First the Ground Zero mosque, now the Times Square synagogue: Manhattan developer reveals another controversial construction project

 

New York

A Manhattan developer who was forced to shelve bold plans for an Islamic prayer and community centre just blocks from the World Trade Centre site after they triggered fierce street protests is embarking on a new project with a religious tilt though this time with a different congregation in mind.

Sharif el-Gamal, whose company, SoHo Properties, was behind the ill-fated Islamic centre proposal, confirmed this week that he is in final talks to purchase a vacant building close to Times Square on West 40 Street for the construction of a new tower with street-level shops, a hotel and, curiously, a large synagogue.

That Mr El-Gamal is proving such an equal opportunity dreamer is inevitably drawing attention if not on the scale of the flap stirred by Park51, the name given to the Islamic centre that never came to be. In truth, however, this deal has very little to do with religion except in the sense that dollars are the ultimate deity.

It happens that the building Mr El-Gamal means to snap up, recently vacated by Parsons, the New York design school, for about $61.5m, is also home to an existing synagogue which, at various addresses, has served Jews living and working in the area for 80 years. Simply eliminating it would never have done.

Under the terms of the deal, Mr El-Gamal and a partner firm in the project, Murray Hill Properties, have vowed to donate an undisclosed sum to the synagogue enabling it relocate while demolition and new construction proceeds. But when the tower is completed and ready for the hoped-for tides of Times Square shoppers and tourists, a brand new sanctuary will also be waiting inside for it.

It is a deal which the leaders of the synagogue, who had a $1-dollar-a-year lease to remain in the building now destined for the wrecking ball, seem entirely satisfied notwithstanding the association in the public mind of Mr El-Gamal with Park51. “If Malcolm X bought it, he'd be our landlord. We have an excellent, ironclad agreement,” Arnold Brown, a co-president of the synagogue told the New York Times.

“We're in the process of buying one of the last untouched corners of Times Square,” Mr El-Gamal said in a statement, confirming that it came “with an opportunity to secure the future of a synagogue that will serve the Jewish community for decades to come.”

The project shows no sign of turning into the public relations nightmare that engulfed Park51 back in 2010. While Mr El-Gamal at the time put forward plans for what promised to be an elegant and architecturally daring building for the site, he had clearly underestimated how far opponents who felt building a Muslim institution so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks was inappropriate would push to block it. Hundreds took to the streets with banners and the national storm was fuelled further by angry comments from Sarah Palin.

Mr El-Gamal, who was supported in his endeavour notably by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, eventually abandoned the project while blaming the media for stirring the ruckus.

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