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Landmark status resolved, NYC group moves forward on Islamic center

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
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Ground zero mosque clears key step
  • NEW: A Muslim group says it will begin moving forward with plans for an Islamic center near "ground zero"
  • NEW: The Cordoba Initiative's and Soho Properties' project is now called Park51, as it will inhabit 45-51 Park Place
  • If landmark status wasn't denied, it would have meant the building couldn't be demolished or greatly altered
  • Mosque organizers opposed landmark status; they want a taller, modern building

New York (CNN) -- Now that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has denied landmark status for a building, near "ground zero," that could house a proposed Islamic center and mosque, the Muslim organization behind the project says it will begin moving forward with efforts to make the building "a model for community service and engagement."

The commissioners voted unanimously against landmark status for 45-47 Park Place. It and an adjoining building already connected on the inside, 49-51 Park Place, are owned by real estate developer Soho Properties, which intends to build the Islamic center two blocks north of the former site of the World Trade Center.

In a statement on a new website devoted to the project now called Park51, the project's planners said, "Until the resolution of the landmarks issue this morning, we were unable to emerge from stage one, as we could not be clear on the impact of a designation on the architecture and design of the building or its program spaces, activities or programming. We are eager to begin working with our partners, supporters, neighbors and communities, to build a community center for everyone."

"It had been a whirlwind in the past four months, one in which we have worked tirelessly to realize an American dream which so many other share," Sharif El-Gamal, the chief executive officer of Soho Properties, said. "The outpouring support has exceeded our expectations. We are Americans; Muslim Americans. We are businessmen, businesswomen, lawyers, doctors, restaurant workers, cab drivers, and professionals of every walk of life represented by the demographic and tapestry of Manhattan," El-Gamal said.

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While the public vote was the focus of much debate about the planned Islamic center and mosque, the commission could not have prevented the developers from building such a community center. The commission, by designating the building a landmark, could only have prevented Soho Properties from demolishing the building or significantly altering its exterior.

Muslims have been praying peacefully in the building already.

"We believe that Park51 will become a landmark in New York City's cultural, social and educational life, a community center to promote the American values we all aspire towards and to realize a better city for all," said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader of the Cordoba Initiative, which will inhabit the building.

"We will continue going forward with the project. It's a project that will build bridges," said Oz Sultan, spokesman for the Cordoba Initiative. It says the group is "committed to promoting positive interaction between the Muslim world and the West."

Cordoba opposed landmark status for the five-story building because it would like to build a taller, modern building. "It's not minarets," said Sultan, who described a mock-up of the proposed center as consistent with the latest architecture found in New York City.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other city leaders support the Islamic center.

Opponents, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, have argued against a mosque being so close to the scene of the nation's worst terrorist attack.

"Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing," tweeted Palin last month on her Twitter account.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that battles anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, is asking that the Islamic center and mosque be built farther away from ground zero in consideration of families who lost loved ones during the September 11, 2001, attacks. "Building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain -- unnecessarily -- and that is not right," said the organization in a written statement.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission pointed out prior to its decision that it would have nothing to do with the planned use of the structure.

"The purpose of tomorrow's vote is to decide whether the building has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of New York City, New York State or the nation," commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon said Monday.

Most recently the home of a Burlington Coat Factory retailer, 45-47 Park Place was completed in 1858. The Landmarks Commission described it as "a prominent example of the store and loft structures that dominated the dry goods warehouse districts of Lower Manhattan" during the era.