The Sad, True Story of the Ground Zero Mosque

by Brendan O’Connor


Five years ago, a local land-use issue here in New York City became the subject of national debate. Two Muslim men — a real-estate developer and an imam — proposed to build a Ground Zero Victory Terror Mosque two blocks away from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. Haha, no: They proposed to build a fifteen-story Islamic cultural center. Still, while many New Yorkers were ambivalent about this (although it seems worth noting that the local community board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project), people outside of New York were stridently against it (because dog whistles work). Anyway, demolition at the site began earlier this year, and, if all goes according to plan, a seventy-story ultra-luxury condominium tower will have risen there by 2017. Wait a minute, what happened to the cultural center, you ask?

The five-story building at 45 Park Place, in Lower Manhattan, was built in the late eighteen fifties. In 1968, it was bought by pioneering discount retailer Sy Syms and his partner Isidore (“Irving”) Pomerantz. In 1990, the Pomerantz family leased the building to the Burlington Coat Factory, and eleven years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, a piece of landing-gear assembly from either American Airlines Flight 11 or United Airlines Flight 175 plummeted through the roof, crashing through two floors but injuring no one. (According to the New York Times, the store wasn’t yet open for the day, so the staff of about eighty employees were having breakfast in the basement.) For the next eight years, the Burlington Coat Factory was abandoned. Kukiko Mitani — whose deceased husband, Stephen Pomerantz, had at one point reportedly listed the building for eighteen million dollars — sold it to a developer, Soho Properties, for nearly five million dollars in July 2009, because it was in the middle of the recession and she needed the money.

After Soho Properties purchased the building, the space was used on Fridays, under temporary permits of assembly, as an overflow prayer space for TriBeCa’s Al Farah mosque, a ten minute walk north at 245 West Broadway, where Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim, who was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and studied physics at Columbia University, was the spiritual leader. Abdul Rauf, who had led services in the neighborhood since 1983, is also the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith group which invested in the building’s purchase with Soho Properties. In December 2009, Abdul Rauf and Sharif El-Gamal, the chairman and CEO of Soho Properties (and college dropout born in Park Slope to an Egyptian father and Polish mother), floated the idea of repurposing the building as a cultural center for the neighborhood, of which a mosque would be one part. Its proximity to the World Trade Center “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11… We want to push back against the extremists,” Abdul Rauf told the Times. “What happened that day,” the imam said, “was not Islam.”

The following summer, in 2010, the local community board voted twenty-nine-to-one, with ten abstentions, to approve plans for a fifteen-story, hundred-million-dollar community center modeled on the 92nd Street Y. Abdul Rauf referred to it as the Cordoba House; El-Gamal referred to it as Park51; and around the country, people referred to it, variously, as the “Ground Zero mosque,” the “Ground Zero terror mosque,” and the “Victory Mosque.” “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington,” former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich said. “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” (Technically, Curbed pointed out at the time, it would be a musalla, not a mosque, “but ‘Ground Zero Musalla’ is way less catchy!”) Republican candidates for governor called for an investigation into the project’s financing: “This is about transparency. This about the safety of the people of New York,” former-congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio said. “Religion has nothing to do with this.” (Those requests were denied by then-attorney general and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo.) The families of victims were trotted out. “People are being accused of being anti-Muslim and racist, but this is simply a matter of sensitivity,” a dead firefighter’s mother told the Times. “It’s hard enough to go down to that pit of hell and death.” Now, of course, that pit of hell and death has been beautifully landscaped into the place where Vogue is produced and from which Fox News will soon be broadcast.

As it turned out, the money behind the site was worth investigating, though perhaps not for the reasons Republican politicians and right-wing activists might have hoped or expected: In its early years, Abdul Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative was reportedly funded in large part by R. Leslie Deak, a Muslim convert with CIA ties. (“The Ground Zero Mosque Was an Inside Job,” Gawker quipped.) On the other side of the argument, the Islamophobes were heavily bankrolled by hedge-funder Robert Mercer, who personally paid for a million-dollar advertising campaign stirring up anti-mosque sentiment. According to the New York Times, Mercer, who was a researcher at IBM before he joined the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, has donated more than fifteen million dollars to conservative political causes since 2012. In 2013, a group of former employees at his house sued him for failing to pay overtime; he is currently financing Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

In any event, Abdul Rauf and El-Gamal did not back down. “We are proceeding with the community center, Cordoba House. More important, we are doing so with the support of the downtown community, government at all levels and leaders from across the religious spectrum, who will be our partners,” the imam wrote in an op-ed for the Times that September. “Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.” The next day, El-Gamal, the developer, sent an press release reminding people that the building’s official name was Park51. (An interview with El-Gamal on offers some clarification as to the internal structure of the proposed project: Park51 was the name for the building and, apparently, the organization that would manage the building, which would hypothetically incorporate as a tax-exempt non-profit; the Cordoba House was to direct the interfaith programming at Park51; and the mosque, which was never named, would also incorporate as a separate non-profit.)

