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Mosque is hub of a wheel of East Side revitalization Group buying parcels in 16-block area

A group of 45 people, mostly Muslim, is about to embark on one of the biggest revitalization projects the East Side has ever seen.

For the last six months, these investors -- many of them congregants of the Masjid Zakariya Mosque on Sobieski Street -- individually approached the city about buying 59 parcels of vacant, city-owned lots and abandoned homes. The parcels make up a 16-block area around the mosque.

They were taking to heart a message the mosque's imam has been delivering for the last five years: If people want to be a part of the mosque's school and community, they should be a part of the neighborhood.

"We encouraged [mosque congregants] to buy houses here and to move into the area," said Imam M. Ibrahim Memon. "When we first moved here in 1993, [homeowners] were offering their houses and $1,000 or $2,000 cash to take it off their hands. Currently, the market value is $20,000 to $30,000."

"That's good." he added. "People are buying houses and fixing them up, and it benefits the city. It has really, tremendously improved the neighborhood."

The former church property was purchased in 1993 by Darul-Uloom Al-Madania, an Islamic religious and educational organization.

Dr. Zulkharnain, an internist at Kenmore Mercy Hospital who uses a single name, has lived on Sobieski Street for the last five years. Now he is interested in buying nine other lots in the neighborhood. "My wife is Polish-American, and I moved here because myself and my wife come from different cultures, and I wanted my children to have some culture to learn from there," he said. "That was my goal."

Since then, more and more professionals have started taking an interest in the neighborhood, a 16-block area that extends to Broadway, Walden Avenue, Loepere Street and Rother Avenue.

"There are about three or four more doctors who want to move here and open a practice," said Zulkharnain, who is from Bangalore, India.

There also is a plumber who wants to set up shop, as well as someone who wants to open an insurance business, said Marlies A. Wesolowski, executive director of the Matt Urban Center on Broadway.

Professionals are not the only ones among the 45 who want to invest in the community. Many others with low to moderate incomes are looking to buy more than one parcel.

"This neighborhood has been on a steady decline for years," Wesolowski said. "Businesses have pulled out. There are derelict buildings, vacant lots. There are some bones here, but with a little help, we can put some meat on them."

To that end, the center, which is a community development corporation, is holding an open house on housing opportunities from 2 to 8 p.m. today. The session is providing the investors and other private buyers one-stop shopping for information, Wesolowski said.

Representatives from the mosque and the city's Office of Strategic Planning, the real estate division, and from Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's economic-development agency will offer advice to individuals who want to start businesses.

"Usually, with development programs, you develop one by one in the hopes of getting others interested as you go along," Wesolowski said. "But we're looking at interests first, and now we're trying to figure out a plan that meets everybody's expectations.

"If we can be successful with these 16 blocks, then we'll fan out to include other communities."

That's something Zulkharnain would like to see.

"I'm happy here," he said. "The taxes are low, and the purpose of my moving here is being met. I don't have any regrets moving into the area, even though I could move into a bigger and better house. I'm happy. It's serving my purpose."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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