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 Mr. 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 Mr. El-Gamal, who looks something like Liev Schreiber, if Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
What if he were offered a tidy sum for the site? ‘It’s not about money,’ Mr. El-Gamal said. ‘But everything does have a price. But it’s not about money.’
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—Mr. El-Gamal had other projects to deal with, including the 12-story office building at 31 West 27th Street, which his SoHo Properties bought for more than $45 million in 2009, and a six-unit luxury condo at 50 Lispenard Street that’s about to come to market.
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 NYIT, 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, Mr. 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, Mr. El-Gamal began building his portfolio.
“I’ve been discreetly buying under the radar without any publicity since 2006,” Mr. 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.”
Not that the man is without vanity.
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