Aug. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Plans to build an Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site moved forward after New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to allow the demolition of a building that would be replaced by a mosque.
The panel denied landmark status to a long-vacant 152-year-old lower Manhattan building on Park Place, formerly a Burlington Coat Factory department store. The unanimous vote cleared a hurdle for the site to be torn down and the mosque, recreation and cultural center to be built.
The proposed mosque has drawn opposition from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who have called its proposed presence near the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history inappropriate. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have supported the project.
“To cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists,” Bloomberg said at a news conference today on Governors Island in New York Harbor, within view of the Statue of Liberty, where he was joined by Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy. “No neighborhood in our city is off limits to God’s love and mercy.”
The Cordoba Initiative, the project’s sponsor, describes itself as a pluralistic organization seeking better relations between the Islamic community and other faiths. Plans for the center include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, restaurants, bookstores and space for art exhibitions, according to the organization’s website.
“I’m pleased with the decision,” said Rabbi Robert Levine, who leads Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “That mosque could serve, as their program director made clear, as an example of respect for all people and a model of interfaith cooperation and that’s something that this city and this country needs desperately.”
More than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were planned by al-Qaeda, an Islamist terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden, according to the U.S. 9/11 commission.
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans,” Bloomberg said. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims different than anyone else.”
Last week, Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization created to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, said the city “would be better served if an alternative location could be found.”
Foxman said the project would cause 9/11 victims’ families “more pain -- unnecessarily,” and that “questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.”
In an e-mail statement after the vote today, Foxman said it was time to “move forward in a positive way to work toward healing, understanding and reconciliation.”
Palin, in a July 22 Facebook entry, described the proposed mosque as “a stab in the heart” of the attack victims’ families. She also said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, suggested that U.S. policies in the Middle East helped create attitudes that led to “the crime that happened.”
Rauf also “refuses to recognize that Hamas is a terrorist organization,” or provide information about financing of the complex, Palin said.
Rauf and other Cordoba Initiative representatives didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
‘Right to Say’
“This is about giving those people the right to say what they want to say,” Bloomberg said in response to calls for an investigation of the mosque’s financing. “I do not think we should be investigating who puts money in the basket when it’s passed around, who writes checks at Yom Kippur or any other way a religious organization raises money.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
New York City voters, by 52 percent to 31 percent, opposed the mosque proposal in a poll released July 1 by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. The survey of 1,183 registered voters, conducted June 21-28, has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
Opposition was strongest on Staten Island, where another mosque construction project has been proposed. Respondents there were against the Ground Zero mosque plan by 73 percent to 14 percent in favor. In Manhattan, 46 percent supported the project and 36 percent were opposed, Quinnipiac found.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in a statement that he supports the commission’s decision.
“New Yorkers need to be consulted as this project moves forward, and that includes families who lost their loved ones on 9/11,” Stringer said. “It is my hope that we can all come together to fight for what’s really important -- finding a bipartisan solution to fund health benefits for 9/11 first responders, securing federal anti-terrorism dollars to keep our city safe and promoting religious tolerance and freedom.”
Robert Gibbs, spokesman for President Barack Obama, told reporters at a White House press briefing today that the mosque plan “is rightly a matter for New York City and the local community to decide.”
While saying the Obama and Bush administrations have emphasized that the U.S. is “not at war with a religion,” Gibbs said the White House is “not going to get involved in a local decision.”
Robert Tierney, chairman of the landmarks commission, said at the public meeting today that other designated historic districts and nearby buildings contain better examples of the store-and-loft style of architecture.
“I’ve carefully considered also the other architectural, social, historical and cultural reasons that have been put forth in favor of designation and ultimately find them unpersuasive in terms of this decision,” he said.
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