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After Feisal Abdul Rauf and Abdallah Adhami had both stepped down from their leadership positions with the Park 51 project, Sharif El-Gamal, the lead developer and Chairman / CEO of the Manhattan real estate firm Soho Properties (which controlled the property at 45-51 Park Place), sought to move the project forward. Toward that end, El-Gamai worked collaboratively with a nonprofit entity known as PrayerSpace, whose landlord was also Soho Properties.

The new plan was to make Park 51 a community center with an interfaith space, open to all. PrayerSpace, meanwhile, would be the mosque for Muslim prayer services and religious programming. Both efforts were overseen by the same organizers. While these organizers described the Park 51 community-center portion of the project as inclusive and inter-faith, it was in fact a tightly run Muslim-centric extension of the mosque. The board of Park 51 consisted of Sharif El-Gamal (the Chairman and  CEO of Soho Properties), Nour Mousa (a partner in Soho Properties) and Sammy El-Gamal (Sharif El-Gamal’s brother). Sharif El-Gamal’s plan was for the board to eventually consist of 23 members, including at least 12 Muslims -- thereby ensuring that it would be dominated by a pro-sharia contingent.

According to the PrayerSpace website, PrayerSpace was slated to accommodate “over 2000 people.” This would make it comparable in size to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown New York -- the largest decorated gothic-style Catholic Cathedral in the United States -- which can accommodate in the range of 2200 to 2500 people.

On September 21, 2011, the Park 51 mosque opened its doors to the public for the first time. It was only a partial opening, however, as the project's overseers had not yet raised nearly enough money to fund all of the programs and facilities it planned to create. (Its original fundraising goal was $100 million.) The most notable attraction at the September 21 grand opening, for which Park 51's administrators distributed some 700 personal invitiations, was called “NYChildren” a showcase of photographer Danny Goldfield's photos of youngsters in the city originating from 171 countries around the world. This exhibit was scheduled to remain open for three months.

In addition to the Goldfield exhibit, the nascent Park 51 offered various classes (including yoga and Brazilian martial arts), discussion groups, and arts programs. It also featured an area reserved for Muslim prayer services. There were also plans to build a much larger Muslim prayer space (accommodating more than 2,000 people), as well as a gymnasium, a swimming pool, art galleries, and other non-religious facilities.

After an application for a $5 million federal grant was rejected in 2011, Park51 leaders contemplated scaling back their plans. One of the co-founders, Nour Mousa, said, “Maybe [the community] doesn’t need all that space…We’re not going to build anything that’s not needed.” Sharif el-Gamal, the developer, refused to move the location but said, “If the community only wants four or five floors, it’s going to be four or five floors.”

Meanwhile, the Park 51 project continued to suffer blows to its public image. The top financial backer, Hisham Elzanaty -- accused of orchestrating a “highly developed and sophisticated kickback scheme” -- was being sued by Allstate Insurance for $5.1 million. State Farm was also suing him for $1.9 million, and Geico for $1.7 million. In addition, Elzanaty was known to have donated to the (now-defunct) Holy Land Foundation, a front for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1999.

Adapted from: "The Ground Zero Mosque: Moving Forward," by
Joseph Klein (August 29, 2011); "Ground Zero Mosque Opens for Business," by Ryan Mauro (September 21, 2011)

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