Delays may be in past for St. Anthony Islamic center

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune
  • June 8, 2012 - 11:15 PM

A proposed Islamic center delayed for months by St. Anthony leaders faces less opposition now.

This week the city's Planning Commission approved the project. On Tuesday, City Council members will decide whether to sign off on the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center, the last major regulatory hurdle for the center that Muslim leaders want to establish in the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters off Old Hwy. 8.

Supporters of the center have claimed the city discriminated against the Muslim group and delayed the project in an attempt to stymie the group's purchase agreement to buy the building. But with the Planning Commission's approval on Monday, they're hopeful that the council will green-light the center.

"So far, so good," said Ali Giarushi, a center spokesman, who's helping the group buy the building. "Everything is up in the air right now. We don't know yet."

Supporters of the center thought they had worked out a deal earlier this year to get city approval to use the building. But then the group received a letter from the city stating that the proposed project would be put on hold while the city studied whether the area's industrial zoning would be appropriate for the center's activities.

The congregation of about 200 wants to use the 15,000-square-foot space in the building's basement for assembly and prayer. The rest of the building would be rented out to existing tenants.

St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey said the city is not discriminating against anyone. "From day one, this has always been a land use issue," he said.

"Our current zoning code has religious assemblies ... welcome in parts of our residential area," Casey said. "We have business-type assemblies in our industrial zones. So this is something that was not consistent with our local zoning code."

The Planning Commission approved the Islamic center with some conditions -- key among them, more parking spaces. Based on the occupancy of the building, number of employees and building use, city staff determined the center needs to have 266 spaces, Casey said.

The site currently has 92 spaces, Casey noted. But an additional 237 spaces are available on adjacent land, which Giarushi believes the Islamic center will be able to use or obtain for extra parking.

'Some prejudiced comments'

Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that proposed mosques or Islamic centers have met opposition in Plymouth, Bloomington and Willmar, Minn., as well as St. Anthony in the past year. While mosques are primarily used for worship, Islamic centers can have multiple uses, including worship, dining and other events. Governments have eventually moved ahead on approving them, she said.

"There have been some really stereotypical and prejudiced comments made by neighbors," Saroya said. "That's concerning to us. And that puts into question whether this is really an issue of zoning or if there's something else going on here. What we've seen nationally is that this is not just a problem in Minnesota. It's happening all over the U.S."

According to Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, some 35 proposed mosques and Islamic centers have encountered community resistance since 2008.

Saroya sees the St. Anthony Planning Commission's approval of the proposed Islamic center as "definitely a positive step."

"I'm optimistic the council is going to do what we've seen other city councils facing this situation have done in Minnesota," she said. "I think they'll do the right thing and uphold religious freedom."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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