NEW YORK — After hours of contentious public comment, a New York City community board voted late Tuesday to support a plan to build a mosque and cultural center near ground zero.
"It's a seed of peace," board member Rob Townley said. "We believe that this is significant step in the Muslim community to counteract the hate and fanaticism in the minority of the community."
The vote was 29-to-1 in favor of the plan, with 10 abstentions. The move by the Manhattan Community Board 1, while not necessary for the building's owners to move forward with the project, is seen as key to obtaining residents' support.
The organizations sponsoring the project say they're trying to meet a growing need for prayer space in lower Manhattan, as well as provide a venue for the dissemination of mainstream Islam, to counter extremism.
"The moderate Muslim voice has been squashed in America," said Bruce Wallace, who said he lost a nephew in the Sept. 11 attacks. "Here is a chance to allow moderate Muslims to teach people that not all Muslims are terrorists."
Others at the meeting had a different view.
"We think it's an insult," said Pamela Gellar, executive director of Stop Islamization of America. "It's demeaning to non-Muslims to build a shrine dedicated to the very ideology that inspired 9/11."
The plan, which would include areas for interfaith activities and conferences and an arts center, has attracted political and social opposition.
Tea party activist Mark Williams has called the proposed center a monument to the terror attacks. And some Sept. 11 victims' families say they're angry it would be built so close to where their relatives died.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has been the target of disparaging remarks by Williams for supporting the plans, defended his position and denounced offensive speech directed at him or at Muslims.
"What I want people to do is to take a look at the totality of what they are proposing," Stringer said. "What we're rejecting here is outright bigotry and hatred."
Stringer made his remarks before the vote while standing outside the Park Place building, a former department store that was damaged by debris on Sept. 11. The paint on the building's facade is peeling, and dirt is accumulating on its columns.
Blocks away, cranes extended over the vast World Trade Center construction site.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said there were no security concerns about building a mosque in the area.
Stringer said he understood the sensitivities of the families of 9/11 victims.
"I don't think anybody wants to do anything to disrespect those families. They made the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "At the same time, we have to balance diversity and look for opportunities to bring different groups together."
The American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, the organizations sponsoring the project, have said that they bought the building in 2009 and planned to break ground later this year. It could take up to three years to build the Cordoba House. A Friday prayer service has been held at the building since September 2009.
Besides the political and social opposition to the project, city officials say the plan also could be hindered by a decades-old proposal to give landmark status to a building that would be replaced by the mosque and center.
City officials say the current building, constructed between 1857 and 1858 in the Italian Renaissance palazzo style, is historically and architecturally significant.
WATCH footage from the meeting: