MYFOXNY.COM – by CHARLES LEAF: While Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf has dominated headlines about the proposed cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, developer Sharif el-Gamal, 37, is actually the central figure behind the project.
Yet just a few years ago, el-Gamal was waiting tables in some fancy Manhattan restaurants.
Naturally, we wanted to talk to Sharif el-Gamal to learn more about the man and his plans, but apparently he didn’t want to meet us. We made repeated requests for a sit down interview with him, left him multiple voice mail messages and he never returned any of our calls. We even went to his office and talked to colleagues, but we were turned away. He left us with no choice: We had to go find him.
El-Gamal is an American Muslim reportedly born to a Polish mother and an Egyptian father. He was raised in Brooklyn.
Today, el-Gamal’s company, Soho Properties, owns the building where arguably the most controversial mosque in the world will be built. He bought the old Burlington Coat Factory building at 45 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, for $4.8 million in cash in 2009.
We asked him where he got the money to put down on the property, but he stayed silent when we approached him.
His newfound notoriety was an extraordinary leap from his not-too-distant days as a waiter at Serafina, a trendy Upper East Side eatery, and at Michael’s, an upscale celebrity-filled restaurant packed with a veritable who’s who in media.
El-Gamal’s former restaurant bosses and co-workers told Fox 5 that the young and opportunistic el-Gamal thrived on the buzz from bumping elbows with marquee names and relished the opportunity to schmooze the high dollar clientele.
“Customers would come in and ask for him, he had his regulars,” said Cosmo Sammarone, a Serafina waiter.
El-Gamal left Serafina in 2002 and started selling real estate. But in just a year, he went from broker to business owner and launched his own real estate company, Soho Properties, in 2003. Records show he is the president and chief executive officer.
A long-time associate of his says el-Gamal isn’t quite who he seems to be. The associate asked Fox 5 to protect his identity because he fears retribution.
“I was pretty much in shock when I saw him on the news as the developer,” the associate said. “What I can say about Sharif is nothing good.
He said el-Gamal liked living in the fast lane, meeting celebrities in the restaurants were he worked, and partying with them at nightclubs.
“Very persuasive, master manipulator,” he said of el-Gamal.
Today, el-Gamal’s holdings included at least four buildings in Manhattan, including the site near Ground Zero, one in Chelsea, and two residential buildings in Washington Heights, where tenants seem to like him.
Records show el-Gamal bought the Washington Heights properties in 2007 for a little less than $3 million each.
Ken Brandman, president of N.Y. Commercial Real Estate Services, knows el-Gamal well. He, too, was a bit surprised to hear el-Gamal is the developer in the mosque near Ground Zero.
“I don’t think he has a lot of money,” Brandman said. “I’m sure he didn’t buy it with his own money.”
Soho Properties bought the site for the mosque for $4.8 million in cash. Just four months later, with Manhattan’s real estate market collapsed, el-Gamal made an even bigger deal.
With credit super tight, and prices plummeting, he paid $45 million for a 12-story commercial building in Chelsea that sold three years earlier for $31 million.
“It seems like a lot of pay in a downturn, considering it went for considerably less during the boom,” said Stuart Elliott, the editor of Real Deal magazine.
El-Gamal, the waiter turned mogul, plunked down another $5 million as down payment on the Chelsea building.
“Something’s up with that deal,” Ken Brandman said. “Unless someone gave him a lot of money, or he won the lottery, than somebody else put up the money.”
Fox 5 News has learned that el-Gamal did have help from a man named Hisham Elzanaty. Mortgage documents show that Elzanaty is the guarantor on the $39 million loan el-Gamal’s company secured to buy the building.
We repeatedly asked El-Gamal where he raised the money, where it was coming from, but he refused to answer our questions and run from us. He also did not answer the question of whether he would consider relocating the mosque
INSERT: some background on Hisham Elzanaty from jammy wearing fool
Now we assume Elzanaty is local and can find very little information on anyone with that name. But it appears to be this guy.
Interesting who this Hisham Elzanaty has donated money to in recent years: Barack Obama, Kirsten Gillibrand, Lyndon LaRouche and Cynthia McKinney. In fact he’s donated to Gillibran, a mosque supporter, just two weeks ago. He’s listed as a doctor here, which matches the address on his donation. He’s also been listed as living in Searingtown, NY, and in an interesting twist lost his parents in this air disaster.
He’s also listed as a co-defendant in a 2007 federal RICO suit here, although it’s unclear how that case was resolved.