Volume 23, Number 10 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 16 - 22, 2010

Landmarks hearing on Cordoba House site takes angry turn

BY Aline Reynolds

Hunter College’s Assembly Hall played host on Tuesday to yet another media circus concerning the planned community center and prayer space slated to built at 45 Park Place, home of the old Burlington coat Factory.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a three-hour hearing on whether or not to landmark the building. The Commission, currently in the public comment phase, will deliver a decision before summer ends.

To be a candidate for designation, the building must be ”at least 30 years old and must possess ‘a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation,’” according to the Commission’s website.

The building at 45 Park Place was designed in the mid-1800s as an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo. It was under consideration for landmarking back in 1989, and several times thereafter, according to Shelly Freedman, attorney for Soho Properties. The property is most recently one of several on the master list of properties assessed for landmark designation, Freedman added.

El-Gamal, owner of Soho Properties, requested that 45 Park Place be included in the properties list for landmark consideration so that it would be removed once and for all.

“We think that this property falls far short of your standards for individual landmarking,” said Shelly Friedman, the counsel for Sharif El-Gamal, CEO of Soho Properties, the owner of 45 Park Place. “It’s not sufficient for a building to share generic attributes with other individual landmarks.”

The discussion quickly morphed from the status of the site to its future use. El-Gamal himself spoke in support of the Cordoba Initiative.

“As a Muslim-American, I’m proof of the American dream,” he said.

The crowd jeered.

“I’m fully committed to giving back to the city. It’s my hope that this project becomes…a service to all New Yorkers.”

“This guy [El-Jamal] is lying to us,” replied Robert Spencer, a co-founder of Stop Islamization of America. “He’s going to make a subversive institution that’s spreading subversion in Lower Manhattan. It should be a war memorial – that’s the best designation for it.”

Only a few other public speakers at the hearing opposed the landmarking.

“Our report concludes that [45 Park Place] does not appear to possess a special historic or aesthetic interest,” said Nathan Riddle, a historian for Allee, King, Rosen and Fleming, an environmental review firm. “It’s not stylistically unique and has no design elements that are unusual for its period,” he added.

“I urge the commission to make a decision about the true merits of the design, which is not extraordinary, in this case,” said Zead Ramadan, President of the Council on American-Islamic Relation’s New York chapter. Valerie Lucznikowska, representing the September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, also argued against the landmarking of the site.

But most of the speakers at the hearing strongly supported landmarking the space. One of the notable proponents of landmarking the site was GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio.

“If 311 Broadway is a landmark, why not 45 Park Place? The building itself was damaged, and it’s a place of deep historical significance and a reminder of what happened on New York’s darkest day,” said Lazio.

Lazio is equally against construction of the Cordoba House, referring to the proposed mosque as an accessory to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “It [the Cordoba House] will raise serious questions that’ll keep the people of New York actually feeling safe,” said, adding that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has said incendiary and controversial things.

Many of the speakers used the hearing an opportunity to voice their opposition to the Cordoba House, a 13-story building that would be constructed on the site were it not to be landmarked. Opponents of the Cordoba House find the construction of a mosque so close to Ground Zero to be an insensitive and painful reminder of the perpetrators of the attack. Some said that it could inspire Islamic extremists to commit another terrorist attack on American turf.

“To deprive the building of landmark status is to allow for a citadel of Islamic supremacy to be erected in its place,” said hearing speaker Sara Harman, who is in favor of landmarking the site. “Nothing could be more negative, nothing could be more insensitive or more damaging to the American spirit.”

The crowd roared in approval.

“It [adding a mosque to the prayer space] would be like moving the sunken ship from Pearl Harbor to erect a memorial for the Japanese kamikazes killed in the attack,” said Sam Bunker, representing Tim Brown, a firefighter and first responder on 9/11.

Barbara Paolucci, of Murray Hill, also urged the Commission to grant 45 Park Place landmark status.

“It should be turned into a museum,” she said. “Part of the plane went into the tower.” Paolucci asked that all of Ground Zero be turned into a historic district. “We don’t know if there are parts of human remains in that building…” she added. This building should be turned into…a monument to 9/11, so that nobody forgets.”

Again, the crowd roared in applause.

“I thought this [hearing] was going to be about the historical significance of the building,” said Scott Caruthus, a regional EMS who responded to the 9/11 attacks. “I was murdered that day – I’ve lost 40 percent of my lung capacity,” he said. “I don’t want to see the W.T.C. site built and have them build that mosque.”
The sparse Muslims in the hearing room felt discriminated against, barely being able to give their testimony amid a crowd that was foaming at the mouth. “I’m ashamed to be an American today, said Rafique Kathwari, a Muslim who resides on the Upper West Side who was nearly booed off the podium.

“Is this [discussion] really about landmarking, or is it about taking the easy way out and getting the building landmark status because this has…been made by the very vocal minority into an issue of bigotry?”

“Maybe if a mosque were built, then you guys would know what Islam was about,” said a disturbed Dania Darwich, 17, from Brooklyn, addressing the raucous crowd. “It’s about peace and love – we’re not like that.”

Darwich, whose two aunt’s perished in the 9/11 attacks, added that she felt threatened by those around her at the hearing. “People’s eyes were piercing at me with hate,” she later told the media. “I felt like the lady sitting behind me was going to attack me for who I am.”

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