Developers of Islamic Center Try a New Strategy
By ANNE BARNARD, New York Times, August 1, 2011
A year after controversy engulfed plans to build a Muslim community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan, the project’s developers are quietly moving ahead: In recent months they have hired a paid staff, started fund-raising drives and continued holding prayers and cultural events in their existing building two blocks from ground zero.
But they have also embraced what they call a slower, more deliberate and more realistic approach to the project, acknowledging it will take years of hard work to determine what kind of facilities Muslim and non-Muslim visitors want and need, to raise money, and to build public support.
That means it could be five years before they even try to begin any physical transformation of the property, now a bare-bones building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory store. And the Muslim center might never become the 15-story, $100 million edifice that the developers had once envisioned, and that some opponents had labeled a “megamosque.”
When the plans were announced last year, there were angry protests from some relatives of 9/11 victims, politicians and others who said it would be insensitive to build a Muslim institution close to where Islamic radicals attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The furor was fanned by Internet-based activists who viewed Muslim influence as a threat and called the project a “victory mosque.” The developers, unprepared for the outcry, were thrown into disarray, trying to defend a plan that was still embryonic.
Sharif El-Gamal, the lead developer, who controls the property at 45-51 Park Place, has spent the past year trying to regroup. He has severed ties with the project’s original imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has crisscrossed the country to attract donors, built relationships with neighborhood groups and Muslim organizations and recruited the aunt of a 9/11 victim to his advisory board — all things he says he should have done before going public last year.
“Everything was backward,” Mr. El-Gamal, 37, acknowledged in an interview on Wednesday in his Chelsea real estate office. “We’re going back to basics.”
Mr. El-Gamal said his vision remained: a Muslim-led community center modeled on the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, where his children learned to swim. It would be open to all, with a pool, a theater and cultural, religious and interfaith programming. And the site, which is already used for Muslim worship, would include a mosque.
He said the ultimate form of the center, called Park51, and its building would be determined after consultation with two main audiences, residents of Lower Manhattan and Muslims who live in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Mr. El-Gamal also said he would assess the community response to the events now held at Park51’s makeshift space, varying from art exhibits and yoga and Brazilian martial arts classes to Muslim holiday observances and a discussion for Muslim and non-Muslim children about bullying.
“If the community only wants four or five floors, it’s going to be four or five floors,” Mr. El-Gamal said.
One thing that is not in question, he said, is the center’s location. Legally, he is entitled to operate a religious institution there; the project required no zoning approval, though it was voluntarily presented to Manhattan’s Community Board 1, which approved it in May 2010.
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Visit Park 51: http://park51.org/
Also see: NYChildren Exhibition: Let’s open Park51′s doors to the world