New Plan by Islamic Center Developer: Rebuild a Synagogue

February 12, 2014 1:35 pm Comments Off on New Plan by Islamic Center Developer: Rebuild a Synagogue Views: 384

Sharif El-Gamal, the developer whose plans for a $100 million Islamic prayer and community center near the World Trade Center collapsed amid a national controversy three years ago, is back.

This time, Mr. El-Gamal and a partner are planning to build a new home for an 83-year-old synagogue in the garment district in Midtown, while creating a sleek, 23-story retail center and hotel.

This being Manhattan, it is mainly a real estate deal, despite the religious trappings.

Mr. El-Gamal and his partner, Murray Hill Properties, have a contract to buy the three-story building at the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 40th Street from Parsons the New School for Design for about $61.5 million.

The developers hope to demolish the building, which includes the Garment Center Synagogue on the ground floor, and erect a tower that could capitalize on the surging hustle and bustle of Times Square, whose central location and popularity with tourists has made it an attractive neighborhood for new hotels.

“We’re in the process of buying one of the last untouched corners of Times Square,” Mr. El-Gamal, chief executive of Soho Properties, said Monday, “with an opportunity to secure the future of a synagogue that will serve the Jewish community for decades to come.”

Sharif El-Gamal wants to build a retail center and hotel where the Garment Center Synagogue is located. Librado Romero/The New York Times

Mr. El-Gamal has been largely quiet since 2011, when his proposal for a 15-story Islamic center at 45-51 Park Place, about three blocks from the World Trade Center site, generated atorrent of protests.

Some politicians and relatives of Sept. 11 victims said at the time that it would be disrespectful to build a Muslim institution so close to the spot where Islamic radicals destroyed the trade center. Sarah Palin and Internet activists fueled the uproar, charging that the building would represent a “victory mosque.” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, however, strongly defended Mr. El-Gamal’s right to build the center, citing religious tolerance as a bedrock American value.

Mr. El-Gamal said it was still “his dream” to create a religious and cultural center that would be respectful of the city’s tolerance and cultural diversity. But plans for the Islamic center have largely stalled.

In the meantime, he and David Sturner of Murray Hill Properties hope to develop the property on Seventh Avenue. They plan to close on the deal, which envisions a 20- to 23-story building with three floors of retail at the bottom and a hotel on top with 250 to 260 rooms, by early March.

But the synagogue held the high cards in negotiations with developers, since it had a long-term lease for $1 a year; the lease specified that the synagogue would have to relocate temporarily in 2017 if the building had to be demolished.

The Garment Center Synagogue, which formed in 1931, was rooted in an era when the garment district was a manufacturing behemoth, producing much of the country’s clothing.

The synagogue would be temporarily relocated during construction. Ruby Washington/The New York Times

It started as a respite for Jewish workers and factory owners in the back of a barbershop near Herald Square, according to Arnold H. Brown, co-president of the synagogue, and later moved to a room over a tobacco shop on Seventh Avenue and 35th Street. Such was the makeup of the neighborhood that the Millinery Center Synagogue on 38th Street and the Fur Center Shul on 29th Street were nearby.

The Garment Center Synagogue moved to its current location in 1965, along with the Brotherhood in Action, a community-improvement organization. But a decade later, with the garment district shrinking and the congregation in financial need, Mr. Brown said, Albert A. List, a wealthy industrialist and a financial supporter of the New School for Social Research, bought the building and donated it to Parsons.

“Albert List bailed us out,” Mr. Brown said. “He gave us a 99-year lease at a dollar a year.”

Today, Mr. Brown and his co-president, Jack Ratusch, say that the synagogue has about 500 members. There are services three times a day in the smaller sanctuary, attended by a handful of people. But Mr. Brown said all 300 seats in the main sanctuary, which is lined with stained-glass windows depicting the tribes of Israel, are filled on the Jewish High Holy Days.

The New School put the Seventh Avenue property up for sale last year after Parsons moved to the school’s Greenwich Village campus. Mr. El-Gamal invited Murray Hill to join him in the bidding for the property and won.

On Friday, the developers and the synagogue reached a deal in which the synagogue agreed to vacate the site in the coming months so that demolition could begin. The developers made a donation to the synagogue for an undisclosed amount and agreed to relocate the synagogue to temporary quarters before moving it into the new building.

Hoping to recapture some good will lost in the controversy downtown, Mr. El-Gamal issued a news release Monday announcing plans to transform the synagogue.

As for whether Mr. El-Gamal’s association with the Islamic center at ground zero gave him any pause, Mr. Brown said: “If Malcolm X bought it, he’d be our landlord. We have an excellent, ironclad agreement.”

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