Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal, accidental protagonist of the most politicized real estate story in recent memory, sat behind the blond-wood desk in his office six floors above the lower Broadway mall, and, meaty hands clasped before him, held forth on what it takes to make it in real estate. After all, it is real estate—not fanning national anti-Muslim hysteria—that is El-Gamal’s actual business.
“You know, the real estate business is a very tough business, and you have to be patient and persistent, and aggressive, and thank God I have all those qualities,” said El-Gamal, who looks something like Liev Schreiber, if Schreiber were to grow a gut and don the uniform of a young real estate upstart: pinstriped suit, manicured nails, ostentatiously large watch, unblinking blue-eyed gaze.
All of 37 years old, El-Gamal says he owns upward of 400,000 square feet of real estate in New York City, with a direct staff of 20 and an indirect staff of about 100, if you count the various entities he controls.
Before the news media and Republican establishment turned his plan for a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero into a rallying cry for Islamophobes everywhere—a hallowed two-block radius that includes countless fast-food restaurants, an Off-Track Betting outlet, nail salons and the headquarters of Goldman Sachs—El-Gamal had other projects to deal with, including the 12-story office building at 31 W. 27th St., which his SoHo Properties bought for more than $45 million in 2009, and a six-unit luxury condo at 50 Lispenard St. that’s about to come to market.
El-Gamal calls the brouhaha surrounding Park51, essentially an Islamic JCC, “a big distraction.” Which is not to say that he plans to back down. In truth, his commitment to building an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan seems to grow in direct proportion to the level of controversy fomented by his opponents. They might want to take note. “I don’t give up,” El-Gamal said. “I don’t quit. It’s just not in my DNA.”
Brooklyn-born, Sharif El-Gamal is the child of a Chemical Bank executive and the eldest of four siblings. He grew up all over the world, with sojourns in Liberia and Alexandria, Egypt. His early adult life mirrored his peripatetic upbringing. “I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do,” El-Gamal said. “I wanted to be an architect, I wanted to be an engineer, but I’ve always been very restless.”
After high school, he shuttled between different New York universities, including Pace, SUNY Farmingdale and the New York Institute of Technology, before concluding that formal education was not his bag. “You know, I couldn’t focus in a classroom, so I finally gave up. That was the only thing I’ve ever given up on, because I’m not one to give up.”
In the late 1990s, he entered real estate, first, as a residential sales broker. Within his first year, he transitioned to the more lucrative side of the business: commercial real estate sales. Soon, he’d sold nine buildings. In his estimation, he was very lucky. Over the next decade, he made his living in commercial real estate.
By 2006, El-Gamal felt he’d learned the business through and through and decided to become “a principal”—a landlord and developer in his own right. Using money from family and friends, as well as bank financing, El-Gamal began building his portfolio.
“I’ve been discreetly buying under the radar without any publicity since 2006,” El-Gamal said. “I’ve never publicized any of my commercial transactions and I was very successful in it.”
“I was just happy getting a check and going on to the next deal,” he continued. “That’s always been my philosophy.”
Like many a successful businessman, El-Gamal tends to look for inefficiencies in the market, even when going about his religious awakening.
“I wasn’t really brought up in a really religious home, and I guess after 9/11, I was curious to understand, who am I? What is my identity that I’ve been raised to be?” he said. “My journey started in Lower Manhattan.”
He began visiting mosques downtown near where he lived and worked, and came away with the realization that there were more mosque-goers than there were mosques to accommodate them. Some mosques had to hold four services a night, and still there were people praying on the streets.
He began toying with the idea of developing a mosque himself. When asked if making a profit was his initial motivation, El-Gamal, smiling slyly, would only say, “I am a businessman. I am a businessman.”
Soon, he met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his plans grew more complex.
“I’d never met an American imam who spoke the way I speak, who, it was almost like I was listening to a professor,” El-Gamal said. “I went up to him and I said, ‘It’s not fair that only 70 people get to hear this.’ And I started a relationship with him.”
“Then as I got married and as I became a father and a husband and a member of the Jewish Community Center on 76th and Amsterdam, I was like, ‘Wow, let’s build a community center.’”
El-Gamal, who now lives on the Upper West Side, continued to focus his energies on the Muslim community in Lower Manhattan, a neighborhood that had long expressed a desire for a new community center. The District Needs Statement put out by Community Board 1 reads, “With the tremendous increase in the population of the Financial District and Seaport and Civic centers, a community center is urgently needed to support a strong and stable community there.” Yet all of this remained more of an idea than an actual plan until about three and a half years ago, when El-Gamal and his wife were walking along 57th Street and entered a Sharper Image store.
“And I saw this young man by the name of Francisco Patino, who was on this reality show called American Inventor,” he said. “I don’t watch TV, but for some reason, I saw this show a couple of times. He was a young 18-year-old kid, but I loved his passion and he stuck in my head.”
El-Gamal said he approached Patino, and two weeks later, Patino was his employee. He gave him a map and told him to find a development site in Tribeca south.
“And it had nothing to do with the World Trade Center site,” El-Gamal said. He repeated himself, this time more slowly: “It had nothing to do with the World Trade Center site. It had to do with me being an American, a New Yorker who has particular religious beliefs and wants to help his community.”
Anyway, “Literally within two weeks, or within a month of him being here, he made a call and we found the Burlington site. And, when we found that site, he called a guy, who said, ‘Oh, good timing, my son is showing the building tomorrow afternoon, and we want to sell.’”
“And then I saw that building,” El-Gamal said, referring to 51 Park Place, the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory that was damaged during 9/11. “I never wanted anything so badly, and it took me four years to buy it.” After years of on-again, off-again negotiations, El-Gamal closed on the purchase in July 2009 for $4.85 million.“I never realized that a project that I’m working on would become a topic of national and global debate,” he said.
El-Gamal said that the next step for Park51 was to incorporate it as a nonprofit organization. “And, then I’ll develop it for them.” Whether he will be paid a developer’s fee remains uncertain. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “That’s not even on my agenda right now.”
Crucial to the 13-story project, which is to include a mosque, a swimming pool, a 9/11 memorial and a basketball court, is, of course, financing, somewhere in the ballpark of $100 million, which is a sizable sum, particularly in one of the worst financing markets in decades. El-Gamal brushed aside any such concerns.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve started understanding how these community centers work. And, this is all public information, but the Jewish Community Center makes over $25 million in annual revenue. The 92nd Street Y makes over $50 million in annual revenue, from membership and programming.”
(The JCC clarified that its operating budget, not its revenue, is more than $20 million.)
“So, if you start looking at what these centers generate once they’re built, then you can understand that this is not a very far-fetched idea.”
Nor, he said, does the fact that he doesn’t fully own the entire site present a problem (he has a long-term lease from Con Edison for part of the site on which the development would rise). He called reports to the contrary “just more noise.”
“I bought a 99-year term lease from Con Edison, when I bought the real estate in 2009, and there is a purchase option, which I executed in February,” he said. “This is all as of right now.”
Even so, would he ever consider relocating the center? The chorus of voices suggesting he and the imam do just that has expanded to include both New York Gov. David Paterson and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. What if he were offered a tidy sum for the site? “It’s not about money,” El-Gamal said. “But everything does have a price. But it’s not about money.”