Mosque Near Ground Zero Clears Hurdle

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The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has voted to deny landmark status to a 152-year-old building just blocks from Ground Zero. That means the building can be taken down to make space for a controversial mosque and community center.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Plans to build a controversial Islamic community center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero cleared a major hurdle today. New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted against protecting an old building on the proposed site.

That means the Muslim organization planning the project is now one step closer to beginning construction, as NPR's Brian Reed reports.

BRIAN REED: At first, the hearing had the feel of an architecture lesson. It almost hid the tension.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Unidentified Woman #1: Completed in 1857 to '58, this five-story store and loft building is a fine example of the Italian Renaissance inspired pelazzi(ph)...

REED: Opponents of the Islamic Center had been hoping the commission would protect this one building, 45 to 47 Park Place. That would mean the Cordoba Initiative, the Muslim group planning the center, would've had to go through more public hearings in order to get permission to break ground. But one by one today, the nine commissioners voted against doing that, saying the building didn't meet the criteria of a standalone historic landmark.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Unidentified Man: All in favor?

Unidentified People: Aye.

Unidentified Man: Opposed?

REED: As soon as the meeting adjourned, several people in attendance began to shout their displeasure.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Woman #2: Shame on you.

REED: Shame on you, one woman chanted. Another held a sign that read, no 9/11 victory mosque. Joan Romanelli(ph) worked near the World Trade Center on September 11th and she came to see the vote.

Ms. JOAN ROMANELLI: For months, getting off the subway, I would have to smell the odor of what I didn't know what it was and I was told it was the burning bodies. That is embedded in my mind for the rest of my life. How can anyone just say this is okay?

REED: Romanelli was less upset about the use of the site, that it would be turned into a mosque, than the fact that the building would be demolished for it.

Ms. ROMANELLI: There are ashes in that building. There is a part of the plane in that building. And I think destroying that is destroying a part of our history and our past. We need to honor these things, not just tear them down.

REED: The Islamic Center and, in particular, its proximity to the World Trade Center, has sparked national criticism in recent months from prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, but also the Anti-Defamation League. Still, the mosque has plenty of supporters, including the families of some 9/11 victims.

They say it will be an open community center with not only a place for prayer, but also an auditorium, a swimming pool and restaurants. The whole point of the project, they say, is to promote the religious freedoms the 9/11 terrorists were attacking.

Today, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed that sentiment in praising the project.

Mr. MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Mayor, New York): It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001. On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths.

REED: Opponents vow to continue to fight the center. But they don't have much recourse outside of a possible lawsuit. The decision from the Landmark Preservations Commission can't be appealed.

Brian Reed, NPR News.

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