Volume 22, Number 53 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 14 - 20, 2010
The former Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place will soon be replaced by a new community center and mosque.
Possible new neighbor to WTC hopes to build on good faith
BY Ishita Singh
The process of rebuilding Lower Manhattan after the destruction of 9/11 has dragged on for years. Buildings have remained shuttered and construction sites have stalled as various project plans have changed and funding has fallen through all over the neighborhood.
One group hopes to liven up the area by erecting a 13-story community center and mosque. The Cordoba Initiative bought the Burlington Coat Factory at 45 Park Place recently, and plans to knock down the damaged building and create the center as a tribute to the city’s tolerance of all faiths, according to the Initiative’s Executive Director, Daisy Khan.
“It’s a testament to the deep respect that New Yorkers have for one another,” Khan said. “New Yorkers really embrace and accept and celebrate all the faith communities.”
The Cordoba Initiative presented its proposal at Community Board 1’s Financial District committee meeting last Wednesday. Ro Sheffe, the committee chair, said that community members were interested to hear about the group’s plans for the site. He added that the committee was gratified that the Cordoba Initiative came to two meetings since it is not officially required to receive Community Board approval for its building plans.
“They chose voluntarily to share their plans,” Sheffe said. “They have no obligations to appear before us. Most of us found it pretty much a compliment and a sign of cooperation with the community.”
The center, which may open as early as 2013, will comprise a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool and numerous classrooms, including a kitchen for cooking classes. The first floor of the building will house a mosque. Khan hopes to host cultural, political and interfaith discussions at the site as well.
“The whole purpose of the project is to create peace and harmony between our faith and tradition and also to provide a much-needed community space for Lower Manhattan,” Khan said.
The committee voted unanimously last week to approve construction of the community center in part because of its likeness to the 92nd Street Y in the Upper East Side, Sheffe said. He explained that though the Y is a member of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, it is perceived as a cultural center for all.
But people who live and work in the neighborhood were lukewarm in their enthusiasm for the center. Though some were undisturbed by the construction of a community center and mosque so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks, others were more resistant to the idea.
Construction worker Mark Smith, who is part of the rebuilding team at the World Trade Center, said that he was indifferent to what the Cordoba Initiative builds at the site. “It doesn’t matter, a building is a building.”
Barry Baden, who works at the nearby Dresdner Bank, said that he supported the idea of a community center, with a condition. “If it’s real Islamic culture that teaches charity and all, then I support it. Not if it’s radicalism—then they shouldn’t be here.”
Some believed the attacks were too recent for an Islamic presence in the neighborhood. “It’s too close to this for now. It would seem out of place. This whole terrorist thing happened here,” said Mark Twaitz, who walks by the proposed site often on his way to work.
Khan hopes that by offering up the space to those of all faiths, the center will foster a better understanding of Islam among area residents and workers. She said that the center will eventually become a platform for the true values of Islam, which have been drowned out by radical extremists.
“It’s a center that will become a platform for the silent majority of Muslims whose voices do not get heard. It will show the true face of who Muslims are,” she said.
Sheffe attributed some of the opposition to misinformation. Many news reports have said that the center is solely a mosque, or an Islamic cultural center. However, the Cordoba Initiative made it clear in their presentation to the Financial District committee that the center will be secular space for the entire community, not an Islamic facility, he said.
The hardest group to convince thus far has been the families of victims of 9/11. Some families have vocally expressed their objections to the construction of a mosque so close to the World Trade Center. The Cordoba Initiative has reached out to some of these families and met with family members in person so that they can join the conversation. “We need to build trust, reach out to them and hopefully have them be part of our center,” Khan said.
Some people are eagerly awaiting the community center. Shafi Mohammad, who works nearby, said he looks forward to having a gathering place for Muslims. “I hope to come to prayers at the new building.”
Mohammad occasionally attends services at the Cordoba Initiative’s mosque on West Broadway in Tribeca. The success of that mosque, opened 15 years ago, encouraged the group to expand its presence into Lower Manhattan, according to Khan.
Tearing down the existing building at 45 Park Place and building anew would greatly improve the block aesthetically, Mohammad added. Currently, an aging red “Burlington” sign looms over the street, calling undeserved attention to the faded and peeling storefront, charred in places, untouched since plane debris damaged the building on 9/11. The Cordoba Initiative will hold an international competition to determine the architect of the site, and will leave all design decisions up to the winner.
“This place is meant to be an iconic center,” Khan said. “So we want the best of what Islamic architecture has to offer and the best of what New York-style architecture has to offer.”
Khan has grand plans for the center. “Ultimately a center like this will become a counter against Muslim extremism. We’re taking the tragedy of 9/11 and from the ashes of that, building a better place from that, a place that will celebrate co-existence, a place that will be open to everyone.”