“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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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.