Late that summer, though, it had came to light that Soho Properties did not actually own the entire property on which El-Gamal and Abdul Rauf had proposed to renovate and build the community center, which was to stretch from 45 to 51 Park Place. (Hence the name.) While Soho Properties controlled the entire site, technically what it had purchased from the Pomerantz family in 2009 was only 45–47 Park Place; 49–51 Park Place, which at one point had been used as a Consolidated Edison substation, was still owned by the energy company. When Soho Properties bought 45–47 Park Place from the Pomerantz family in 2009, it also paid seven hundred thousand dollars to take over the ninety-nine year, thirty-three-thousand-dollar-per-year lease at the adjacent building. (Common walls between the two buildings had been demolished years before, rendering them, functionally, one big building.) In February of 2010, the New York Post reported, Soho Properties had told Con Ed that it wanted to exercise the purchase option on the lease, which would not expire until 2071, at which point the utility initiated an appraisal to determine the property’s value. “We are following our legal obligations under the lease. We will not allow other considerations to enter into this transaction,” Con Ed told the Post in August. Until Soho Properties owned the full lot outright, it could not move to raze the old buildings and construct the envisioned fifteen-story Park51.

However, the Con Ed sale did not go through until August 2014, when Soho Properties purchased 49–51 Park Place for just over ten million dollars. The delay was caused, in part, because El-Gamal challenged Con Ed’s appraisal in court, and even appealed when a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan approved the valuation. Meanwhile, Con Ed was threatening to evict Soho Properties, claiming that the developer owed nearly two million dollars in back rent, all of which was settled with the 2014 sale of the building. “We are pleased to have concluded a complex acquisition from Con Edison allowing us to complete the assemblage for our upcoming developments at Park Place. This further exemplifies our strength as a buyer of real estate from institutional sellers,” El-Gamal said in a statement to the Times.

In that time, El-Gamal’s relationship with Abdul Rauf deteriorated. They split in January 2011, just months after having seemingly weathered the summer’s storm. “Imam Feisal has no authority or control over this project, over its board of directors or over Soho Properties, which controls the real estate,” El-Gamal said in a statement, after Abdul Rauf told the Buffalo News that he would be willing to find a new location for the cultural center. (“I would move because my whole life is about improving relationships with people,” the imam said.) As of January 11th, the Times reported, Abdul Rauf would remain on Park51’s board of directors, but he was not permitted to raise money or speak on behalf of the development. Three weeks later, Sheik Abdallah Adhami, who El-Gamal had appointed to replace Abdul Rauf, also stepped down, after comments that he had made in one of his lectures — an “enormously overwhelming percentage of people struggle with homosexual feeling because of some form of violent emotional or sexual abuse at some point in their life” — came to light.


An older rendering of 45 Park Place

In January 2013, Soho Properties acquired the adjacent 43 Park Place for eight million dollars. That April, The Real Deal reported that El-Gamal was talking to brokers about how best to build and market condos in the neighborhood. “Plans for the site will be announced at a later date,” El-Gamal’s spokesman Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant and Democratic political operative who once gave a very interesting interview to on the financial crisis and the future of humanity, told The Commercial Observer after Soho Properties applied for demolition permits the next year. In May 2014, after announcing earlier that they would not be building a fifteen-story cultural center, but rather a three-story museum (including a sanctuary for prayer services) Soho Properties filed permits to build condos. “The original plan did not work,” El-Gamal told the Real Deal later that summer. “However, I never backpedaled or shifted from what the dream has always been. I did not want to subject my children to [other]… kids saying ‘that’s the child of the man who backed down.’ This [plan] is going to show the excellence of Muslims and the Islamic culture.”


Last week, Soho Properties released details of the project to Bloomberg Businessweek: a seventy-story, ultra-luxury condominium tower, including at least fifteen full-floor units to be marketed at prices higher than three thousand dollars per square foot. There will be a fifty-foot swimming pool in the basement and concierge service. A public plaza will connect the condos to the (much reduced) Islamic museum and prayer space at the site. Above three hundred feet, all of the apartments will be full-floor units with private elevators and twelve-foot floor-to-ceiling windows offering unobstructed views of Midtown, the Hudson River, and the Statue of Liberty. “You can’t see Ground Zero from our current building and on completion of our planned building some years from now, there won’t be any views of the Ground Zero memorial from the building,” El-Gamal said in his July 2010 interview with Now, however, the 9/11 Memorial would appear to be visible from the planned condos above three hundred feet. Plans change.

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— Park51 (@Park51) September 29, 2015

Renderings courtesy their respective architects/developers