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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Park51 developer and SoHo Properties Chief Executive Officer Sharif El-Gamal is trying to put the project’s tumultuous history behind him.
A mosque and community center proposed for 45-51 Park Place have become two separate fundraising ventures, according to El-Gamal. The developer is establishing the future mosque, which he recently dubbed “PrayerSpace,” as a distinct nonprofit entity from Park51, the Islamic community center. El-Gamal announced the news at a July 29 fundraising dinner at the future Park51 site.
“Park51 is an Islamic community center, but it’s not a religious organization,” said El-Gamal in a phone interview with Downtown Express. “We wanted to separate the religious component from the community center.” El-Gamal wouldn’t comment on how much money he has raised thus far or how much he plans to raise for either of the entities, though the entire project is still purported to cost $100 million.
The developer has plans to raise between $7 million to $10 million for what he calls a “transitional facility,” which will host a range of community activities from gallery exhibits to youth workshops to yoga classes.
The future Islamic community center, known as Park51, meanwhile, is still “a dream.”
“The bricks are being laid down in a very slow and humble way,” El-Gamal told the benefit attendees. The official formation of Park51 as a nonprofit is still pending, according to Katerina Lucas, Park51’s chief of staff. The organization is awaiting Internal Revenue Service approval to achieve its 501(c)(3) status.
In the meantime, El-Gamal said that Park51 has an advisory board of almost one dozen “prominent” members, including the aunt of a 9/11 victim, though the developer declined to disclose names as yet. The nonprofit will also be establishing a separate board of directors, which will be responsible for deciding the programming of the space.
“It’s exactly where it should be,” said El-Gamal of the process. “I’m hoping we’ll have [nonprofit status] before the end of the year.”
Though they are two separate legal entities, El-Gamal spoke of the future facility as one, all-encompassing center that will be open daily and will host Arabic language classes and a variety of other secular services. The prayer space alone will accommodate some 2,000 people.
El-Gamal said he’s still seeking community input for the activities the center will host. “We’re going to listen to our community to see what our community wants,” El-Gamal told the dinner guests.
The weekly community meetings, El-Gamal told Downtown Express, have “tapered down a little bit, but we’ll be having more sessions and meetings soon.”
The image of the project concocted by the media, El-Gamal acknowledged, was a blow to the developer, his family and his company. But it also strengthened his resolve to push forward. “There is no skirting around the issue—the story of this project, and what the media has made of it, and the amount of attention that we’ve achieved in the news last year about exactly what we’re proposing to do,” said El-Gamal. “Given its public prominence, is failure an option?” he asked the audience rhetorically.
The opposition will resurface on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when conservative blogger Pamela Geller is staging yet another protest. El-Gamal said he wasn’t afraid of continued pushback on the project. “I think they’re starting to see the benefits of this project,” he said. “Once it’s built, it’s going to help revitalize the economy.”
Park51, Lucas said, hasn’t decided on whether it will organize a public event for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Either way, she said, “We want to do what is most respectful and appropriate.”