MANHATTAN (CN) – The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission on Tuesday cleared a hurdle for the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. The panel unanimously rejected a motion to designate a former Burlington Coat Factory Building at 45-47 Park Place as an historical landmark, a move that would have blocked the controversial “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Chairman Robert B. Tierney found the “architectural, historical and cultural reasons” for designating the site as an individual landmark “unconvincing,” and the eight other commissioners agreed.
The decision will allow for the demolition of the 19th-century Italian Renaissance-style palazzo building currently standing at 45-47 Park Place, where a Muslim cultural and outreach organization plans to build a 13- to 15-story cultural and religious hub called the Cordoba House in its place.
The Cordoba Initiative’s mission calls for improving Muslim-West relations, and the proposed building plans to include a preschool, special needs center, swimming pool, 500-seat auditorium, art galleries and a top-floor sanctuary.
Despite its stated peaceful mission, public figures such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin recently made it a source of national controversy because of its proximity to the former World Trade Center.
Commissioner Stephen Byrns noted that the vote was not based on “the appropriateness of a mosque near Ground Zero,” but on the architectural and historical significance of the site proposed to be landmarked.
Likewise, in a speech recalling his experiences witnessing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks from the Chambers Street subway station, Commissioner Christopher Moore compared the site’s historical significance to that of a guard rail where a fatality has taken place.
“The guard rail is not preserved,” he said, adding, “We do not preserve the sky, but I wish that we could.”
The handful of demonstrators watching the vote did not appreciate the distinction, erupting into a chorus of boos and yelling “shame” when the commissioners agreed that the former coat store built by an unknown architect was not worthy of preservation.
During one of the speeches, TV cameras pointed at the commissioners swung toward the audience as one woman entered the auditorium carrying a sign that read “Don’t Glorify the Murders of 3,000-No 9/11 Victory Mosque.”
“The hecklers didn’t have any basis for those heckles,” said Megan Putney, an outreach coordinator at Muslim Consultative Network. She noted that it even seemed that some of the commissioners did not support the Cordoba House, but they were “doing their jobs” in a vote “based on the facts.”
At an impromptu press conference at the lobby of the auditorium, Cordoba House opponent and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio renewed calls for his Democratic rival Andrew Cuomo to investigate the Cordoba Initiative’s funds for support by “foreign governments” or “radical organizations.”
“Let’s have transparency,” Lazio said.
Referring to Lazio’s outspoken opposition to the mosque, Dalia Mahmoud of the Muslim Public Affairs Council said, “That’s what you do when you’re down in the polls.”
The most recent Rasmussen poll showed Lazio trailing Cuomo by double digits in the race for New York governor.
The Jewish-American peace organization J Street was also on hand to deliver a 10,000-signature petition supporting the Cordoba House to the commissioners.
Spokesman Isaac Luria said J Street collected the signatures within 24 hours of the vote, adding that it was important “as a religious minority group” to “stand in support of religious freedom.”
He declined to comment on the Anti-Defamation League’s recent statement opposing the project, explaining that he wanted to focus on his own organization’s stance.
The Cordoba House needs to raise $100 million and file building plans before starting construction.
Developer Soho Properties did not attend the hearings and was not able to respond immediately to the vote.