Judge Blocks Con Edison from Evicting Park51 Community Center

By Julie Shapiro on November 29, 2011 1:28pm 

LOWER MANHATTAN — Con Edison cannot evict the Park51 mosque and community center over a rent dispute, a judge ruled last week.

The utility company and the developers of the hotly debated Islamic center are locked in a legal battle over nearly $2 million in back rent for 51 Park Pl., a building Con Edison owns and leases to Park51.

While that dispute makes its way through the courts, Manhattan Justice Richard Braun ruled Fri., Nov. 25, that Con Edison cannot move forward with evicting Park51, according to court documents, first reported by the New York Law Journal.

Braun also ruled that Park51 must begin paying $25,875 per month in rent, which is less than Con Ed hoped but more than the $12,000 per month Park51 is currently paying, according to documents.

"This is another step in the legal process," Con Edison said in a statement to DNAinfo Tuesday.

"We are pleased that the court has increased the monthly payment the tenant must make and will address questions as the case continues."

Braun's decision means that, for now, Park51 will at least be able to hold onto 51 Park Pl., the former Burlington Coat Factory building, which the Islamic center developers hope to tear down to build a $100 million mosque and cultural facility.

Park51 is already offering Muslim services and community programs in an adjacent building at 45 Park Place, which Park51 owns.

The rent dispute at 51 Park Place dates back to August 2008, when the Park51 developers renewed their lease for the building with Con Edison, according to court documents.

Park51 and Con Ed could not agree on the rent, so they brought in a third-party appraiser, who valued the property at $10.35 million, according to documents.

Based on that, Con Edison set a monthly rent of more than $47,437, which was more than 17 times what Park51 had been paying. At that rate, Park51 owed more than $1.7 million in back rent by the fall of 2011, which is when Con Edison moved to evict the center.

But Park51's lawyers argued that the rent Con Ed set was too high and should have been just $25,875 per month, according to court papers. That is the amount that Park51 must begin paying now, Justice Braun ruled last week.

Even if Park51 ultimately loses the case and owes Con Ed millions of dollars, Sharif El-Gamal, the chief developer behind Park51, has said he would be able to pay up, because he could take out a mortgage on 45 Park Place next-door, Braun wrote in his decision.

Braun also noted that lawyers for Park51 argued that Con Edison's eviction attempt may be tied to all the publicity the project received last year, when it generated a major controversy around the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

"Plaintiff speculates as to whether defendant [Con Edison] may be bowing to unspecified political pressure," Braun wrote in his decision, without expressing his own opinion.

In reply, Con Ed released a statement saying, "We have been among the many parties that have defended the tenant’s right to buy the property and develop it."

Park51 did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

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