Landmark Status Could Stop Mosque Near Ground Zero

Religious center dividing city

A decades-old proposal to give a Manhattan building landmark status could alter plans for a mosque near ground zero that has angered some tea party activists and Sept. 11 victims' families.

A community board vote on the mosque will come this evening, and some victims and 9/11 groups are vowing to rally at the proposed site. 

It was unclear whether the community board would take up the question of the building's architectural significance at its meeting. The vote, while not necessary for the building's owners to move forward with the project, is seen as key to obtaining residents' support for the project.

City officials said Monday that the building Muslim groups plan to tear down to make room for a $100 million, 13-story mosque and cultural center is historically and architecturally significant.

The building, blocks from the World Trade Center site, was constructed between 1857 and 1858 in the Italian Renaissance palazzo style and was one of dozens in the Tribeca neighborhood proposed as landmarks in the late 1980s, Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon said. It was damaged by debris in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

After an initial public hearing on the building in 1989, no action was taken and it was added to a growing backlog of buildings that remain under consideration for landmark status, de Bourbon said. The commission said it would hold another public hearing early this summer.

A vote on the landmark status of the building will determine whether the Muslim groups can decide on their own to tear it down or will have to seek the commission's approval to alter the existing structure.

The plan for the mosque and a cultural center, which would include areas for interfaith activities and conferences and an arts center, has attracted political and social opposition.

Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams has called it a monument to the Sept. 11 attackers. Some Sept. 11 victims' families say they're angry that it would be built so close to where their relatives died in an attack by Islamic terrorists.

The American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, the organizations sponsoring the project, have said that they bought the building in 2009 and planned to build the mosque and cultural center to meet a growing need for prayer space in lower Manhattan and to provide a venue for mainstream Islam to counter extremism.

The groups did not immediately return phone messages requesting comment Monday.

Two commissioners reached by phone, Stephen F. Byrns and Roberta Brandes Gratz, said they had not officially taken up the plans for the building at any hearings.

Byrns, an architect, said he was unfamiliar with the current state of the building.

"We haven't been shown anything officially," he said.

Gratz said the panel would have to determine whether the building is worthy of designation and, if not, take it off the proposed landmark list.

"It's obviously complicated because it's been out there a long time," said Gratz, a journalist who has written about urban development. "It's now complicated by an emotional issue."

She said even if the building were deemed a landmark, the groups behind the proposed mosque and cultural center could make alterations to use it as a house of worship.

"They could convert the building to use it that way easily," she said.

Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which works to preserve the city's cultural and architectural heritage, said the building was characterized by a noteworthy cast-iron storefront.

"It's still a strong candidate for preservation," he said.

He said that about two-thirds of the batch of buildings that the Park Place address belonged to had been given protected status over the past two decades.

The Muslim organizations have said they plan to announce a groundbreaking on the building later this year. It could take up to three years to build the Cordoba House. A Friday prayer service has been held at the building since September 2009.

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