9/11 responder hopes to halt Park51 construction


BY Aline Reynolds

Petitioner Timothy Brown, a 9/11 first responder firefighter who worked to achieve landmark status for buildings impacted by the September 11 attacks, is trying to prevent Park51 organizers from tearing down the former Burlington Coat Factory building on Park Place to make way for a sixteen-story Islamic community center.

The lawsuit calls into question the Landmark Preservation Commission’s decision to deny landmark status to the building at 45-47 Park Place. Brown’s suit also cites improper influence by the mayor’s administration, which he believes led to the commission’s decision.

The American Center for Law and Justice filed an amended complaint on behalf of Brown last Tuesday, requesting that the New York State Supreme Court halt demolition or construction activity at the site until a judge in court hears his case.

The lawsuit, however, might be dismissed, according to the City’s law department. Brown sued developer SoHo Properties — whose chief executive officer, Sharif El-Gamal, is one of the project’s investors — rather than the legal owner of the site, which is 45 Park Place Partners. The company purchased the building at 45-47 Park Place in Summer 2009.

This mishap renders the case invalid, according to Adam Leitman Bailey, the lawyer representing the city and SoHo Properties in the case. “There has never been a case in New York, ever, where someone can win if they didn’t name the right party in 120 days,” he said.

Bailey said the 120-day deadline passed in early December.

But Brett Joshpe, an attorney from the A.C.L.J. who is representing Brown, refuted the claim, calling it “nonsense.”

“They’ve represented all along that SoHo Properties is the owner of the property before landmarks decision,” said Joshpe. “It’s really an attempt to distract from the substance of the suit.”

A court date is set for Wednesday at noon at 60 Centre Street, in which both sides will present their arguments in front of a NY State Supreme Court judge.

Brown’s suit, filed last August, alleges that, after 20 years of considering the site for landmark status, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission ultimately made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision at the July 13 hearing.

Brown and the A.C.L.J. have both spoken out against the proposed Islamic community center ever since last year, when the Park51 debate began to heat up.

According to the complaint, Brown has reason to believe that demolition of the buildings at 45-51 Park Place could be imminent, referencing two complaints on the city Department of Buildings website that cite recent unauthorized work at the site; and developer SoHo Properties’ application for a five million dollar grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that may or may not be used for capital expenses.

Both facts indicate that the Park51 group is attempting to move ahead with the project “as quickly as possible,” the complaint argues.

“If the buildings are demolished, our case becomes moot,” said Joshpe. “We want to make sure they’re preserved in the interim.”

The complaint requests that the court nullify the L.P.C.’s decision, which Brown considers to be a breach of administrative law. It states that the L.P.C.’s decision was “subject to undue influence from various parties,” particularly the mayor’s office.

The N.Y.C. Law Department, representing the mayor, contends that the L.P.C. acted by the rules, and that the latest allegations are “simply an attempt to divert attention from the fact that the lawsuit is baseless.”

A spokesperson for SoHo Properties, denied that the developer has immediate plans to take down the buildings. The project still has a long way to go, he noted, and demolition is still two or three years away.

The complaint also demands further disclosure of the mayor’s offices’ correspondences with the Park51 organizers, which uncover involvement in a process that was still before the L.P.C., thereby thwarting its impartial and fair administration of the City’s landmark laws.

It accuses the mayor’s office of a nearly five-month delay in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request the A.C.L.J. filed last summer.

E-mail exchanges the mayor’s office finally released in late December revealed that the mayor helped shape Park51’s public relations strategy. One, in particular, mentions that L.P.C. chairman Robert Tierney looked forward to getting “political cover” the mayor’s support of the project would afford him.

Stu Loeser, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that this type of interaction with a cultural or religious group is standard practice. But Joshpe said this is an exceptional circumstance, since the L.P.C. hearing took place around the same time the mayor was in contact with the Park51 organizers.

In response to the initial complaint, the mayor’s office claimed exemptions from unwarranted invasion of privacy and for intra-agency and inter-agency materials.

Julie Menin, the chairwoman of Community Board 1 and an attorney, said she doesn’t believe the L.P.C. decision was tainted by the mayor’s backing of the project.

“The mayor spoke about the project’s use, and L.P.C. was focused on the narrow issue of whether or not the building rose to the level of a landmark,” said Menin.

She and others pointed out that, even if the L.P.C. had landmarked the building, it would not have affected the use of the buildings.

A news advisory put out by the A.C.L.J. contrarily states the demolition would need to take place in order to develop the “Ground Zero mosque.” Joshpe, however, acknowledged in a phone interview SoHo Properties’ right to decide on the use of the buildings, whether or not they are taken down.

He said Brown doesn’t have plans to legally contest the future Muslim prayer space, though there are “other potential legal remedies at our disposal,” without commenting further.

“This is not so much about sensitivity,” Joshpe said, “as it is about administrative law.”