The former Burlington Coat Factory and now Park51 development and...

The former Burlington Coat Factory and now Park51 development and mosque, center background. (Aug. 6, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Development of an Islamic community and prayer center near Ground Zero is moving forward at a more cautious pace and with less fanfare more than a year after it attracted acrimony nationwide.

It also is proceeding without Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who once was the face of Park51, at the helm.

Rauf, 63, was dropped from the board of directors in January, Park51 officials confirmed Monday, declining to detail the circumstances. Rauf, who that same month had agreed to take a reduced role in the project, could not be reached for comment.

His departure is hardly the only change the lower Manhattan project has undergone. Since January, Park51 chairman Sharif El-Gamal has hired a new design team and 12 full-time staffers, injecting new energy into a site that protesters swarmed last summer to denounce as an affront to 9/11 terror attack victims.

"Park51 has weathered the storm over the last year, and I am pleased to report that we are still standing strong," El-Gamal, 37, president of Soho Properties, which controls the project site, said Friday in a statement.

Fundraising initiatives have been launched, a board of advisers assembled and community programs begun at the space, El-Gamal said. Park51 is showcasing a collection by photographer Danny Goldfield in September, and its mosque component, named PrayerSpace, hosts as many as 600 worshipers for Friday prayers.

Only the first floor is being used for prayers and the art exhibit. As it is now, the building is five stories, its exterior decrepit with peeling paint. A piece of paper is taped to the door that says "Welcome to Park51!" with an American flag sticker.

Efforts to raise what Park51 officials said was $7 million to $10 million to support community programming and fund upkeep of the current building began two weeks ago with a dinner at the Park Place facility.

"Two blocks from where we are today our identities were stolen from us, were stolen, and our faith was debased," El-Gamal told potential donors at the July 29 event. "And through this project, where we are today, we have an opportunity to show the world who we are and what we believe in."

Some family members of 9/11 victims said no amount of change to the leadership and development of Park51 would make them support the project.

"It's not the mosque itself; it's the location," said Rosemary Cain, of Massapequa, who lost her firefighter son, George, 35, in the attacks. I don't care how many years go by. That's not the right place to put a mosque. It's insensitive to the victims and their families."

Park51 has made concerted efforts to hear neighbors' concerns, and its new board of advisers includes lower Manhattan community leaders, 9/11 family members and a rabbi, said Park51 spokesman Larry Kopp.

The proposed facility is modeled after the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, where El-Gamal is a member, Kopp said.

Developers said Park51 will similarly serve its community members and envision an eight- to 15-floor facility with a gym, pool, day care center, amphitheater, 9/11 memorial and more. The building, estimated to cost between $100 million to $150 million, would house a mosque in the basement, they said. Developers emphasized that Park51 could take years to fund and construct, just as the Jewish Community Center did.

Open dialogue with representatives of other faiths and neighbors have put Park51 "in a much better position to focus on its mission of serving our city," said Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager of the Council on American Islamic Relations in New York.

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