When President Barack Obama turned the battle over a planned New York Islamic center into a national debate over religious freedom, he unwittingly allied himself and his party with an ill-planned, long-shot development project described by one of its most prominent allies as “amateur hour.”
The efforts to launch the $100 million Cordoba House (now dubbed Park51) two blocks north of the World Trade Center site have been an uphill battle from the start, and not just because of controversy. And even as the “Ground Zero Mosque” emerges as a hotly debated national symbol, New York government officials and real estate insiders are privately questioning whether the project has much chance of coming to fruition.
The Cordoba Initiative hasn’t begun fundraising yet for its $100 million goal. The group’s latest fundraising report with the State Attorney General’s office, from 2008, shows exactly $18,255 – not enough even for a down payment on the half of the site the group has yet to purchase.
The group also lacks even the most basic real estate essentials: no blueprint, architect, lobbyist or engineer — and now operates amid crushing negative publicity. The group’s spokesman, Oz Sultan, wouldn’t rule out developing the site with foreign money in an interview with POLITICO – but said the project’s goal is to rely on domestic funds. Currently, they have none of either.
“They are in the process of hiring an architect — but here’s the thing, you’re not going to get the architect or the engineer because they don’t want to be involved in this,” Sultan, the new media consultant hired to handle some of the projects imaging — mostly via Twitter — told POLITICO.
For all its problems, the project does have a solid chance of accomplishing one thing: further embarrassing the president.
But to veterans of New York real estate wars, Park51 provides an object lesson in how not to handle development politics in a city in which, even under the mildest of conditions, construction projects are fraught with potential peril.
Weeks into the controversy, Sultan told POLITICO the project's developers are hoping to get their "talking points" together.
"Give us a little time," he pleaded.
“They could have obviously done a lot better in explaining who they are if they really wanted to get approval,” said publicist Ken Sunshine, a veteran of New York’s development wars. “There’s a real question as to whether there's money behind this."
“As I understand it there’s no money there,” said another prominent business official.
A prominent supporter of the project was blunt: “This is amateur hour,” he said.
“That’s why the idea that this is some big conspiracy is so silly,” said the supporter. “Yes, you could say this is not a well-oiled machine.”
There is, in fact, a textbook for high-profile New York developments, even less risky ones – and the effort by Park51, whose messaging has relied almost entirely on Sultan’s often-snarky Twitter feed, isn’t it.
“They needed to talk to all the right people and they never did. That's a normal part of building any building in Manhattan,” said George Arzt, a longtime public relations man in New York who was Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary
“Normally what they would have done would be to get the architect, the PR, the government operation, community outreach all together in a team,” said Arzt. “They would have reached out to elected officials and the community to tell them what they’re doing. Then they would have had an idea about how much resistance they were getting and what they needed to do.”
Sultan said the project is now in the phase of trying to engage with its critics to answer questions. Yet while he joined just five weeks ago, he wasn’t familiar with basic history POLITICO tried to ascertain.
“You’d have to talk to Sharif,” he said of the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, who has refused repeated requests for comment from POLITICO.
El-Gamal and the project’s religious anchor, Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, have at times offered conflicting information. They don’t have a single person handling their message, and are often setting up their own interviews. Khan, a Sufi who serves on an informal advisory group for the official 9/11 Memorial, casually mentioned to Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a Ramadan event in September 2009 her embryonic dream of the Islamic center downtown, but that was the extent of outreach to City Hall. The Imam is now traveling in Malaysia, and unreachable.
In an interview with the New York Observer published today, El-Gamal told the weekly of the former Burlington Coat Factory, which was damaged in the attack, "I never wanted anything so badly, and it took me four years to buy it." He did so after several aborted attempts in July 2009 for nearly $5 million, a pot of money whose source critics question.
In liberal New York, the group appears to have reached out to none of the progressive religious groups who would be natural allies, many of whom now support the project, who could have been plausible surrogates to speak to their intentions amid backlash questioning how moderate the Cordoba planners are. Imam Rauf, for instance, sits on the board of the liberal Interfaith Center – but even his fellow board members learned of the project from the New York Times, said the Rev. Chloe Breyer, its executive director.
“They were taken unaware by the response and whether you fault them for it or whether you fault just a rapidly changing and more polarized political environment than anyone expected I don’t think I can answer that,” said Breyer, who backs the project.
Other liberal clerics who might be natural allies told POLITICO they’d heard nothing of the project in advance.
The group also botched its outreach to the families of victims of 9/11, who continue to hold enormous symbolic sway over Ground Zero.
The families Cordoba engaged in advance appear to have been members of "9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows," a left-leaning, anti-war segment that has tense relations with other, larger family organizations.
The Cordoba Initiative’s entire political outreach, meanwhile, appears to have been a call to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer earlier this year, who suggested they visit Community Board 1 merely to measure support. The step was unnecessary – they can build on the site as of right – and was, in retrospect, a mistake.
The hearing gave the impression nationally that there was some kind of government approval required, when in fact it wasn’t the case. A subsequent New York City Landmarks Commission hearing was forced by opponents trying to stop it.
The plan received support from a Community Board subcommittee, but the chair of the board, Julie Menin, advised El-Gamal to hold a larger town hall forum, where nuances could be addressed and broader groups heard from.
He never did.
“If they would have done the town hall from the get-go you would have at least had a real opportunity to get in front of it and explain what they were trying to do and address head-on the misinformation,” she said.
At one of the meetings, the word “mosque” was used, and that gave a hook to the project’s deepest objectors.
It took off in the right-wing blogosphere and in the tabloids, and questions were raised about Rauf’s political beliefs and whether he renounces terror groups like Hamas.
In printed interviews, El-Gamal has expressed frustration with critics, yet he has, based on behavior, been unwilling to engage in responding at the level the project now requires, including to bat back misperceptions that are shaping national public opinion.
A major piece of misinformation is the idea that government has a role in stopping the center, which is patterned on the $85 million Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side.
The project is a completely as-of-right project, meaning it requires no governmental approvals.
“The mosque has no money, the politicians have no money, the politicians have no say about the money because it's a charitable institution,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who has long observed New York political footballs, who accurately noted that no elected official will give this group money going forward because the outpouring of rage would be overwhelming.
And while New York’s weathered development machine tends to keep its eye on the ball, Sultan’s goals seem almost abstract.
“Part of this is engagement, part of this is building a basement by which we build a community,” he said. “If you build moderate Muslim communities that’s what’s going to fight extremism.”