A shady corner at Central Avenue and St. Anthony Blvd. seems like the logical choice for a parking lot for the Masjid Salaam Cultural Center, located in the former Falldin American Legion Post at 3141 Central. There’s just one hurdle, a big one: The land belongs to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), an organization that takes its charge to protect Minneapolis’ green spaces seriously.
Since 2016, MPRB has allowed members of the mosque to park in the lot at Columbia Golf Course. “It’s [the parking lot] larger than what it needs to be,” said Michael Schroeder, assistant superintendent. Leaders of the mosque approached MPRB early in 2018 about creating a parking lot or purchasing the land next to their building, saying the Columbia lot was too far away.
The Cultural Center is open for prayers five times a day. It provides educational programs for adults and school age children, youth activities and enrichment and Islamic counseling. More than 200 people attend Jumaa prayers at the mosque on Fridays, according to the mosque’s website.
During the public comments session at the MPRB’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole on March 6, female members of the mosque approached the microphone with an interpreter to make their case. One said she regularly brings her kids to the mosque for homework help and other activities. Parking near the front of the mosque is limited; there is a bus stop at the corner; there is no parking on Central Avenue during a snow emergency. She often finds herself bringing her six children to the mosque one at a time from the Columbia lot. She said parking on Central Avenue is dangerous. “Which is more important, four trees, or our children?”
She found some sympathy from new Superintendent Alfred Bangoura, who said he had attended a meeting in the area and found parking was not easy. “I did a circle on Central Avenue and ended up parking a half block down. It’s dangerous to open a door in traffic.”
MPRB Vice President AK Hassan voiced his approval of working out a deal with the Masjid Salaam congregation. “This is about the kids who will sit here [on the Park Board] someday,” he said.
Former Park Commissioner Liz Wielinski said she had been approached by leaders of the mosque once before during her stint on the board. “That building has never had a parking lot, even when it was the Falldin Legion Post. We’ve had a [charismatic] Christian church and a Hispanic church in there. None of them had a parking lot. We do not sell park land.”
Later in the evening at the Planning Commission meeting, Schroeder summarized the situation. After being contacted by leaders of the mosque, his team of planners took a look at the property.
The land was acquired by MPRB in 1910 or 1911 and is considered part of the St. Anthony Parkway system. It is included in MPRB’s 2006 Master Plan. That plan calls for “landscaping and/or public art and seating area,” but provides no timetable for such installations. The land the Cultural Center seeks is a 60- by 117-ft. plot, a little bigger than an average city lot. Schroeder said a parking lot on the parcel could hold only eight or nine cars, and would have to be accessed through the alley.
Even if it were inclined to sell the property to the mosque, MPRB would have to go through a lengthy process to do so.
What the Cultural Center is requesting is a change of use, which would require an amendment to the Master Plan. The property would have to be identified as “excess” or “abandoned” in order for the Park Board to sell it. Because the land is held in public trust, all six Park Board members must agree to the sale of any land.
Next, a memorandum of understanding would have to be created between MPRB and the Cultural Center, which would authorize MPRB staff to explore the disposition of the property. The mosque’s neighbors would have to be interviewed about the property, and MPRB would have to put the proposal before the Metropolitan Council for its consideration. The land would have to be subdivided, and the Minneapolis City Council would have to approve the subdivision. Then the proposal would have to go to district court for review.
District 1 Commissioner Chris Meyer, elected to take Wielinski’s place on the Park Board, asked how long all the various steps would take. Schroeder replied that the amendment to the Master Plan could take five or six months, depending on how quickly the Met Council moved. Preparing subdivision documents would occupy his staff three to seven weeks. MPRB counsel Brian Rice said it would be a 90-day process to get on the district court docket after the MPRB board approved the memorandum.
When asked, Schroeder said he estimated the cost of these actions would be $50-60,000 and noted that he did not have those funds in his budget. Those costs would not cover the creation of a parking lot, which the mosque would have to pay for.
Before the planning commission could vote on a proposal to create a memorandum of understanding, Meyer asked permission to state his views. “Probably no one is more against surface parking lots than me. I have no car or license; I use the parkways as my highways,” he said. “Yet, I wanted to give this the best possible consideration when I asked our staff to look into it. I told the mosque from the very start that I thought it was very unlikely to happen. Sometimes we do swap land, and we looked at trading some land near Columbia Park, Audubon Park and Waite Park. [In each instance,] Minneapolis would have lost a house and gained a parking lot, which is contrary to our climate goals. I don’t think it’s a good deal.”
He continued, “People from the mosque have been here for every meeting; I admire their persistence. But I just cannot vote for this.”
Female members of the mosque shouted, “Save our children!” One man shouted, “You racist! I am going to run against you in the next election, Chris Meyer!” Planning Commission chair Meg Forney responded, “You’ve had your public time, you need to sit down.” The commotion continued, so the Planning Commission tabled the resolution by a 5-0 vote. Forney called for a five-minute recess, which stretched into nearly an hour before committee business resumed.
In response to an email, Forney said she was not sure of the resolution’s future. “My understanding is to un-table it, it would need all members of the planning committee to vote in favor of that action. It has not been requested to be put on for the upcoming [April 3] board meeting,” she wrote.
Below: The land sought for a parking lot, to the north of the building. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)