Read this in full or you’ll miss the enjoyable tone of befuddlement and dismay from professional centrist John Avlon, who clearly wants to defend Park51 from those darned wingnuts who object to the location and yet can’t understand why the developers would do something this tone-deaf. The smart move would have been to take advantage of the calm after the media storm to quietly fundraise among private donors and to reach out to wavering pols to reassure them about the project’s intentions. Instead, not only are they after public money, they’re trying to tap a fund that’s explicitly tied to 9/11.
You wanted to know where the funding’s coming from. Well, good news: Potentially, it’s coming from you.
Park51’s developers clearly have a legal right to apply for the grant. A list of Frequently Asked Questions that accompanied the application specifically states that religious organizations can make funding requests for capital projects “as long as the request is for a facility or portion of a facility that is dedicated to non-religious activities or uses.” According to an individual familiar with the Park51 application, it requests funds to cover a number of cultural, educational and community development aspects of the proposed 13-story building—but the prayer room is excluded from the grant application.
But the question on whether they could have is trumped by the question of whether they should have. The stated aim of the Park51 developers is to provide a community center for lower Manhattan’s 4,000 Muslim residents. Their own website explained that they understood the need to “appeal to the undecided, and change the conversation about Muslims in America.” It’s pretty clear that this play for federal dollars will generate none of that, starting with the lack of disclosure or community consultation before developers submitted their application, which was due November 5…
But the project likely doesn’t qualify for a grant in the first place. Specifically, the grant criteria mandate a demonstration of a project’s financial feasibility, based on benchmarks set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The government will help complete development projects—but it does not provide seed capital. And in their last public financial statement, Park51 was found to have less than $20,000 in the bank for a project with a slated cost of $100 million.
They’re asking for $5 million, which is both a drop in the bucket of what they need to build the center and a heck of a lot larger than the “suggested range” of $100,000 to $1 million for redevelopment grants. In another era, the idea of sending taxpayer money to a community center with space set aside for prayer might raise church-and-state concerns; in an age of faith-based initiatives, the line is likely blurry enough to let this pass. As for why Park51 would seek federal money in the first place, it could be that they really are that hard up for cash. Wealthy Muslims who do business in the U.S. may not want to donate lest they be tainted by association after all the publicity, so a few mil from the feds may be the only way to get the project going. Besides, if they did it entirely via private donors, they’d lose the symbolic resonance of tapping a 9/11 fund to aid the project, which is precisely why Avlon, who used to be a Giuliani aide, is leery of this move, I think. He’s likely in the camp of Park51 defenders who insist that the site has nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. That’s factually wrong — the site was chosen specifically because it was damaged in the attack, because the founders wanted to reclaim the space for “dialogue” — but it strengthens the argument that there should be no objection to a site two blocks away. The other camp of defenders counters that the site has everything to do with 9/11 insofar as it’s a moderate rebuke to the jihadis who attacked nearby (see Michael Moore for an example of that logic taken to its extreme conclusion). In that case, what’s wrong with using money from a 9/11 fund to help build? That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Exit question: If the developers are willing to restart the debate by doing something like this that’s bound to get attention, why not go the whole nine yards and publicly call upon their prominent defenders to help them fundraise? Make the site a true lefty cause celebre by imploring Bloomberg, Moore, and so on to strike a blow for tolerance by ponying up some dough towards its completion.