Park51 debate continues with lawsuit, Con Ed and MTA

BY John Bayles

The drama surrounding the future Islamic community center, dubbed Park51, at the old Burlington Coat Factory building did not end with last Tuesday’s Landmarks Commission vote. Not 24 hours passed before the American Center for Law and Justice filed suit in New York’s Supreme Court on behalf of fire fighter Timothy Brown, a 9/11 first responder who has advocated for landmark status of buildings tied to the terrorist attacks.

Then on Sunday the New York Post published an article alluding to a possible hearing by the Public Service Commission that could pose another “threat” to the plans and was sure to embolden the vocal opposition. It was revealed that Con Edison is owner of one of the buildings that will be demolished to make way for the community center.

And most recently, the MTA, after facing a lawsuit from the same opponents, specifically Pamela Geller’s group, Freedom Defense Initiative, decided to run an ad on city buses that depicts a flaming World Trade Center juxtaposed with a rendering of Park51 and the words “Why There” in between.

As for the lawsuit, it claims the Landmarks Commission acted in “an arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable manner and allowed the intended use of the building and political considerations to taint the deliberative process.”

However, at both the public hearing and at the vote, the commission stated that it is not in their purview to consider use of a building and rather they must focus only on the architectural merits of a site.

Kate Ahlers, spokesperson for the City law Department said, “The law department is reviewing [the legal papers] thoroughly. We are confident that the Landmarks Commission carefully applied all legal standards and followed appropriate procedures.”

U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler told the Downtown Express, “The lawsuit has no merit and isn’t likely to be heard [by the court].”

Con Ed gets dragged into the drama

As for the pending hearing by the Public Service Commission, the hearing could be necessary since Park51 will indeed be constructed on the site of two buildings, 45-47 and 49-51 Park Place. Years ago before the Burlington Coat Factory closed, a common wall between both buildings was knocked down to expand the store’s retail space. The owner of 49-51 Park Place was leasing the building from Con Edison, who once operated a substation at the site. Soho Properties purchased the lease for $700,000 when they acquired the building next door.

However by purchasing the lease, with an option to buy, Soho Properties essentially “owns the building,” according to Con Ed spokesperson Mike Clendenin.

“With that kind of a lease and that kind of situation, [they] basically do own it,” said Clendenin.

Con Ed released a formal statement that read, “Consistent with the law and our core beliefs, we are in the process of selling a property…Under the terms of a 38-year-old lease, the current tenant of our property has rights to use, alter, demolish or renovate the building, as well as purchase the property.  He has exercised his option to purchase the property at a price to be set by an independent appraiser… We are following our legal obligations under the lease.  We will not allow other considerations to enter into this transaction. This is New York, a richly diverse city. Con Edison’s values call for respecting people without regard to their racial, ethnic or religious orientation.  They are all our customers.”

As for the P.S.C. hearing itself, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the Cordoba Initiative’s plans for the sites, according to Clendenin. The purpose of the hearing would only determine where the profits of the sale would be directed, either to shareholders to ratepayers.

MTA sued by mosque opponents

According to spokesperson Kevin Ortiz, the MTA received an advertisement last Friday from Pamela Geller, tea-party blogger and executive director of F.D.I., a sister organization of Stop Islamization of America. The ad, which according to Geller was paid for “via small donations,” cost $8,000 and an additional $1,500 in production costs and is to run on the side of various city buses. Geller said she was contacted by the MTA’s ad firm, CBS Outdoors, and was told she needed to change certain aspects.

“I was told that 9/11 images were censored,” said Geller. “It was so shocking to me.”

Geller said CBS Outdoors wanted her to remove, first, the plane, which she did. Then they told her to remove the smoke from the buildings, which she did. After yet another call concerning the artwork Geller’s group filed a lawsuit last Friday.

Then on Monday the MTA notified her that they would run the original ad because, according to Geller, “they were wrong.”

“If there’s anything that comes out of it, it was a victory for free speech. The principle is not just protect the ideas we like, its to protect all ideas,” said Geller.

Late Monday evening the MTA released a statement on the issue, which read, “While the MTA does not endorse the views expressed in this or other ads that appear on the transit system, the advertisement purchased by a group opposing a planned mosque near the World Trade Center was accepted today after its review under MTA’s advertising guidelines and governing legal standards.”   

Underneath the image of the burning Twin Towers is the date “September 11, 2001” and underneath the rendering of Park51 is the date “September 11, 2011.” When asked why she chose the latter date, Geller said it was because Park51 is slated to open on the ten-year anniversary of the attacks. She said she heard the opening date directly from the Cordoba Initiative, the group behind the proposed community center and prayer space. And that they had been using the opening date since “they first presented their plans for the project.”

The first public presentation of the project occurred on May 5th at Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee meeting.

Ro Scheff, chair of the Financial District committee said Geller’s account was “completely false.”

“When they came to us they had not even hired an architect, they had not raised any funds,” said Sheff. “They said were hoping to break ground in the next three to five years. That erroneous story about [opening] on September 11, 2011 is nonsense.”

The ad is expected to be placed on buses sometime in the next two weeks.