The Masjid Salaam Cultural Center in northeast Minneapolis hosts daily prayers, Sunday school and the occasional food drive. But members say the mosque has one major flaw — it has no designated parking.
That means people coming to the mosque, including the elderly and disabled and the 170 children who attended school there before the pandemic, have to park several blocks away or get out of vehicles on the side of busy Central Avenue.
The mosque has tried for years to persuade the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to build parking stalls by paving over green space along St. Anthony Parkway. The conflict pits assertions of religious liberty against the sanctity of public parkland, and it's coming to a head after the Council on American-Islamic Relations Minnesota (CAIR-Minnesota) gave the Park Board a deadline this month to avoid a lawsuit.
When Masjid Salaam opened at 3141 NE. Central Av. in 2016, Imam Abdimagid Omar believed he could persuade the Park Board to sell the mosque a slice of adjacent parkland. Omar isn't fluent in English, so he appointed congregant Abdi Barkat as his spokesman. Barkat works near Masjid Salaam and has been praying there during his lunch hour for about two years.
He said no one has harassed him in the vicinity of the mosque, but he would feel safer being able to park closer. "When you are an immigrant, when you're Black, when you're Muslim, when you come into a neighborhood where you don't live just to pray, anything can happen," Barkat says.
Buying city parkland is almost impossible, however. The Park Board is required to hold its land in public trust, says general counsel Brian Rice. "The presumption is that this board does not sell land."
The Park Board can sell land if commissioners decide it's obsolete and unusable for any park purpose. Even then, a district judge would have to approve the sale.
But the land is already spoken for in the 2006 St. Anthony Parkway Regional Park Master Plan, which specifically calls for landscaping, public art and seating there.
The mosque could petition the Park Board to change the master plan, which would require a majority vote. But the commissioner for the area, Chris Meyer, is against it, and has been lobbying to get rid of parking lots since before he was elected to the Park Board.
Meyer moved from Sturgis, S.D., to Minneapolis at age 18 so he wouldn't have to drive. He has never had a driver's license. In 2015, he bought 13 copies of "The High Cost of Free Parking" by Donald Shoup to give each Minneapolis City Council member, then successfully campaigned to eliminate parking requirements around train stations.
"That has been my thing. That's what I do," Meyer says. "My passion is trying to move our city in a less car-dependent direction."
The mosque persisted. In 2018, it purchased its building and found an ally in Commissioner AK Hassan.
Hassan says that while he wants to protect public land and green spaces, he doesn't want to be held responsible if a child gets struck by a car trying to attend the mosque. "Are we choosing public land over choosing losing a kid's life?" he said. "It is discrimination against one particular community, East African particularly, because if this were flipped, it would be a different case."
Hassan brought a resolution to the Park Board to sell a 60- by 117-foot parcel on the north side of the mosque in 2019. Many congregants attended in support. When Meyer announced that he planned to vote no, they called him a racist and shut down the meeting before the issue could go to a vote.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-Minnesota, joined the mosque's cause in 2019. With an urban planning degree from St. Cloud State University, Hussein devotes much of his time to helping Muslim communities fight land use rejections statewide, which he says are often the result of Islamophobia.
He argues that the parkland next to Masjid Salaam is underused. Despite the 2006 master plan for the area, no art or seating has ever been built there.
He also points out that there are other parking bays along St. Anthony Parkway. They sit in front of Northeast Middle School, which has a parent drop-off area, and Mount Carmel Lutheran Church.
Hussein suggested a land swap in which the mosque would buy a parcel in north Minneapolis for parkland. The process for that would be just as lengthy and cumbersome as a land sale. So park staff offered a compromise.
Michael Schroeder, the Park Board's assistant superintendent of planning, drafted a plan that would add seating, playable art and gardens to the parkland beside the mosque, which would justify creating parking for eight cars along St. Anthony Parkway and three in the alley behind the mosque.
Presented with the plan in December 2019, the Audubon Neighborhood Association declined to support it.
"The challenge we're facing in the community is the needs that we have, these white people don't," Hussein says. "They don't go to church, their kids have graduated, they don't even see the concept of little children running around. This is a bias that they have mentally. They don't really see the need for us."
He pushed on. Throughout 2020, Hussein sent many e-mails to the Park Board demanding the proposal be placed on the agenda for a vote, accusing Meyer of "unprofessional behavior, inconsistent conduct, and delaying tactics."
Commissioner Brad Bourn agreed, responding, "This has reached a point where the mosque is being treated differently in terms of access to the Board of Commissioners."
Hussein gave the Park Board until this month to schedule the proposal for a vote or CAIR-Minnesota would consider it a discriminatory outright rejection. He says he now plans to organize protests and file a lawsuit.
Meyer rejects CAIR-Minnesota's allegations of racism. He pointed out that the parking bays near Northeast Middle School and Mount Carmel Lutheran Church were created in the 1970s, when people knew less about carbon emissions and climate change. What's more, the Park Board did not heed requests for parking from two Christian religious institutions that occupied the building before the mosque.
"If this was a group of rich white people who had asked, it would have been much easier for me to just say no," Meyer said. "It's because I want to be welcoming to everyone in our city, and I know that there's a lot of prejudice against Muslims today, that I've even considered this at all."