The old, unwanted designation — in the name of an MCB entity that no longer legally existed — was used as a placeholder until finally, two years later, Ali-Salaam found backers to rescue the project. In October 1998, he recommended that the BRA hand the designation over to a completely different group of developers: the Cambridge-based ISB. The BRA board of directors approved the substitution, after a meeting in which Ali-Salaam personally made a presentation and answered questions about the project from the directors.
Swapping out developers happens on occasion, Boston developers say, and it is not even unheard of for the BRA to go out looking for a new backer to save a project.
But some critics of development under the current mayor say that this is evidence of how Menino operates. Whether or not this is sound practice depends on your point of view. "That just never would have happened" under the BRA as it operated under Flynn's administration, says one former high-ranking city official. "If people could not perform, they got de-designated. . . . At the end of the day, you're not in the business of getting what they [the developers] want done."
In addition to Menino, Wilkerson was a key supporter of the mosque project at the time — several people close to the project say that her influence was critical to its success. Wilkerson, who entered the State Senate in 1995, less than a year after Menino became mayor, was also a vocal critic of what she felt were his insufficient efforts to spur development in Boston's black neighborhoods, particularly in Lower Roxbury.
Wilkerson is one of three elected officials thanked in the mosque project's annual report released last year, along with City Councilors Felix Arroyo (now out of office) and Chuck Turner. Earlier this year, the current mosque group, MAS-Boston, hired a "Summer Public Sphere Intern" — who was placed in Wilkerson's State House office.
Wilkerson expressed optimism about the mosque project, but declined to discuss it in detail when approached by the Phoenix this summer, prior to the accusations of bribery and corruption she now faces. She offered praise for Ali-Salaam, with whom she has worked on several development projects in her district, and with whom sources say Wilkerson is close.
If Menino and Wilkerson were backing the mosque for its benefits to the Greater Roxbury black community — a requirement for BRA approval — they seem to have erred in supporting the re-designation to the ISB group that Ali-Salaam brought in, which is not African-American.
The ISB is a suburban, immigrant group of Muslims who have been drawn from around the world, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia, to the area's universities, research centers, and hospitals. And, according to many local black Muslims, including some who were involved in the initial development, the ISB has, from the beginning, not seemed eager to include them. A project that had originally been conceived as a collaborative effort among all the local Sunni mosques, they say, became the exclusive project of one outside group.
"They [the ISB] didn't have a sense of the indigenous Muslims and our history," says Imam Taleeb Mahdee of Masjid al-Quran, a Dorchester mosque on Intervale Street. "They were looking for space. We were looking for something to represent Boston."