Zoning board approves Islamic medical clinic in Mayfair

Two community organizations voted against ICNA Relief’s appeal for a special zoning exception but the Zoning Board of Adjustment awarded it anyway.

PHOTO: GOOGLE MAPS

An Islamic nonprofit organization has won the Philadelphia zoning board’s approval to open a medical clinic and social services center in Mayfair despite opposition from two local civic associations.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a special exception on Aug. 2 to ICNA Relief to open a “group medical, dental and health” practice at 7439 Frankford Ave. in the Mayfair Professional Building. In a public presentation to the Mayfair Civic Association on July 31, ICNA Relief representatives described their organization as a social service branch of the Islamic Circle of North America, a group that describes itself as “a leading American Muslim organization dedicated to the betterment of society through the application of Islamic values.”

As recently as 2010, the Anti-Defamation League issued a public statement criticizing ICNA for hosting a national convention where, the ADL alleged, anti-Semitic speakers delivered extremist messages disparaging Jews and calling for the destruction of Israel. In response to the criticism, ICNA issued a statement accusing the ADL of mischaracterizing the “broader objective” of the conference, which the ICNA described as “the rejection of extremism and the promotion of the positive engagement of the American Muslim community in the civic life of the nation.”

On Friday, ADL’s associate regional director for Greater Philadelphia, Robin Burstein, told the Northeast Times, “The ADL does not consider the Islamic Circle of North America to be a hate group.”

During the July 31 Mayfair Civic meeting, ICNA Relief officials said their organization is “under the same umbrella” as the Queens, N.Y.-based ICNA but operates as a separate entity with its own board and administration. They said the nonprofit status prohibits ICNA Relief from engaging in political activity, and the services offered at the Frankford Avenue site would be available to people regardless of religion. The organization does not plan to use the site for religious outreach programs, they said. It would be ICNA Relief’s first site in Philadelphia.

ICNA Relief officials said volunteer visiting physicians would practice primary medical and dental care in four examination rooms within the building, which already houses another dental practice, a blood testing lab and professional offices. In addition, ICNA Relief officials said they plan to offer job search help, “counseling” and “workshops” on site. They did not respond to a request to explain what type of counseling and workshops will be offered.

ICNA Relief also operates food pantries and engages in disaster relief efforts, but does not intend to conduct those activities at the Mayfair site. The organization’s website states it further provides “Muslim family services,” women’s transitional housing, back-to-school giveaways and refugee rehabilitation. ICNA Relief officials mentioned nothing of refugee-related activities during the July 31 public meeting.

The organization was obligated to address neighbors publicly as part of its appeal to the zoning board. The Frankford Avenue address is subject to a zoning overlay restriction on medical offices. City Council imposed the overlay in 2013 in the 6th and 10th Council districts to give the public more say over the establishment of methadone clinics, which are treated the same under the zoning code as other types of medical offices.

At the July 31 meeting, ICNA Relief officials assured neighbors they had no intent to distribute methadone or other prescription drugs on site, although the visiting physicians would be able to write prescriptions.

When asked about parking and traffic flow around the office, ICNA Relief officials said the building has about a dozen off-street parking spaces available and they don’t anticipate large numbers of simultaneous visitors.

In a split vote among Mayfair Civic Association members, five voted to oppose the zoning appeal while three voted not to oppose it on condition that ICNA Relief agree to a set of conditions, including a pledge not to distribute methadone. The MCA sent a letter of opposition to the zoning board, as did the Northeast Quality of Life Coalition, whose members also attended the community meeting.

In advance of ICNA Relief’s presentation, MCA president Donny Smith said he asked the applicant to postpone the meeting until September so neighbors would have more time to consider the issue and make plans to attend a community meeting, but the applicants rejected a postponement. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.