Park51 mosque lawyers argue firefighter has no standing

Judge says he expects to issue a decision on the case within four weeks

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From left: Soho Properties’ Sharif El-Gamal, Sept. 11 firefighter Timothy Brown, attorney Jack Lester and attorney Adam Leitman Bailey

Lawyers for Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal argued earlier today that the Sept. 11 firefighter who sued to block the proposed Lower Manhattan mosque and community center has no legal standing since he was not directly injured or affected by the project.

New York City retired firefighter Timothy Brown faced off with lawyers for El-Gamal, chairman and chief executive of Soho Properties, in New York State Supreme Court, who asked Judge Paul Feinman to dismiss the case outright, because Brown not only failed to prove legal standing, but his lawyers failed to name the correct defendant within the mandatory time period.

“We applaud the efforts of Timothy Brown for all he’s done for 9/11, but that doesn’t give him the right to try to block the Muslim people from building a mosque,” El-Gamal’s attorney Adam Leitman Bailey told The Real Deal in front of the Lower Manhattan courthouse after the hearing. “They have the right to pray… how they want to pray and where they want to pray.”

Brown filed suit alleging the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission erred in denying landmark status to the proposed Park51 site, at 47-49 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site. The LPC in August 2010 ruled that the site lacked the significance, from architectural and historical standpoints, to warrant designation.

Jack Lester, Brown’s attorney, argued in court that the building was supposed to be designated as part of a historic district in the 1980s, but that political pressure from Lower Manhattan limited the expansion of the district south of Chambers Street. He also argued that parts of the landing gear from the Sept. 11 aircraft crashed into the building and that human remains were found near the site, and therefore the site should be preserved as part of the legacy of Sept. 11.

Bailey meanwhile argued that opponents of the mosque wanted to block the mosque construction because they did not want Muslim Americans to be able to worship so close to Ground Zero, and were making specious legal arguments about the building’s architectural uniqueness and proximity to the World Trade Center site.

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“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is freedom of religion,” Bailey said in court.

Virginia Waters, senior counsel of the New York City Law Department, argued that the LPC looked at the issues thoroughly, including whether any debris or remains were found at the building, and she said the courts cannot be used as a substitute for experts who said the Park51 site is not a landmark or a legitimate memorial for Sept. 11.

Brown, who attended today’s hearing, expressed anger outside the courthouse about the argument that the building was not considered part of Ground Zero.

“Who has more of a right to say what Ground Zero than those of us who were affected so terribly that day,” Brown told The Real Deal.

The mosque construction became a national controversy during the mid-term election, with many conservative organizations coming out against construction, while other voices argued that the mosque was being used as a wedge issue and that the government could not legally block the construction of a holy site.

Feinman rejected Brown’s motion for a temporary restraining order in January, saying that there was no imminent danger or threat that should warrant an injunction on developing the project.

Feinman said he expects to issue a written decision on the case no later than four weeks from today.