houten can cause a significant back-up. Fahmy also volunteered that ICPC would absorb the cost of having traffic police on duty during that time to reduce congestion and keep traffic flowing.
Members of the public began calling out, asking to be allowed for a back-and-forth between speakers. Grabowski said that isn’t the format for this meeting, prompting Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula to make a motion to open it up for discussion and the council decided to allow it.
First, Fire Chief Frank Prezioso shared that while the permitted occupancy is 491 for people standing in the mosque, there are just 70 parking spaces and five handicapped spaces in their lot. Prezioso made the suggestion to use a shuttle, perhaps using the NJ Transit parking lot on Allwood Road. If a shuttle could take people back and forth from that lot, it would reduce a lot of the traffic problems.
The access road leading to the mosque, Prezioso said, is not wide enough for a fire truck. With cars parked on both sides of the street, there isn’t the needed width for their large vehicles. There are also overhead obstructions (trees) that contribute to the difficulties. He said that if there is an emergency at the mosque, they’d have to come up from the parking lot or through Lawrence Court. Councilman Joe Kolodziej confirmed that this was not a new situation; the same scenario existed when it was a church.
The meeting recessed for 15 minutes to allow the members of the mosque to tend to their evening prayers in another room.
ICPC Imam and CHS graduate Shaykh Osamah Salhia spoke next. Salhia has lived in Clifton since 1995 and has been involved with the ICPC since it opened in 2016. “I totally, totally feel for every single one of you,” he said, expressing his empathy for the neighborhood residents. He said that they have been trying to address these issues internally. He said that recently he gave a sermon in which he stressed the importance of being a good neighbor and said that it’s difficult to get people to not act selfishly…but this is not a Muslim problem; it’s a people problem. One of the key solutions, he said, is the change ICPC made to the scheduling of the midday services, ending the first one earlier so that those people are gone before the next wave comes. The Imam said that he hoped that this would be the first of many meetings. “Our doors are always open.”
Residents pressed the Imam and Fahmy for a specific timeline of when the various suggestions would be put into effect but as this was just a meeting to discuss possibilities and to hear from the neighbors, there were no concrete plans already in the works. Fahmy then said that he needs to consider the needs of the congregation as well as the needs of the neighborhood.
Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula said, “It is the time for solutions. We have a problem now and the problem has to be addressed now.” Fahmy reiterated that they are addressing the problem and suggested that it was unfair to focus only on adding more parking as if they were doing nothing else. Any time we’ve met, he said, we’ve listened to the concerns and have taken steps to address them. He pointed out that it was unfair to characterize ICPC as doing nothing to address these issues, calm but visibly upset.
Van Houten is a county road, Sadrakula reminded everyone. If we’re going to restrict the turning rules, as suggested, the city would need to go through the county, which is a long process. She continued to stress that there’s a problem now and the people want a solution now and the public responded with appreciative applause.
“We came here today to listen to the neighbors and to hear what the concerns are,” Fahmy responded. A potential issue with creating more parking spaces on the site is that more parking could mean more people coming to the mosque, he said, calling it “counterproductive.” “We can ask them to park elsewhere but we can’t stop them from coming.”
Disgruntled residents demanded to know why the mosque had not come better prepared with actionable solutions and resident Donna Popowich asked, “Why didn’t you come to present solutions we can discuss?” Following the meeting, neighbor Barbara James said, “The mosque and the council have had years to figure this out, and while they are cordial and welcoming they needed to do their homework better by offering real solutions without our having to ask.” It was clear that the expectations of the various stakeholders were not well-aligned. ICPC thought they were coming to hear from the residents; residents thought they were coming to hear about solutions. A request to Villano regarding the specific language of the invitation to ICPC was not immediately answered.
Responding to questions about adding more parking spots, Villano explained that adding a paved parking lot on the existing grass between the ICPC and TD Bank would take 6-12 months to implement and then build if approved. He suggested creating temporary parking on the grassy area.
Councilman Joe Kolodziej reminded everyone that a 7-year problem can’t be fixed in three hours but said that at next week’s City Council meeting, they would make a resolution seeking money for additional police and better enforcement in the area. Latona seemed to agree, saying, “We can’t fix the past, only plan for the future and put the pieces of this puzzle together.” Asked to comment on the meeting, Latona said, “I want to thank the mosque leadership, our area residents, administration, fire chief for coming and answering questions as a subject matter expert, our traffic division for providing a detailed list of parking solutions, and my council colleagues for all coming together for this town hall meeting to resolve this very important quality of life issue. At the end of the day, it’s about finding a way for everyone to live in harmony.”