By DAVID B. CARUSO
The Associated Press
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 6:40 PM
NEW YORK -- Conceptual sketches of the Islamic center planned two blocks from ground zero envision a futuristic-looking building wrapped in a honeycomb of abstract shapes, with a core containing far more space for secular pursuits than religious worship.
The renderings, some of which were posted on the project's website this week, are preliminary, but they project the development team's desire to build something cosmopolitan and fun on a site now known only for controversy.
"I don't think that once this thing gets built, anyone will be picketing," said Sharif El-Gamal, the project's developer.
Groundbreaking for construction is probably two to three years away, "or hopefully sooner," El-Gamal told The Associated Press.
The largest part of the building - four of 16 floors - would be taken up by a sports, fitness and swimming center. Another full floor would be occupied by a child care center and playground.
Much of the rest of the building would be occupied by a restaurant, culinary school, artist studios, exhibition space and an auditorium for cultural events.
El-Gamal said the idea was to build a facility that will attract neighborhood residents looking for a place to work out, as well as suburban Muslim couples spending "date night" in the city.
The building's prayer space for Muslims - the part of the center that has caused some critics to derisively brand the center the "ground zero mega mosque" - would be located on two levels in the basement. The 12th floor would hold a 9/11 memorial and sanctuary open to people of all faiths.
As for the look of the place, it could fit in fine as an annex to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, with white walls and floors and a crystalline feel.
Renderings by Soma Architects, a design studio that shares office space with El-Gamal's real estate company, show a building exterior that takes a traditional element of Islamic architecture - an arabesque pattern - and weaves it into a geometric mash-up that extends into the interior.
"We want to have a marriage between Islamic architecture and New York City. We want to do something that is green and cool," El-Gamal said.
Actual working plans for the center are still some time away.
An architect has yet to be selected, El-Gamal said. Planning is just beginning to emerge from a brainstorming phase disrupted when criticism of the center exploded over the summer.
Fundraising will probably begin in earnest in about 30 days, once the work of establishing a nonprofit group to oversee the center is complete.
Like the project's co-leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Brooklyn-born El-Gamal said he was caught off-guard by criticism from people offended by the concept of building an Islamic institution so close to the World Trade Center site.
Some have called it an exercise in triumphalism, intended to plant Islam's flag at the scene of the attacks and deliberately provoke Americans. Others say they are against the center because they don't want to see any growth of Islam in the U.S.
"I would have done things a lot differently during this process if I understood what we were up against," El-Gamal said.
But he added that he remained convinced much of the criticism was sparked by "a campaign of deception and deceit."
"People have been calling this the ground zero mosque. It's not at ground zero and it's not a mosque," he said. "Our identity has been stolen from us. It has been stolen by extremists."
Opponents have sought to link people involved in the project to Islamic militancy, partly by looking for past public statements in which they were critical of the U.S. or Israel.
El-Gamal, who spent his early childhood in New York with his Polish, Catholic mother, then moved abroad with his Egyptian father, a Chemical Bank executive, after his mother died, says those efforts are ridiculous.
But he acknowledged that intense scrutiny of the project will make tasks like gathering donations and selecting board members more laborious.
"We're going to have to run this just like a political campaign," vetting every donated dollar to see where it comes from, he said.
The center has set a goal of raising $27 million through a nationwide appeal to Muslims, interfaith groups and other philanthropists, but most of the $120 million to $140 million needed for construction would be raised by issuing a type of bond common in Islamic banking.
The instrument provides some of the same borrowing benefits as a standard construction bond, but complies with a religious prohibition against charging interest on a loan. El-Gamal said he hoped the bonds could be issued by a public development authority, which would allow investors to get them tax-free, but said that is not essential to move the project forward.
Revenue for operations would come from membership dues. The goal is to have around 4,300 paying members, with about half paying $2,700 per year for a family plan that would include fitness center access.
Both the center's programing and business model were modeled largely after the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, a popular facility on the Upper West Side where El-Gamal is a member.
El-Gamal said he hoped the prayer space would serve a congregation of around 2,000 people, most of whom would probably be Muslims who work downtown. Around 500 to 600 worshippers are already attending services at the site.
Big steps ahead for the project include resolving the relationship between the new nonprofit group that will operate the center, and the eight-person real estate investment partnership led by El-Gamal that controls the real estate on which it would be built.
Buying out the investment partnership is probably the first step, El-Gamal said, although the details of how that will happen are still not finalized.
One of his partners in the real estate deal, Hisham Elzanaty, has told The Associated Press that while he supports the idea of the center, he also needs his investment to turn a profit.
El-Gamal said Elzanaty was a partner, and that "his consent and approval" were necessary to the project, but he didn't foresee that as any obstacle.
A bigger challenge could be persuading enough New Yorkers that the project is just another community center. El-Gamal said he is optimistic his message will eventually break through.
He said the group is planning a series of town hall style meetings in which the relatives of 9/11 victims would be encouraged to voice their concerns.
At the very least, he said, the project is on the map.
"From a publicity standpoint, I think we've gotten $50 million worth of press," El-Gamal said. "It was good people that came together with good intentions, and when that happens, good things usually come out of it."