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.
Proposed Muslim Center Called Mosque by Critics
"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.
New Yorkers told ABCNews.com that the idea of a mosque is not the problem, but the Cordoba Initiatve is just too close to the city's most painful scar and has struck many as insensitive and cruel.
Robert Engel's office on Church Street, would look right into the proposed center. It's not a prospect he or many of his co-workers are looking forward to, he said.
"I don't think they should do it. It's too close," Engel said. "It's a slap in the face."
While the Cordoba's plans have become a lightning rod for politicians from Buffalo to Alaska, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it mosque a few blocks away draws worshipers instead of critics.
The Web site of the Masjid Manhattan even includes a disclaimer that it is not affiliated with the Cordoba plans.
"Please be advised that we are by no means affiliated with any other organization trying to build anything new in the area of downtown Manhattan."
"Our members are city, state and federal employees, as well as professional employees of the financial area who come to our Masjid to perform their daily prayers," the statement continued. "Masjid Manhattan and its members condemn any type of terrorist acts."
For more than an hour Monday, men wearing everything from neatly pressed suits and corporate ID cards to jeans and T-shirts came to pray at Masjid Manhattan. Three women also quietly made their way in, slipping silently into the women's section separated by two thick curtains.
The mosque has operated in the neighborhood for years, moving in 2008 to its cramped basement space after their previous building was sold in 2008 and they were forced out.
Engel, 36, also said that he's never had any problem with Masjid Manhattan, often passing worshippers on his way to eat in the restaurant above their prayer space.
"I'm fine with them there," he said. "I just think that they shouldn't build one too close to the World Trade Center."
Anti-Defamation League Opposed Islamic Center
Yanna Agoureev, 46, who has lived near Ground Zero for five years, said she isn't offended by the plans for the Cordoba mosque, but fears trouble for a long time to come if it's built, predicting protestors and clashes with Muslims.
"I'm basically okay with it," she said. "But if it were somewhere else, it would be a bit better for everybody."
Last week, the Anti-Defamation League raised eyebrows when it seemingly strayed from its longstanding reputation for interfaith tolerance, and issued a statement condemning plans for the mosque.
"The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process," the ADL statement read. "Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found."
The controversy over the building of the Cordoba Initiative has been furious from the start and has morphed into a political debate that has ensnared Sarah Palin and one of New York's Republican gubernatorial candidates.
"They should just move this thing," Buffalo Republican Carol Paladino told the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. "The vast majority of New Yorkers and Americans have rejected their idea."
Palin earned the ire of Bloomberg and became a late-night punchline last month when she took to Twitter to call on New Yorkers to "refudiate" plans for the mosque, calling it "unnecessary provocation."
Bloomberg quickly shot back at Palin, saying that "everything the United States stands for and New York stands for is tolerance and openness."