“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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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