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Neighbors Object to Chicago Assyrian Church Parking Lot Expansion
By Charles Thrush
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The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, in Rogers Park, Chicago. ( Charles Thrush/Block Club Chicago)
Every Sunday morning, Chicago's Catholic Assyrian community gathers for mass at Mar Gewargis Cathedral on the northeast corner of Touhy and Ashland avenues, quickly filling up the church's 31 parking spaces.

The congregation that calls the cathedral home is now looking to demolish the neighboring house to expand its parking lot, a project that would benefit the local Assyrian community and alleviate neighborhood parking problems, supporters said. But neighbors are again rejecting the proposal, with some saying they are not on board with demolishing a century-old home for a blacktop.

The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, the denomination headquartered at Mar Gewargis, or St. George, Cathedral, is asking the city's permission to expand its parking lot on what is currently a vacant single-family home at 1530 W. Touhy Ave.

It's the second time the church has looked to expand its parking lot, a project which would require rezoning the next-door home. The project is being considered by Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who held a community meeting Sept. 26 for neighbors and the church to discuss the plan.

Neighbors oppose the rezoning of the property due to claims it would "diminish the quality and character of [the] neighborhood, change the streetscape and lead to more traffic congestion," according to a petition created to oppose the project.

The Assyrian Church of the East, one of the earliest denominations of Christianity, has been headquartered in Rogers Park since the early '80s. Khanania Dinkha IV, the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, moved the seat of the church from Iraq to St. George's in Rogers Park following a large Assyrian diaspora that populated the Chicago area.

The church at 7201 N. Ashland Ave. has been a destination for the religious congregation ever since. St. George is the central diocese cathedral for Chicago's Assyrian population, anchoring a community of four other parishes throughout Chicago and its suburbs. It drew several thousand visitors for Dinkha's funeral services in 2015.

Parking has long been an issue for the congregation, though.

The home that could be demolished, as seen from St. George's existing parking lot. ( Rykley Braun)

Families slowly trickled into St. George's throughout the duration of Sunday's service, with some churchgoers driving in from the northern suburbs. After mass, the church held communion and a large breakfast in the basement.

Many parishioners have to park in Eugene Field Elementary School's lot three blocks south of the church. Shuttle buses between the lot and the church alleviate some -- but not all -- of the traffic congestion.

One parishioner walking back to his car said that when the school parking lot reaches capacity, he sometimes spends upwards of 30 minutes circling the neighborhood searching for street parking, echoing a familiar sentiment of many other attendees.

In 2011, the parish bought the single-family home next door to the cathedral, Cook County property records show. The home, which neighbors say dates back to about 1905, has been vacant for over a decade.

Shortly after that, the church made its first attempt to rezone the home to make way for a parking lot. The surrounding community fought the proposal, and it was subsequently rejected by former Ald. Joe Moore, according to neighbors.

That project is now back, with the church hoping to raze the home and add 22 parking spaces. The new lot would bring the church's number of parking spaces to 53, project officials said at the community meeting.

"We've discussed rehabilitating the house before. I work in the construction business, and construction costs have almost quadrupled since COVID-19," said Al Youna, president of the Assyrian Church's eastern U.S. diocese. "I was one of the ones that was opposed to demolition, but the prices just kept going up."

So, the church settled on expanding its parking lot, which could allow an additional 50-60 parishioners to park near the church and also "encourages other people to come to church events," Youna said in an interview.

But those plans did not pass muster with many Rogers Park neighbors who spoke at last week's virtual community meeting.

Resident Marilyn Lehman said demolishing the home would hurt the neighborhood's architecture and history as the building is nearly 120 years old, though it is not protected under the city's historic registry.

Kitty Juda, who lives across from the church, voiced concern over the potential environmental effects of the parking lot.

Studies show parking lots contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and they can create heat islands. Supporters of the project said a larger parking lot would reduce the number of people driving around the neighborhood looking for parking, which would cut down on emissions.

"It's just going to add to problems of flooding and heat on the 1500 block of Touhy," Juda said.

Some residents said the parking lot would hurt the character of the residential area and could cause the further loss of old homes if parking issues are not solved by the new lot.

Bill Phillips, an outspoken neighbor of the church who led the opposition to the recent zoning proposal, said St. George's is an important part of the fabric of the community. But that community fabric would not be aided by a parking lot expansion, he said.

"They have big celebrations here every Saturday for people's weddings," Phillips said. "When my family came for a cookout a few months ago, we watched the celebrations from our porch, and the kids were dancing to the music. We love to see their community, and from what we learned, this is the seat of their church."

Phillips strolled down Touhy Avenue last week, pointing out homes and recounting the tales of those who inhabited each residence. Some of that history could be lost if homes were to be replaced, he said.

"Touhy's a street with some beautiful, old, single-family homes, and people really take pride in and maintain their property," Phillips said. "So, replacing one of those homes would really just take away from the quality of the streetscape."

Supporters of the parking lot expansion said it will aid an immigrant community that has long called Rogers Park home.

"We don't want to leave this community," Sera, a St. George parishioner, said at the community meeting. "We love it, and we migrated from Syria to the U.S. to come here and stay in Rogers Park. I have been a resident of this community for the past 25 years, and this church has been our home. This parking lot will help my community."

Some residents present on the Zoom call felt differently.

"I live in a historic house, and I love historic houses, but I hear a lot of comments saying that it would be ideal if a family lived there," said Laura Nordell, another neighbor. "But the reality is, it's not going to be a family home at any point, and so I think we need to be realistic about this. The parking lot seems to serve the church the best. Churches are gathering places for communities, especially immigrant communities."

Hadden said her office will release a community survey for neighbors to weigh in on the rezoning request before she decides whether to support the project.

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