Waled Hassan and his wife, Wafa Safi, moved to northwest Carmel in 2008. They love the area but drive 30 to 45 minutes to Fishers almost daily. Safi teaches biology and environmental science at Hamilton Southeastern High School, and the mosque they regularly attend is in Fishers, the Al-Huda Foundation, 12201 Lantern Rd.
“Practically, our whole daily routine is in Fishers, and we finally said, ‘Let’s move to Fishers,’ but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do that because we truly want to stay in Carmel,” Safi said. “We love it here. We have a real desire to be here.”
That’s why it’s so important to Hassan and Safi to see a mosque built in Carmel. Safi said it’s “discouraging” to see dozens of churches and other religious facilities nearby but nowhere for the Islamic community to meet except for the small offices of the Al Salam Foundation on the north side of Indianapolis, 9517 Valparaiso Ct. They said they love going there, but it’s not a true center for worship.
“Even when they first opened about 10 years ago, they always said, ‘This is temporary. We’re hoping to find a place within a year,’” Safi said.
Now, members of the Al Salam Foundation believe they’ve found a permanent home, but they’re receiving pushback from some in the community. They want to build an Islamic Life Center at 141st Street and Shelborne Road — less than a block from where Hassan and Safi live — but some neighboring residents have opposed construction because they say the building is too big, and it would have a negative effect on traffic and noise, among other issues.
Approximately 300 people showed up at a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Jan. 22 to discuss the matter, but not everyone was given a chance to speak, so a second meeting was scheduled. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. Feb. 26 at The Palladium, a larger space to accommodate the expected crowd. The BZA will decide whether to grant a special use for the property, which would allow Al Salam to build on the land. The site is zoned S-1, a residential designation.
Neighbors, and even some members of the Carmel City Council, have spoken against the proposed mosque, saying it’s too big for the space, but Hassan said approximately two thirds of the 15 acres would remain green space because of a gas line easement on the property. He also said that Al Salam is committed to working with neighbors on a plan that would make everyone happy and that everything is fluid and not set in stone.
“We are committed to do everything we can do, especially at our expense, to make the neighbors happy if they want to be happy,” he said. “Privacy fences or a buffer? We’d put that up. Trees? That’s fine. We’ve tried to reach out to the neighbors, but we haven’t had that verbal conversation.”
Safi said that the 15-acre parcel isn’t big enough to build a neighborhood of homes similar to the $700,000 houses nearby. She said her father was a builder, so she expects that if a mosque or a church isn’t allowed, then a likely option could be condominiums or smaller houses with higher density. She said that could generate a lot more traffic and noise than what Al Salam is proposing.
Some opponents of the Islamic Life Center say they would love to see a mosque in Carmel but not on the proposed location.
Hassan and Safi say it’s been a long struggle to find a suitable site for the Islamic Life Center in Carmel. Often neighbors will suggest a piece of land that’s for sale, but often it’s a property Al Salam officials already considered that didn’t work out. Some landowners have been unwilling to sell when they find out it’s for a mosque, and in some cases the prices have gone up.
Al Salam previously had plans to build on 146th Street between Ditch and Towne roads, but covenants outlining future use of the land killed the deal.
“In general, we aren’t opposed to another piece of land, but we’ve already been looking for five years,” Hassan said.
He said Al Salam hasn’t rushed into a decision, and this piece of property at Shelborne Road felt like the perfect fit.
“It was very surprising to see the reaction,” he said. “For one, because the area is very quiet, and I was told by many people that we should look at this site because it’s in a very diverse part of town. It’s very affluent and highly educated. We thought it’d be a good fit.”
Some neighbors raised concerns because there was a video promoting the idea of the Islamic Life Center that showed a much larger building with a greater variety of activities than the plan presented to the BZA. Al Salam has repeatedly said that video was used for fundraising purposes, but some neighbors say they don’t believe that statement.
“That was just a motivational video to get people around this idea,” Hassan said.
Even if the BZA approves the plans, that doesn’t mean construction would begin immediately. As a principle, the Islamic community doesn’t believe in borrowing money for buildings such as a mosque, so there would likely need to be a fundraising effort to build up the capital to construct the center.
As a result, Hassan said there would be plenty of time to adjust the plans and work with the city on traffic concerns along Shelborne Road.
Safi and Hassan said they’re not accusing anyone of racism or Islamophobia for opposing the project, but they hope to have a discussion to alleviate concerns. Hassan said some neighbors haven’t being willing to meet with Al Salam to work through the details.
“It’s bigger than just us,” he said. “There’s a whole community that has this need, and it’s really not going to bother anybody else.”