The chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission allegedly wanted “political cover” before denying landmark status to a building situated on the site of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, giving critics ammunition in their legal quest to stop the project, records released Thursday showed.
The records—sought by the project’s opponents and released by City Hall—show members of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration working very closely with the organizers of the project, known as Park51, to combat public opposition and navigate various governmental hurdles. One city official ghost-wrote a letter for the project’s organizers.
Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, an outspoken champion of the organizers’ right to build the mosque, said the slew of emails reflects the typical back-and-forth between government officials and members of the community. The project’s opponents said the records show the Bloomberg administration was in cahoots with the organizers. The records, they allege, raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Aug. 3 vote, which paved the way for the project to rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In one email from May, Shelly Friedman, the organizers’ lawyer, wrote that Manhattan Community Board 1’s vote in support of the project would be helpful as organizers urged landmark commission Chairman Robert Tierney and other panel members to reject landmark status for the building currently on the site. “I do know that chairman Tierney was looking forward to having the ‘political cover’ their support would bring him,” Ms. Friedman wrote.
Mr. Tierney declined a request for comment, the mayor’s spokesman, Stu Loeser, said.
Mr. Loeser, though, insisted Mr. Tierney and the other members of the panel based their decision on the facts. “The landmarks vote was on the building’s architectural and historical merit or, more specifically, lack of merit and nothing else,” he said.
Brett Joshpe, counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, one of the groups that sought the documents and is suing the city, said Ms. Friedman’s email is telling.
“Our allegation all along has been that politics tainted this process and that the Landmarks decision was not actually based on a faithful review of the architectural or historical value of the building but based upon political influences,” Mr. Joshpe said.
The exchange of emails also reveals how heavily involved the administration was in the project’s development. One email shows that Nazli Parvizi, the city’s community affairs commissioner, drafted a letter that Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, wrote to the community board. City officials also intervened to help the organizers get permits to conduct prayers at the site. In one email, organizers agreed to help fund a 2009 Ramadan celebration at Gracie Mansion.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said the emails are proof that the mayor’s staff was coordinating with the Islamic center’s leaders.
“They were getting press advice from the mayor’s office, they were editing letters for them,” he said. “They were advising them on the all important landmark issue.”
“They were told what to do in order to get approval and there was never any question of getting approval,” he said. “It was obviously political.”
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a supporter of the project, called the opponents’ attacks “pernicious.”
“A group of political opportunists are trying to create divisions and whip up ugly tensions over this issue, with no regard for the sensitivities of the people who live here,” he said.
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