“This is going to show the excellence of Islamic culture”: Manhattan's Ground Zero Mosque is finally going ahead

A 2010 protest in support of the proposed mosque. Image: Getty.

It’s not often that the boss of a property company gets to share a red carpet with TV stars. But tonight Sharif El-Gamal, chief executive of Soho Properties, will be a guest of honour at the annual Stella by Starlight awards in New York City, where he will appear alongside Kate Mulgrew and Lea De Laria from Orange Is The New Black. El-Gamal will pick up a corporate gong to celebrate his 15-year career in New York real estate.

No doubt El-Gamal is hoping the event will generate some positive press coverage for his latest project in the city. In 2009, his plan for the so-called Ground Zero Mosque caused nationwide controversy. In reality, the development at Park Place in Manhattan’s financial district included a musalla – an open space, used for praying – not a mosque; but critics were not minded to let technicalities get in the way of their outrage.

Pamela Geller, publisher of a conservative blog called Atlas Shrugs, was the most vocal critic, organising a protest which saw hundreds of people gather at the location, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. They pointed out that the buildings on that block were damaged on 9/11; a wing flap from one of the hijacked planes had been recovered at the site. 

The local community board, by contrast, looked favourably on the scheme, voting 29 to one (with ten abstentions) for a 15-storey, $100m community centre. But in 2011 El-Gamal split with his company chairman, Abdul Rauf, and the idea went on the back burner.

Last month, however, El-Gamal secured Sharia-compliant financing for a new luxury condominium tower and Islamic cultural museum at the site. His firm has negotiated $219m in construction loans from Malayan Banking Berhad (Maybank). Kuwait-based Warba Bank is the lead arranger on a senior construction loan of $174 m, with Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo serving as documentation agent.

The financial district development now features a three-story Islamic cultural museum at 51 Park Place, as well as 48 high-end residential condos in a 43-storey tower down the road at 45 Park Place. According to the New York Post, the building will also feature a pool, a fitness centre, a children's playroom, and a 2,821 square foot public plaza along with retail and “green space”. 

Award-winning architect Jean Nouvel is on board for the project; a mosque will remain in the property's new design, as part of the museum.  

The scaled-back plans for the Islamic centre appears to have placated noisy opponents, who seem unaware that a small mosque had been part of the site since 2009.

El-Gamal declined to speak with me for this piece. But through his PR firm he has put out a statement, which focuses on the business side of the deal: “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.”

In a more forthright mood, El-Gamal has previously said that the Islamic aspect of the development was always a key part of the plan. He told the Real Deals website that he has not “backpedalled 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.”

Critics and supporters of the scheme will have to hold fire for the moment. Developers are expected to break ground on the project before autumn and finish the work in 2018.

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Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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