Developers of the controversial Park51 Islamic community center and mosque located two blocks from Ground Zero earlier this month applied for roughly $5 million in federal grant money set aside for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan after the attacks of September 11th, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
The audacious move stands to reignite the embers of a divisive debate that dominated headlines surrounding the ninth anniversary of the attacks this fall, say people vested in the issue.
The application was submitted under a “community and cultural enhancement” grant program administered by the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation (LMDC), which oversaw the $20 billion in federal aid allocated in the wake of 9/11 and is currently doling out millions in remaining taxpayer funds for community development. The redevelopment board declined to comment on the application (as did officials from Park51), citing the still ongoing and confidential process of determining the grant winners.
While news of the application has not previously been made public, developer Sharif El-Gamal outlined it in closed-door meetings, according to two individuals he spoke with directly. The thirtysomething, Brooklyn-born El-Gamal is motivated more by real estate ambition—one of these sources describes him as aspiring to be the next Donald Trump—than Islamic theology or ideology. Park51’s developers clearly had a legal right to apply for the grant. A list of Frequently Asked Questions that accompanied the application specifically states that religious organizations can make funding requests for capital projects “as long as the request is for a facility or portion of a facility that is dedicated to non-religious activities or uses.” According to an individual familiar with the Park51 application, it requests funds to cover a number of cultural, educational and community development aspects of the proposed 13-story building—but the prayer room is excluded from the grant application.
But the question on whether they could have is trumped by the question of whether they should have. The stated aim of the Park51 developers is to provide a community center for lower Manhattan’s 4,000 Muslim residents. Their own website explained that they understood the need to “appeal to the undecided, and change the conversation about Muslims in America.” It’s pretty clear that this play for federal dollars will generate none of that, starting with the lack of disclosure or community consultation before developers submitted their application, which was due November 5th.