The typical civil spirit found at Manayunk Neighborhood Council general meetings turned ugly Wednesday night after a member made a comment many in the room characterized as anti-Muslim.
The monthly gathering started off tame enough.
Ali Shirazi, owner of the Ali Baba Limousine Company in East Falls, came to the Venice Island Recreation Center to gauge community support for converting an industrial property at 102-104 Jamestown St. into a banquet hall.
The property would need a commercial zoning variance for the project to proceed.
Shirazi, joined by local developer Steven Harris, explained that the hall would essentially be an extension of his limo business, which caters to weddings and birthday parties, among other things. Instead of being bused to venues outside of the area, customers could rent out one in the neighborhood as a package deal.
There would be no in-house food preparation or alcohol allowed inside, he added.
“I don’t want to make money on that,” said Shirazi, a long-time Roxborough resident.
But partway through a question and answer session, things quickly got heated when former MNC President Kathy Tomosky addressed Shirazi about a rumor she’d heard that his businesses are only open to the Muslim community.
The comment instantly hit a nerve with Shirazi and many neighbors, sending the scene into brief chaos with several, mostly shock-soaked, comments overlapping one-another.
As MNC president Kevin Smith worked to quiet the room, he emphasized to Tomosky and other members that the remark had no place at the meeting and that he wasn’t interested in wasting time discussing it.
“We don’t even need to debate this issue,” said Smith. “It should never be mentioned again.”
Following the flare-up, Shirazi said he was no longer interested in the property and that he had other options for the business.
“I’ve been going through this all my life,” said Shirazi in response to Tomosky’s comment.
“The only reason I wanted [the building] is because it is so close to my other property,” he later added.
Harris and several neighbors were equally upset.
“We never even got a chance to make our case or even talk about what our intentions were before anybody talked about anything,” said Harris
“What you brought up was, inappropriate doesn’t even describe it,” said MNC member Dave Bass. “I think you owe them an apology, frankly.”
While Tomosky’s controversial question derailed Harris and Shirazi’s presentation, residents did share some concerns about the project, primarily about parking.
Harris said parking shouldn’t be an issue because the business is not focused on patrons pulling up to the building and parking, but bringing people in and dropping them off.
But as a contingency plan, Harris explained he has negotiated with several nearby parking lot owners to use their spaces if they’re needed. He added that the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections asks such businesses to provide one parking spot for every four customers. The building holds between 50-75 people, he said.
Rich Castrovillo, who grew up with Harris, found it hard to believe the extra parking wouldn’t be needed.
“He’s saying there’s 300 parking spots,” Castrovillo said. “Why would he have to say that if he has transportation?”
Smith said the group would like some type of formal assurance that a limited number of people would drive directly to an event before the group throws its support behind it.
Joy Griffin said the group should welcome Shirazi’s plan and stop impeding family focused businesses from coming into an area with a robust nightlife and an ever-increasing college student population.
“Any place, anybody of any race, creed or color that wants to bring a business in here with no liquor. I’m going to do everything I can do to assist that person.”
“This kind of venue is what we’re looking for,” she added.