Sharif El-Gamal and Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf have spent the better part of the past decade trying to create an Islamic community center downtown. Yet it only took the month of May for that dream to almost unravel when it came up against monkey gods, the BBC, and the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Last year, they settled on the former home of a Burlington Coat Factory on Park Place for their new center, the Cordoba House. Soho Properties, a real estate firm controlled by El-Gamal, paid just under $5 million for the two buildings that once housed the clothing retailer, one of which is a potential landmark. That the site is only two blocks from the World Trade Center is merely a coincidence, El-Gamal said, though that has not stopped it from becoming fodder for the local tabloids and subsequently making headlines around the world.
“There’s a huge Muslim community down there, it might be the largest in the city,” El-Gamal said, explaining the need for such a project in Lower Manhattan. He added that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the city, a much-needed 92nd Street Y of sorts for both the downtown and Islamic communities.
The 120,000-square-foot project, which is expected to cost $100 million, will include a 500-seat amphitheater, a Middle Eastern-themed food court and restaurants, athletic and recreational facilities, a daycare, and other amenities, as well as a prayer space, which has caused much of the furor over what has been dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Imam Faisal said he believed the location will only strengthen the purpose of a center meant to be an extension of the Cordoba Initiative, a group he leads with the mission of improving Islamic-Western relations. “It’s become increasingly attractive because it gives us the opportunity to amplify the voices of the moderate Muslims who are the majority,” he said.
Architecturally, the pair proposes an ambitious structure rising upwards of 200 feet. Imam Faisal spoke of the Aga Khan Awards as inspiration though he also stressed the need to build something contemporary and equally American. “We want it to be part of the New York skyline, part of the personality of New York City, but also expressive of our own values,” he said. “Muslim values have made some very important contributions to architecture.”
He pointed to the controversy in Switzerland over minarets as an example not to follow. “The minaret is not required,” Imam Faisal said. “I’m not saying they should have looked like chalets, but they could have been more sensitive to the local architecture.” He added that to create the right balance for such a structure “requires genius, otherwise you get something schizophrenic.”
Last month, renderings were presented to the local community board as part of an outreach effort—the project is as of right—showing off strong geometric patterns and some abstractions of Arabic characters. El-Gamal stressed that the models were simply a starting point, though he added that much of the expression would come from façade treatments and not the building’s form, which is likely to be a conventional box. The board, as well as the mayor and other politicians, overwhelming supported the proposal despite headline-grabbing complaints from some 9/11 victims’ families and a Tea Party leader who suggested that Muslim monkey gods of his own invention would be worshipped there.
The bigger challenge comes from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. One of the two buildings, 45-47 Park Place, an Italianate warehouse from 1858, was calendared in 1989 but never addressed because Burlington Coat Factory opposed designation. The issue is expected to be resolved at a meeting this summer, though Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, sees it as a difficult one because whichever way the commission rules, it will likely be blamed for taking sides. “I see this as a no win situation,” he said. The commission declined to comment.
El-Gamal acknowledged that he would prefer the building was not landmarked. “If it gets landmarked, we’re not going to be able to build the best facilities for the community, because the envelope will be difficult,” he said. Still, whatever the outcome, El-Gamal remains flexible, prepared to build wrap the new building around the old one if need be. “It’s still going to happen,” he said.