NEW YORK – Dozens of opponents and some supporters of a mosque planned near ground zero attended a raucous hearing Tuesday about whether the building where the Muslim place of worship would be created warrants designation as a city landmark and should be protected from development.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, who has sought an investigation into the funding of the mosque, was among the witnesses who testified in support of giving the building landmark status, which could complicate plans by Muslim groups to develop a community center and mosque there.
After noting the lower Manhattan building's history and architectural significance, Lazio said it also warranted landmark designation because on Sept. 11, 2001, it was struck by airplane debris from the terror attacks against the nearby World Trade Center. That connection to the attacks, he said, made it "a place of deep historical significance and a reminder of just what happened on New York's darkest day."
Lazio has called on state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, his Democratic opponent in the governor's race, to investigate the funding of the project. On Tuesday, he repeated that request and said the pace of the landmark designation process should be slowed to allow time to thoroughly investigate the matter.
Nearly 100 people attended the hearing at a college campus on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Fifty-six people testified at the hearing, which turned contentious at times, with some speakers drowned out by shouts from the audience and with one man escorted out by campus security.
"To deprive this building of landmark status is to allow for a citadel of Islamic supremacy to be erected in its place," said Andrea Quinn, a freelance audio technician from Queens who said she had worked with people at the World Trade Center.
But Rafiq Kathwari, who described himself as a moderate Muslim, said the landmark discussion had been hijacked.
"This has been made by a very vocal minority into an issue of bigotry," said Kathwari, as he held up his U.S. passport and was nearly drowned out by shouts from the crowd. "I'm standing in a hall in which I feel ashamed to be an American."
The mosque and the related community center are a project of several groups, including the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West. Cordoba's director, Imam Faisel Rauf, has refused to disclose the sources of funding for the mosque.
But Sharif El-Gamal, the CEO of the company that owns the property, said that the project's backers were committed to transparency and were working to set up a nonprofit organization.
"We are going to go through a capital campaign," which will consist of equity debt, bonds, grants and fundraising from the grass roots, he said. They were committed to working with the attorney general's Charities Bureau, which supervises charitable organizations and works to protect donors, he said.
El-Gamal testified at the hearing, saying they were opposed to designating the building a landmark because it does not meet the requirements of historical significance.
"This is not the Woolworth building, this is not the Chrysler building," he said later in an interview.
The five-story building on Park Place, a few blocks north of Wall Street, was completed between 1857 and 1858 and is an Italian Renaissance-inspired palazzo. It formerly housed a department store, which closed after the building was damaged on Sept. 11. Muslim prayer service is held at the building at least one day a week.
Landmark status could require the owners to obtain the approval of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission before making significant changes. It's unlikely that, if granted such status, the building could be demolished.
The city's 11-member Landmarks Preservation Commission is expected to vote later this summer on whether the building meets the standards of architectural, cultural and historic characteristics to qualify it for landmark status.