Volume 20, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 23 - March 1, 2011
Park51 taking shape; developer asks, “Why move?”
BY Aline Reynolds
The contentious Islamic community center planned for Park Place is still only a bright vision of two Muslim-Americans who say they want to bridge cultural gaps and provide a suitable prayer space for Lower Manhattan residents.
But the project will begin to be mapped out in the coming weeks and months, when as-yet-undisclosed prominent New Yorkers join real estate developer Sharif El-Gamal and his team to convert ideas into concrete plans.
“This is a brick-and-mortar facility to signify what’s best about America and offer a true example of who Muslims are,” said El-Gamal, the chief executive officer of SoHo Properties, in an exclusive interview with the Downtown Express.
El-Gamal credits businessman Hisham ElZanaty, the majority investor in the community center, for kick starting the project. “Without his foresight and vision,” El-Gamal said, “we wouldn’t have been able to embark on this.”
The development, now known as Park51, will begin to take shape over the next two-to-three years. To El-Gamal, Park51 is far more than a straightforward real estate deal.
“There are so many different pieces we have to put together to make this thing work,” said El-Gamal.
It entails unifying a multicultural community and creating a nonprofit organization that will determine the programming of the community center as well as raise funds.
The four-member organization, which doesn’t yet have an office or a phone number, expects to be granted nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service in the spring. The community center will eventually have a full-time staff of around 150, according to El-Gamal.
Announcements of new board members — including what El-Gamal deemed to be a “Who’s Who of New Yorkers” — will be made soon. The developer would not disclose names.
Recent inconsistencies between the developer and religious leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, and one of the original faces of the project have caused confusion in the public’s eye. El-Gamal reiterated that, while Rauf still sits on the Board of Directors for Park51, neither he nor his wife, Daisy Khan, who presented the project to Community Board 1’s Financial District committee last May, are to speak on behalf of the community center or play any role in raising funds.
“We wanted to have a clear separation between [the community center and the Cordoba Initiative] and what they are,” said El-Gamal.
The developer went on to describe Rauf as “a very respected and beloved friend,” and denied the recent news reports of a rift between the two.
However, Rauf has gone against El-Gamal’s wishes on numerous occasions during his nationwide tour to promote the Cordoba Movement, aimed at bonding moderates of different faiths and cultures. Last Wednesday, in an interview on Michael Martin’s National Public Radio show Tell Me More, Rauf articulated his vision for the Cordoba House, the name he often uses for Park51.
Imam Rauf said he would consider moving the community center “if someone is to offer a site that is equal or better and with a vision of a multi-faith center where all faiths can come and participate in cultural activities, athletics, et cetera and also emphasize a culture of worship — not only for Muslims, but for Christians and Jews and members of other faith traditions.”
But, according to El-Gamal, Rauf has no authority over the location of Park51. When asked whether he would consider moving it, El-Gamal replied, “My question to you is, why?”
And concerning Rauf’s recent remarks about the project, El-Gamal acknowledged that Rauf is “his own man” and is certainly free to speak his mind.
As for “Cordoba,” the original name of the project, El-Gamal said it was merely a placeholder.
“I don’t know what ‘Cordoba’ is,” he said. “It’s not American to me.”
Many of the project’s opponents have taken the same view, since the name refers to a 700-year period when Spain was a Muslim emirate. And so El-Gamal and his team searched for a name that was less divisive. Nearly 50 community members involved in the project voted last summer in favor of the Park51 moniker.
Though initially hesitant about “Park51,” El-Gamal said he’s enamored of it now, believing it “symbolizes something green and new.”
“At first I was like, what are we building, a condo?” said El-Gamal.
Funding for the community center is still in the embryonic phase, though the board is already receiving donations through its new website, Park51.org.
The board also plans to enhance its Facebook and Twitter presence, replicating President Barack Obama’s tactic of reaching out to the younger crowd. Down the line, it will also be launching a major grassroots fundraising campaign across the country, and plans to open offices in other states.
“We’re trying to communicate with people, and give them a platform to engage in dialogue,” said El-Gamal. The board, he said, anticipates to have a more complete fundraising strategy in place by mid-March.
The board will be actively seeking public input on the future programming for Park51. They will continue to host public information sessions on Wednesday evenings at the SoHo Property offices in Chelsea, organize town hall meetings and survey residents within the Community Board 1 district later this year, according to El-Gamal.
“It’s important to really listen to what people want,” he said, “and to hear what people are going to subscribe to in the facility. At the end of the day, we have an open door for everyone who has good intentions and who wants to get involved and have a stake in the project.”
El-Gamal also plans to hold a special meeting with C. B. 1 members in the second or third quarter of 2011.
“We want to really debrief the board on where we are,” said El-Gamal, “and what we’ve achieved to date. This project is for them.”
El-Gamal added that the Park51 team is indebted to the community board for its warm reception of the project.
During the interview, El-Gamal mentioned that he is undertaking a couple of developments in Tribeca, though he didn’t give details. “I’d like to stay off the radar… I was completely off the radar before this happened,” he said.
Practically overnight, the developer found himself in the spotlight due to his association with the community center. He even had to move his real estate offices to a new location because of threats and harassment.
Gaining notoriety so rapidly has been surreal and often burdensome.
“It really requires one to self-examine character,” El-Gamal said, “and to humble yourself in everything you’re doing, and to work on being a better person every single day.”
— with reporting
by John Bayles