DOWNTOWN — The developer behind Park51, the planned Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center, is turning a Manhattan street into a game of Monopoly.
Sharif El-Gamal recently bought a five-story building adjacent to the controversial project for $8 million, city records show. With the purchase of 43 Park Place, he now controls three properties next to each other on the same block.
With the help of a $7 million mortgage, El-Gamal bought the latest building under the shell company 43 Park Place Partners Corp., city records show. The sale was recorded Jan. 23.
In July 2009 he and his partners paid nearly $5 million for 45-47 Park Place, a former Burlington Coat Factory store that was heavily damaged on 9/11. His group also leases 51 Park Place from Con Edison. Those buildings comprise Park51.
The latest property is a commercial building that's home to the Dakota Roadhouse bar, a bakery and other businesses.
So far El-Gamal hasn't won over his new tenants, some of which have been worrying about their future in the building. His real estate management company, Soho Properties, has offered buyouts to at least two tenants, but the amounts were too little to make the move worth it, sources said.
Tenants have also griped about the building's upkeep.
Its elevator has been out of service for the past two weeks, and SoHo Properties has been slow to address the problem, sources said. One worker with a broken foot has been forced to climb five flights of stairs to get to her office, a source said.
"It's definitely a nuisance," a source said. Tenants have also complained about water pressure problems on certain floors and lack of heat.
El-Gamal did not return a call for comment on his plans for the building.
El-Gamal has worked in real estate for more than a decade, but at least a half dozen of his deals have been bogged down by lawsuits and allegations of owed money.
In 2011, Con Edison threatened to evict Park51 because it hadn't paid $1.7 million in rent. El-Gamal later sued the utility, claiming it overvalued the property and miscalculated rent. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge sided with Con Ed's appraisal, but the litigation has continued.
Last week Khalil Sikander, an investor in two Washington Heights residential buildings, sued El-Gamal in Manhattan Supreme Court, accusing Soho Properties of mismanaging the properties, withholding account information and not paying its bills.
Sikander claims El-Gamal's firm didn't keep accurate records, failed to rent apartments and used inexperienced and unlicensed contractors to perform work on the buildings.
"He didn't pay bills," Sikander's lawyer, Claude Castro, said. "We want to look at the books and records. We want an accounting. We want to see why these bills have not been paid."
In 2012, El-Gamal filed a lawsuit against Sikander, accusing him of poorly repairing another Washington Heights residential building they had worked on together.
Park51 has been El-Gamal's most ambitious real estate project yet — but so far the biggest disappointment.
In 2010 he weathered a political firestorm over the proximity of Ground Zero to a mosque inside 45-47 Park Place. He then unveiled an ambitious plan to build a $140 million Islamic center at the property that would provide prayer space, cultural programs, daycare and a 9/11 memorial.
Park51 officially opened in September 2011 with a photo exhibit of children from around the world, but since then little progress has been made. Construction hasn't begun on El-Gamal's grand vision of a 15-story glass building at the site.
Park51's chief of staff, Katerina Lucas, left more than a year ago and has not been replaced. She declined a request for comment.
While the mosque still holds daily prayer services, the center's cultural programs have all but ceased. Park51's website doesn't appear to have been updated since last spring, with its main page advertising a class on Islamic calligraphy that took place in April 2012. Its last tweet — a call asking for an intern — was posted in June 2012.
A class on Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts dance, remains the only cultural program up and running in the center, according to the class instructor, Luz Emma Canas Jesus.
"We've been there for two years," she said. "We've been the consistent program. They've had other programs come and go. We've been there."