Park51 or not, there will be a mosque on Park Place

BY Aline Reynolds and John Bayles

The press had never before hounded Hisham ElZanaty, the principal investor behind Park51, for being a Muslim—or for anything for that matter. That changed this summer when the proposed Islamic Cultural Center became known as “the Ground Zero Mosque,” and when the issue crossed over from local news to a national controversy.

What has been often overlooked in the coverage however is that Park51, the Cordoba Initiative’s proposed cultural center, is set to be built on the site of two buildings. And regardless of whether Park51 ever becomes a reality, one of those buildings will remain as a place for practicing Muslims to pray in Lower Manhattan.

ElZanaty lives a quiet life with his wife and children in Searingtown, Long Island. He was born and raised in Egypt and owns and operates three medical centers — two located in the Bronx and one in Manhattan — and various properties throughout the city, on Long Island and elsewhere. It is his two most recent real estate ventures however that has placed a spotlight both on his professional and personal life.

Last May ElZanaty received an inquiry from Sharif El Gamal, C.E.O. of SoHo Properties, about a piece of real estate in Lower Manhattan. The two men visited the site on a Friday and as noon approached — prayer time for practicing Muslims — ElZanaty asked if there was a mosque where the two men could go and pray. They traveled to 20 Warren Street, where Muslims from around the city had been praying regularly.

“It was below a bar, next to a strip club,” ElZanaty said. “I didn’t go [inside], and I didn’t feel good, either.”

El Gamal then informed his future business partner that the building next to 45-47 Park Place was also “available.” Indeed the building at 49-51 Park Place, previously used as a Con Edison substation, had been leased by the utility company to the owners of the old Burlington Coat Factory. A wall had been knocked down to increase the retail floor space.

A 51 percent shareholder in the 45-47 building, ElZanaty ended up purchasing the lease, with an option to buy, on the building next door. He is now the sole owner of 49-51 Park Place. Since last May, Muslims have been holding prayer services in the space on a regular basis and in relative anonymity.

ElZanaty missed much of the media coverage surrounding his business ventures during the summer months. He was traveling in Egypt in July and August and when he returned, found himself “under siege” by various media outlets.

“I walked into this with just the pure, good intention of providing a nice, decent place to pray for Muslims,” ElZanaty said. “When I came back, I found all of this media… I found reporters, T.V. stations outside of my house.”

Park51 as an idea

ElZanaty describes Park51 as a “proposal.” He said he has only met Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, on a couple of occasions but is familiar with his work. He sees his stake in 45-47 Park Place as a pure “business investment.” As he understands it, Park 51 is an “idea.”

“An idea is an idea. A proposal is a proposal, and nothing has really come into being yet,” said ElZanaty. “It’s a very big project and things take time.”

ElZanaty wouldn’t reveal who the other seven investors are, but he said he talks to his partners “when things come up.”

He has received numerous offers from various investors, including Donald Trump.

“It was media play, it was very obvious,” said Wolodymyr Starosolsky, ElZanaty’s lawyer said of Trump’s offer. “He felt that he was being used by Donald Trump.”

“If Trumps offers us 25 percent more, then let me tell you we’re ready to take that one. Correct, ElZanaty?” he said, turning to his client.

“We’d have to think about it,” ElZanaty replied.

One thing is for sure: he wouldn’t settle for less than $18 or $20 million.

“I’m not in a rush,” ElZanaty said.

Nothing to Hide

Park51 opponents have often demanded that the funding behind the project be vetted, citing possible ties to terrorist organizations. ElZanaty said he wouldn’t shy away from being audited due to his investment in Park51.

“I have no problem – go through my finances – I file my taxes, please,” he said in a defensive tone. “Is it too much for a Muslim to buy a building in Manhattan?”

“He is a decent, hardworking man who loves this country. He feels that he’s been blessed because he’s made a success of his life,” he said on behalf of his client, who stayed fixed in contemplation.

“I’m proud of everything I’ve done here, especially when it comes to business and my work life,” ElZanaty echoed. “It turns out to be very difficult, especially in the health care arena.”

He explained how he has employed about 150 people from underprivileged neighborhoods since the mid-1990s, when he first started his medical practice. ElZanaty built his offices in Washington Heights and the Bronx when many buildings were boarded up and, according to Starosolsky, you would need a bullet-proof vest to safely walk through the streets.

“They were all residential buildings, and people needed care,” ElZanaty said. “They were nice lots, very well-priced at the time, so we took it, built it, and off we go.”

Hanging on the wall behind his desk is a photograph of him with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Brooklyn Congressman Ed Towns; next to it rests a plaque from an employee, thanking him for offering her the opportunity to work for him.

Things have recently settled down somewhat, allowing ElZanaty to resume his everyday life. He proudly limped with a foot brace the result of a twisted ankle suffered while playing soccer with his kids.

But it might not stay that way for long: he might become inundated with media requests once again. Starosolsky phoned Community Board 1 on his client’s behalf in early October, with the hope of helping establish a forum to mend ties between the 9/11 families opposed to the project and the Muslim-American community.

Specific plans haven’t yet been made, but ElZanaty insists that further dialogue is necessary to bridge cultural gaps.

“In order to actually solve the ‘problem’ I think it’s going to take a substantial amount of interaction,” ElZanaty said.

ElZanaty said he relates to 9/11 families. In 1999, his parents died in an Egypt Air crash that was reportedly tied to terrorism.

“I sympathize with them,” he said earnestly. “I am one of them.”