The controversial Islamic center proposed to be built near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks won a major victory today when a New York City board voted unanimously to allow the demolition of a building to make way for construction.
The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission's vote rejected the landmarking of a 19th century building with its Italian Renaissance Palazzo style that most recently served as a Burlington Coat Factory. That designation would have prevented its demolition and foiled plans to build a 13-story Islamic community center that includes a prayer room.
The vote was the last municipal approval needed to start development on the site. Developer Shanif al-Gamal declined to give a date for construction to start, but said they still have $100 million to raise.
Critics have called the proposed facility a mosque and said construction so close to the site of the World Trade Center where 3,000 people died in an attack by mililtant Muslims was insensitive and an insult.
"I've come to the conclusion 45-47 Park Place does not rise to the level of a city landmark," commission Chairman Robert Tierney said today.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has supported construction of the Islamic center, called the vote an important test of the separation of church and state.
"Muslims are as much a part of our city and country as any faith, and as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group," he said, according to tweets sent out by his office. "We would betray our values -- and play into our enemies' hands -- if we were to treat Muslims different than anyone else."
In response to the critics, the proposed center would also include a 9/11 memorial, said Dalia Mahmoud with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Commission members were careful to consider only the building's historical significance and not become entrenched in the heated debate over the center's proximity to Ground Zero, a sore spot for many New Yorkers that has also drawn opposition from some politicans and the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish organization.
There were a mix of supporters and opponents in the audience as the commission voted.
One woman held signs reading, "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories" and "Don't glorify murders of 3000. No 9/11 victory mosque."
Supporters wore buttons bearing the slogan, "pro Israel pro peace."
Opponent Andrew Sullivan stood and yelled at the commission after the vote. After the vote he continued outside.
"You put that looming 13-story tower there, there's going to be nothing but a desecration," he said outside, after the ruling.
But Mahmoud quickly disagreed.
"To say that this is insensitive somehow is to somehow say that Islam's 1.5 billion people are responsible for the acts of a few extremists," she said.
The proposed complex, called the Cordoba Initiative, which has been met with fierce resistance from many to its construction plans.
The center, which has been called everything from an insult to a "house of evil" by protestors, has already been through several approvals, including the a community financial district and an advisory board.