Developers of the controversial Park51 Islamic community center and mosque located two blocks from ground zero earlier this month applied for roughly $5 million in federal grant money set aside for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan after the attacks of September 11, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
The audacious move stands to reignite the embers of a divisive debate that dominated headlines surrounding the ninth anniversary of the attacks this fall, say people vested in the issue.
The application was submitted under a “community and cultural enhancement” grant program administered by the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation (LMDC), which oversaw the $20 billion in federal aid allocated in the wake of 9/11 and is currently doling out millions in remaining taxpayer funds for community development. The redevelopment board declined to comment on the application (as did officials from Park51), citing the continuing and confidential process of determining the grant winners.
While news of the application has not previously been made public, developer Sharif El-Gamal outlined it in closed-door meetings, according to two individuals he spoke with directly. The thirtysomething, Brooklyn-born El-Gamal is motivated more by real estate ambition—one of these sources describes him as aspiring to be the next Donald Trump—than Islamic theology or ideology.
Park51’s developers clearly have a legal right to apply for the grant. A list of Frequently Asked Questions that accompanied the application specifically states that religious organizations can make funding requests for capital projects “as long as the request is for a facility or portion of a facility that is dedicated to non-religious activities or uses.” According to an individual familiar with the Park51 application, it requests funds to cover a number of cultural, educational and community development aspects of the proposed 13-story building—but the prayer room is excluded from the grant application.
But the question on whether they could have is trumped by the question of whether they should have.
But the question on whether they could have is trumped by the question of whether they should have. The stated aim of the Park51 developers is to provide a community center for lower Manhattan’s 4,000 Muslim residents. Their own website explained that they understood the need to “appeal to the undecided, and change the conversation about Muslims in America.” It’s pretty clear that this play for federal dollars will generate none of that, starting with the lack of disclosure or community consultation before developers submitted their application, which was due November 5.
"If Imam Feisal and his retinue want know why they're not trusted, here's yet another reason,” says Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam and director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU, when I asked her about the grant proposal. “The New Yorkers I speak with have questions about Park51. Requesting money from public coffers without engaging the public shows a staggering lack of empathy—especially from a man who says he's all about dialogue."
As a witness to the 9/11 attacks and someone who currently lives in the revived neighborhood, I can tell you that anger over the Park51 project was more intense outside the community than within it.
After all, the local community board approved the Park51 development in two separate votes—and the right of the project to proceed was honorably affirmed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg against a torrent of criticism this fall. Politicians across the country tried to turn the development into a partisan political football, including notable ads from Florida’s Governor-elect Rick Scott (“ Obama’s Mosque”) and the newly elected North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Renee Elmers.
But attempts to turn the mosque into a campaign issue in New York were strikingly unsuccessful (think Rick Lazio). And after a series of protests and counterprotests surrounding the building site on Park Place, the issue has receded. New Yorkers live with diversity every day—we understand how essential it is to embrace our fellow citizens who are Muslim while never forgetting the terrorists who attacked us. Reasonable people who recognize the Islamic community center's right to develop on private property, however, will object to their use of public funds to do so.
Part of the strangeness of the application is that it blows past the suggested range of $100,000 to $1 million that these grants are supposed to fall to within (I’m told the entire pool for this round of cultural funding will come in under $20 million). According to the two sources knowledgeable about the thinking behind the proposal, the strategy behind the $5 million ballpark was trying to yield a higher figure in the end.
But the project likely doesn’t qualify for a grant in the first place. Specifically, the grant criteria mandate a demonstration of a project’s financial feasibility, based on benchmarks set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The government will help complete development projects—but it does not provide seed capital. And in their last public financial statement, Park51 was found to have less than $20,000 in the bank for a project with a slated cost of $100 million.
"Any solicitation for LMDC funds would have to meet the HUD criteria for eligibility," explains Julie Menin, an LMDC board member and the chairperson of New York’s Community Board 1, which includes the World Trade Center site.
It will be interesting to see how the LMDC deals with the appropriateness of this application, especially given its stated commitment to “an open, inclusive, and transparent planning process in which the public has a central role in shaping the future of Lower Manhattan.” After all, among its advisory councils are representatives of the victim’s families, who are unlikely to be sympathetic to the subject.
President Obama came under fire this fall for alternately asserting the mosque's right to exist and then subsequently questioning the wisdom of the project. He was essentially right, and this new chapter in the Park51 saga shows that wisdom is the essential component missing from this development.
In the end, Park51’s application is likely to be unsuccessful financially while mobilizing a new round of opposition. It’s a lose-lose proposition put forward by a tone-deaf organization that seems determined to alienate allies and embolden opponents.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.