SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The first images of the much-debated Islamic cultural center planned for Lower Manhattan show a gleaming white tower wrapped in a fine spun lattice of concrete. The team behind the architectural rendering say they want to lend some insight into how they're envisioning the project. Of course, that project has been the subject of a nationwide debate, especially among those who say the Islamic institution is planned too close to Ground Zero.
Now, in a moment we'll hear about opposition to the construction of a mosque in Marseille, France. But first, we turn to Sharif el-Gamal. He's the main developer of that Islamic cultural center known as Park 51. He joins us from New York. Mr. Gamal, thanks for being with us.
Mr. SHARIF EL-GAMAL (Developer, Park 51): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: You've released the first architectural renderings of the Park 51 project. What are you hoping to convey?
Mr. GAMAL: Well, the plans that we've shared with the public were preliminary thoughts and ideas that we would like to incorporate in the product of Park 51. Because of the national interest in the project, we felt that we should try to really educate people about what this project is all about, and a picture speaks a thousand words, as they say.
SIMON: What's going to be in there? I even said this on the air myself. At one point we referred to it as a mosque, and of course it's an Islamic center with a great many activities in there.
Mr. GAMAL: Right. Well, there's going to be a 9/11 memorial. There is also going to be an athletic facility, you know, a gym. It's going to be a very ambitious project that's going to have almost 120,000 square feet. All that we're looking to do is provide a much-needed community center in Lower Manhattan.
Not a lot of people understand Lower Manhattan below Canal Street is the fastest growing residential neighborhood, I think, in New York State. I like to say that there's more strollers than briefcases and there are not enough facilities to cater to those residents.
SIMON: So - and sorry if this sounds a little homey - but in the health center, so, instead of - you might have a Turkish-style bath in the locker room as opposed to a schvitz, but it's basically the same idea.
Mr. GAMAL: Absolutely. I mean, you're talking to a guy who loves to schvitz and, you know, in New York there's this institution called the Russian bathhouse and I am a regular there. I mean, schvitzing is part of my life.
SIMON: Now, as I understand, you're going to have to raise $100 million to complete the project.
Mr. GAMAL: Yes. We are - but bearing in mind that that's a capital stack. I think it's going to be even a little bit more than that.
SIMON: With respect, Mr. Gamal, do you have any concern that any of that money might have ties to countries that support terrorism?
Mr. GAMAL: We are not going to take any money from Iran. We are not going to take any money from countries or states or organizations that have un-American values. We are, God willing, going to establish a model going forward for community centers.
SIMON: I understand you're from Brooklyn.
Mr. GAMAL: I was born in Brooklyn, yes.
SIMON: Mr. Gamal, may I ask, as a native-born American, as a son of Brooklyn, how have you felt over the past few weeks, all this intense scrutiny, all the debate?
Mr. GAMAL: You know, it's been an eye-opener. And I've really been reflecting upon it, you know, over the last seven, eight months. And if I could go back in time, I probably would've done more of a national campaign, because I did not realize that in order to do a project in Lower Manhattan that I needed the permission of the rest of the country.
SIMON: What about those who say, of course they have a right to build a cultural center there, but building it so close to Ground Zero is not sensitive.
Mr. GAMAL: During 9/11 I was in New York and I was down there for two days giving water out because my city got affected. So I have a small little glimpse into those horrific events, and those memories, you know, are part of my fabric today. And for me as an American not to exercise my rights today - you know, we're not going to start having Islam-free zones. If we don't exercise our rights, then you start losing your rights.
And I see this as an opportunity for us Americans to reevaluate our values.
SIMON: Sharif al-Gamal, main developer at the Islamic cultural center project for Lower Manhattan. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. GAMAL: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.