Mosque foes want imperiled 1850s building kept intact

Workers at Ground Zero find of a late Workers at Ground Zero find of a late 18th century ship. (July 15, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Hours after a lower Manhattan community board recommended that the city not grant landmark designation to a building expected to be turned into a mosque near Ground Zero, opponents of the project threatened to go to court to stop demolition of the 1850s Italian Renaissance structure.

Community Board 1 voted 24-11 Tuesday night not to support landmark status for a building mosque members want to replace with a $100-million, 13-story mosque and cultural center.

The board did, however, ask the new owners to preserve the facade of the building when they build the new mosque.

The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission is scheduled to vote on the issue next month.

The coalition of mosque opponents include a newly formed tea party in Brooklyn, families whose loved ones were killed at the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and historic preservationists. They claim not preserving the building with landmark status is bending to political pressure.

"This is being railroaded through," said Jack Lester, a land use attorney who said he will file the lawsuit if the city's landmarks preservation commission does not grant the building historic status.

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Lester said the building is historically important: Its original owners were shipping merchants who flew the Union flag during the Civil War and, more recently, parts of the landing gear from one of the jets that flew into the Twin Towers crashed through its roof.

"This is about erasing American history to build a Muslim cultural center," said Debra Burlingame, co-founder of Families for a Safe and Strong America, an organization of relatives who lost relatives on 911 who keep an eye on developments at Ground Zero.

Mosque supporter Paul Newell, a Democratic district leader, said he believes opponents are using the landmark status question to stop the mosque from opening. "This is a movement of outsiders because this community overwhelmingly supports the mosque," Newell said.

While the August vote is not necessary for the mosque to move forward, it is seen as key to obtaining residents' support. The Cordoba Initiative, which will be building the mosque, did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

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