I’ve just returned from what was surely the most controversial, and well-attended, meeting of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in some time. In a Pace University auditorium near City Hall, before a crowd in which press outnumbered citizens five to one, the commissioners voted unanimously against preserving 45-47 Park Place as a landmark, thus clearing the way for the construction of a massive mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.
During the proceedings, a few lone protesters quietly held signs, e.g.:
DON’T GLORIFY MURDER OF 3, 000
NO 9/11 VICTORY MOSQUE
and waved American flags, while a contingent from the liberal Jewish-American group J Street displayed their support for the mosque with a banner.
The Commission was perhaps the last best hope of opponents of the Cordoba Center, which successfully survived the trip through New York’s municipal machinery and enjoys the approval of the local community board, city council members, and Mayor Bloomberg. But the possibility that the panel would vote to block the demolition of the existing structure at the site — a fairly pedestrian “store-and-loft” building in the late 19th-century “palazzo” style — was a long-shot. In prepared statements, commissioners reminded audience members that their task was to assess the aesthetic, historical, and cultural importance of the building being considered for preservation, not the merits of the proposed redevelopment.
But while most commissioners focused on the quality of the building’s wrought iron work or the maker of its fine “Corinthian colonnades,” several did acknowledge the elephant in the room.
“As much as I would like to opine about the appropriateness of a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center,” said commissioner Stephen Byrns, he was compelled to focus on his “humbler” task.
Commissioner Christopher Moore spoke movingly of his watching from a nearby subway entrance as the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But he also said the desire to protect the Park Place location because of its connection with the attacks was misguided, comparing it to an attempt to landmark “a guardrail on a highway where fatalities have occurred.”
When the votes were counted and announced, some members of the audience began shouting: “Shame on you!” “This is a horrible betrayal!”
Andy Sullivan, a construction worker who said he had helped man the “bucket brigades” at Ground Zero in the days after the attacks, asked loudly of the commissioners whether they had lost loved ones on 9/11.
“Be sure to look in those cameras,” Sullivan said as the commissioners left stage, “and apologize for this disgrace.”
Later, Sullivan told reporters that the controversy surrounding the mosque is far from over.
“You’re going to have a problem getting labor there,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked to will not lift a finger to build that disgrace.”