Go-ahead for NY Islamic Cultural Center

Existing Ground-Zero building denied landmark status.

Ground Zero mosque site (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ground Zero mosque site
(photo credit: Associated Press)
NEW YORK – The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to deny landmark status to 45-47 Park Place, the building that developers want to tear down to build a $100 million, 13-story Islamic Cultural Center, two blocks from where the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001 by Islamic terrorists.
The vote, taken after each commissioner summarized his position against designating the former Burlington Coat Factory, between West Broadway and Church Street, as a landmarked building, was greeted by both applause and catcalls from attendees. It was built between 1857 and 1858 in the Italian Renaissance palazzo style.
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As the initial applause died down, one man yelled, “Has anybody lost anyone in 9/11?”
The words triggered silence, into which others leapt with their own calls.
“Manhattan cries!” another man said loudly, followed by another, shouting, “This is a Trojan horse.”
In determining whether a building is to be designated as a landmark, the Landmarks Preservation Commission does not consider its use, but rather its historic and architectural significance.
However, the proposed construction of Park51 – an Islamic Cultural Center to include a mosque – so close to “Ground Zero,” the former World Trade Center site, has raised the ire of many, giving Tuesday’s hearing political and religious dimensions.
The commissioners acknowledged the underlying tension.
“Last I looked, we do not landmark the sky,” Commissioner Christopher Moore said in his remarks, in which he spoke about having witnessed the destruction of September 11. “But I wish we could.”
Reporters, photographers and an ample police presence filled half the auditorium at Pace University for the special hearing. Their presence was an implicit acknowledgement that this particular construction project has ignited passions across the United States and across political and religious lines.
Soho Properties developer and backer of Park51 Sharif El-Gamal said after the hearing that he is “deeply grateful to the Landmarks Commission, its staff and elected officials” for denying the building landmark status.
Characterizing the debate about the center as a “whirlwind for the past four months,” he said construction of Park51 would be an expression of the “American dream.”
“The outpouring of support has exceeded our expectations,” he said, declining to comment on the outpouring of opposition to the project.
Cordoba House, which was subsequently renamed the Park51 project, had said that if the commission were to designate the building as a landmark, the community center would be “worked into” that status.
El-Gamal told The Jerusalem Post that with the decision not to designate the existing building a landmark, he was beginning to prepare a fund-raising strategy and considering the future look and organization of the facility.
“While we plan to include a mosque, this will only be small component of the larger facility and it will be run as a separate not-forprofit,” El-Gamal said.
The organization was now filing for 501(c)3 non-profit status, he said.
“We hope to include a gym, pool, restaurant, spa, multi-purpose use facilities, and of course a September 11 memorial and contemplation space,” he said.
“The facility will be open to all, and is intended to cater to all New Yorkers,” El- Gamal told the Post. “Because we are only at the beginning of this process, we haven’t committed to space allocation – we’re engaging in a thorough dialogue with our neighbors and supporters to see how best Park51 can meet their needs.”
In a post on the Park51 Web site later on Tuesday, El-Gamal wrote, “With the conclusion of this process, I look forward to beginning in earnest the development process and working with the Park51 team in [sic] as a community center open to all that will celebrate and honor America and Muslim American experiences.”
“Until the resolution of the landmarks issue this morning, we were unable to emerge from stage one, as we could not be clear on the impact of a designation on the architecture and design of the building or its program spaces, activities or programming,” a statement read later in the day on the Park51 Web site. “We are eager to begin working with our partners, supporters, neighbors and communities, to build a community center for everyone.”
Among those at the meeting who expressed disappointment with its outcome were former Republican congressman Rick Lazio and attorney Brett Joshpe of the American Center for Law and Justice.
Characterizing the blocks around Ground Zero as a “sacred area for New Yorkers,” Lazio said his position to construction of the Islamic Cultural Center was “not about religion.”
“There are over 100 mosques in New York City,” he said. “It’s about this particular mosque.”
Lazio said that his political rival, Democratic Attorney-General Andrew Cuomo, had the power to investigate the financing behind the Park51 project, and should do so.
“Let’s have transparency,” Lazio said. “If they’re foreign governments, we ought to know about it. If they’re radical organizations, we ought to know about it.”
When a reporter asked if Lazio would call Cuomo about the issue, Lazio responded, “I already have. I already have.”
“The vote went as we expected, and obviously, we’re deeply disappointed,” Joshpe said. “I don’t think the commission took various historic factors into account.”
Joshpe said he intended to challenge the commission’s ruling under a procedural provision of New York State law, but that the project also faced New York’s Department of Buildings permit process as well.
Opinions were divided among non-media attendees.
“They did the right thing,” Ralph Seliger said afterwards of the commissioners. “They ruled on the merits and not the politics.”
Another attendee, Andy Sullivan, said the commission had failed in its obligations to New Yorkers because it had “leeway when it comes to historic events.”
“No one is putting a Benihana [Japanese restaurant] or kamikaze flight school over Pearl Harbor,” Sullivan said.
He said he was a construction worker who worked on “the bucket brigades” in the fruitless rescue effort after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
“To me, it looks like a victory mosque,” Sullivan said.