C.B. 3 backs fellow board after threats over mosque

By Lesley Sussman

In a squeaker of a vote, Community Board 3 last week passed a resolution in support of Community Board 1 members who have come under verbal assault from opponents of a controversial plan to build a 13-story mosque and community center less than 600 feet from ground zero.

C.B. 1 members have received threatening phone calls at home and at work since the board endorsed the Park51 project — formerly known as Cordoba House — at its May 5 meeting, according to C.B. 1 District Manager Noah Pfefferblit. He said the Lower Manhattan board’s office had also been inundated with angry and abusive phone calls expressing anger over the vote.

At C.B. 3’s full board meeting, on Tues., July 27, at P.S. 131, 100 Hester St., several board members expressed their objection to the resolution’s wording, which they said made it sound as if C.B. 3 was endorsing the mosque/cultural center project. After lengthy and heated discussion, the measure was narrowly passed by a vote of 17 to 12, with 2 abstentions. (Abstentions count as “no” votes.)

Dominic Pisciotta, chairperson of the East Village/Lower East Side board, told the July 27 meeting, attended by about 100 residents, that the resolution should be passed because “It shows our support for their members who are facing personal attacks and physical threats.” He added, “Community board members serve in an all-voluntary capacity and represent a cross-section of their community. They often consider contentious matters and work very hard to find the best resolution for local residents and businesses. I think this resolution is a good thing.”

Strongly disagreeing with him was former C.B. 3 Chairperson David McWater, who said that C.B. 3 had, over the years, also been the victim of name calling and other verbal abuse, “but nobody stood up for us. That sticks in my craw.

“I’d like to have this whole Cordoba thing pulled, because we really don’t need to take a stand on what judgment they made,” McWater continued. “I don’t think they’re looking for our support and I don’t know if there’s any reason for us to weigh in on this.”

McWater further objected to wording in the resolution that characterized opponents to C.B. 1’s position as being “anti-Muslim” and of expressing “anti-Muslim vitriol.” The former board chairperson said it was unfair to portray protesters this way “without being there and knowing exactly who these people are.

“It’s one thing to say that community board members shouldn’t be intimidated,” he continued, “but I don’t know what these protesters were like on September 10th. Different people heal in different ways and scar tissue doesn’t always heal up. I wasn’t there at that C.B. 1 meeting, and I don’t think it’s our position to say that they’re all horrible and hateful people.”

Another board member, David Adams, an Orthodox Jew, said he also opposed the measure because C.B. 3 members were not present at C.B. 1’s May 5 meeting and did not have all the facts. He added, however, “We definitely don’t want to see people who did their duty as a community board member be vilified for it.”

Meanwhile, several C.B. 3 board members who said they favored the resolution asked that some of its wording be changed. They said the resolution’s language made it sound like the board was supportive of the Cordoba/Park51 project.

Anne Johnson asserted that while she strongly believed that “board members have a right to vote how they want without being attacked,” she felt C.B. 3’s resolution read too much like an endorsement of C.B. 1’s position.

“Whether we should take up that actual issue, that’s a different thing,” she said.

David Crane, chairperson of C.B. 3’s Transportation, Environment and Public Safety Committee, told the board what was most important was “supporting C.B. 1’s process to evaluate issues like this one — supporting the open process.” He said he was very much concerned about “death threats and flak from hateful people who are screaming at them.”

Speaking in strong support of the measure was C.B. 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer, who said that by passing it, “We’re supporting their courage in what’s happening to them.” Stetzer called the verbal attacks on C.B. 1 board members “twisted and sick.”

After the meeting, Pisciotta told the East Villager that he was “surprised” by the emotional reaction to the resolution.

“C.B. 1 was taking a position on something that would better their community — they weren’t taking a religious position,” he said. “They were taking a position on the community center and the number of amenities it would provide to the community, and they had a right to do that.”

He also discounted McWater’s argument that C.B. 3 should not get involved in the issue because it hadn’t received support from other community boards when its members came under attack.

“He’s talking apples and oranges,” Pisciotta asserted. “They weren’t radical religious extremists who were attacking us.”

Board 3 came under attack two years ago from opponents of the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning, who called the initiative “racist” because it excluded Chinatown. However, the rezoning’s critics materialized very late in the process.

The resolution supporting C.B. 1 was adopted by a narrow 3-vote margin after Pisciotta agreed to a change the wording. The new language made it clear that C.B. 3 soley stood behind C.B. 1’s “process to evaluate” proposals such as this — but wasn’t taking a position on the project itself.

The Cordoba/Park51 plan, in addition to a mosque and an Islamic center, calls for construction of a community center, a 500-seat performing arts center and a lecture hall, as well as a culinary school, exhibition space, swimming pool, fitness gym, basketball court, restaurant, library and art studios.

The project is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been the imam of the Farah Mosque, at 245 West Broadway in Tribeca, since 1983.