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Cash-strapped church eyes building project at Cathedral of St. John the Divine

New York Daily News
October 25, 2013
By Jan Ransom

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is in financial tatters, but officials from the Episcopal Diocese of New York hope to see work begin in December on two 15-story residential buildings, an ambitious project that can bring the cash-poor church some much-needed moolah.

Morningside Heights residents and preservationists, however, have been screaming hellfire and damnation. Their opposition to the plans has rekindled an age-old debate over the city’s desire to landmark the Cathedral and its expansive grounds.

“There are people who will tell you they’re interested in landmarking, but they want to stop development,” said the Very Rev. James Kowalski, the dean of the cathedral. “Really, what some of these people are saying is we shouldn’t be building.”

The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee has launched an online petition to persuade the Diocese to abandon its plans.

“This enormous development will cast in shadow most of the historic and magnificent church,” the group said on its website. “It will also impair emergency services at the adjacent St. Luke’s Hospital, congest traffic, harm air quality and disrupt the character of the neighborhood.”

The Diocese previously leased the southeastern section of the Cathedral campus to AvalonBay Communities, in 2006, and the company built a 20-story apartment tower that generates $2 million a year for the church’s endowment, officials said.

The Brodsky Organization would lease and develop the northern portion of the Cathedral’s expansive grounds, which run between W. 110th to W. 113th Sts. along Amsterdam Ave.

The one unresolved ripple, of course, is the site’s landmark status. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission is reviving a decades-old discussion about designating the cavernous Cathedral, 10 years after City Council — led by then-Councilman Bill Perkins — shot down its initial attempt.

“It is one of the great religious structures of the world, and considered the crowning glory of Morningside Heights.” said Commission spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon.

Church officials say they support the landmarking, so long as it exempts the northern portion of the grounds.

The Episcopal Diocese of N.Y., which already leased some of its land for a 20-story apartment tower several years back, hopes to lease the northern portion of the Cathedral grounds (land at left) for two more buildings, which they say would add another $2 million per year in revenue.

But those who oppose further development insist the city should designate the whole site, a move that would prevent the Diocese from moving forward with its building plans.

“We believe the entire property should be landmarked,” said Laura Friedman, president of Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, which opposes the development. “We are against (the Episcopal Diocese) landmarking what they want.”

Kowalski says the Diocese sorely needs the money the development would generate, to keep the 121,000-square-foot Cathedral afloat.

“What am I supposed to do,” he said. “Just let it fall down and crumble?”

The Diocese says it has deferred at least $100 million work that was left unfinished after the Cathedral endured a fire, in 2001, and runs annual budget deficits that exceed $1 million.

The new buildings could bring in roughly $1 million a year, officials said.

Friedman, though is calling the church’s bluff.

“There’s a lot of money in that church,” Friedman said. “We question if they’ve explored all of their options.”

Councilwoman Inez Dickens, whose district is home to the Cathedral, said through a spokesman that she will wait to see where the local Community Board stands.

The board is scheduled to meet with church officials at the end of the month.

“We of the board want to landmark the campus,” said the Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, the board chairwoman. “We want to maintain the history of that campus. We should negotiate a way to develop and preserve the campus.”