How a real estate star was born

In addition to the larger issues of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, the debate over the “ground zero mosque” has been interesting in another regard — as a story of overnight fame.

The developer of the proposed Park51 project, Sharif El-Gamal, who is featured on our cover this month and is also part of our upcoming forum at Lincoln Center (more on that below), has seen a meteoric rise to prominence that must be unparalleled in the annals of New York real estate.

A college dropout who only a few short years ago was waiting tables and tending bar (at Serafina and Michael Jordan’s Steak House) before becoming a commercial broker, and whose only mention in The Real Deal prior to this year was a single brief web item about the purchase of a building on West 27th Street, is now famous enough that world leaders are beating down his door.

When we sat down with El-Gamal late last month, shortly before a segment on him was to air on “60 Minutes,” Tony Blair wanted to meet with him later that week, he had canceled a meeting with Bill Clinton (which was being rescheduled) and he had run into former Governor George Pataki that morning, discussing the project with him (see our “Closing” interview with El-Gamal starting on page 110).

Brokers often dream of becoming developers as a step up the real estate food chain. But El-Gamal’s ascent is mind-blowing and, as he acknowledges, “surreal.”

To a religious man, being thrust into this role might seem like a matter of fate or destiny somehow. Of course, the simpler explanation is that El-Gamal has been sucked from relative obscurity high up into the air by a political and media tornado, a twister fueled by the populace’s conflicted feelings about Sept. 11, Islam and democracy following the terrorist attacks nearly a decade ago.

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It’s certainly a saga that is a mixture of the sacred and the profane. Any story that involves Donald Trump — who offered to pay a 25 percent premium for the site because he believes the project should move — has to be a little bit of the latter. And of course, while El-Gamal is talking about freedom of religion, he is also talking about the need to make his “first billion.”

Only in New York. In Europe, cultural clashes and the working out of cultural differences between Islam and the West occur over the wearing of headscarves by teenage girls. Here, it all comes back to real estate.

In working out those differences, one would hope that parts of the media — like Fox News (which interviewed me for a story about El-Gamal) — would stay away from heavy-handed implications (minus evidence) that El-Gamal has some hidden nefarious and criminal intentions in building his Islamic prayer space and community center. That seems like it borders on fearmongering.

You can hear more about all these issues from El-Gamal himself at our sixth annual forum at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, Oct. 13 (go to and click “Forum” at the top of the page for more info). He will be on hand for what promises to be a fascinating sit-down interview about the controversy surrounding the Park51 project.

Following that, we’ll have our headline panel addressing what’s ahead for the market. It’s an illustrious group. We’ve got hotelier and cultural arbiter without peer Ian Schrager; Jeff Blau, president of the Related Companies, the 800-pound gorilla of the development world; Howard Lorber, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman, the 800-pound gorilla among residential brokerage firms; and Dan Tishman, CEO of Tishman Construction, currently building the most important project in the city (and probably the world), One World Trade Center. Expect more panelist announcements in the days ahead.

Meanwhile, El-Gamal isn’t the only new face you’ll find in this issue. Worth a read is Adam Piore’s profile of billionaire investor Bill Ackman, and his $45 million bet to gain control of Stuy Town. It looks like a losing battle, but then again, Ackman turned a $50 million stake in bankrupt mall company General Growth Properties into more than $1 billion. In another piece, we look at the real estate holdings of the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim. Finally, more modestly, we look at the top residential real estate brokerages on Staten Island, our first-ever ranking for the borough. Enjoy the issue.