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Unfinished at the Cathedral

The Wall Street Journal – April 12, 2012

Amsterdam Avenue Cathedral of St. John the Divine, City Landmark

The cathedral viewed from Amsterdam Avenue

For decades, New York City has considered designating the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as a landmark. But city landmark officials wanted to wait until the cathedral—under construction since 1892—was “finished.”
[BLOCK] Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal

The cathedral viewed from Amsterdam Avenue

But talk about landmark status for the perpetually unfinished Episcopal church is starting to percolate again, as developers ready plans for a new apartment building on leased cathedral property along 113th Street in Morningside Heights.

Real-estate firm Equity Residential hopes to start construction on the 15-story apartment building next year. The new structure’s footprint would be some 70 feet north of the cathedral itself, replacing large metal sheds and parking spaces in the area now.

Church officials maintain that completing its “real-estate initiative”—as they call an apartment building already open at the southeast corner of the cathedral property as well as plans for another one on the north side—are an economic necessity to provide revenue for the cash-strapped cathedral.

The real-estate income “has a huge impact on our capacity both to operate the cathedral, maintain our mission and, really importantly, do the work we need to do on the cathedral building itself,” said Stephen Facey, the cathedral’s executive vice president. Now that the real-estate initiative is almost complete, he said the cathedral could renew discussion about landmark status for the cathedral and the rest of its grounds.

Some preservationists and area residents argue that such overtures already will be too late.

“It’s just very unfortunate that what was a beautiful open space is now going to be taken up with some commercial development,” said Christabel Gough, an officer of the volunteer group Society for Architecture of the City. “What we’re concerned about is being able to see the cathedral.”

Efforts to landmark the cathedral are as storied as the imposing building itself. The Landmarks Preservation Commission first formally considered designating it shortly after city landmark legislation was enacted in 1966, and it placed the entire 11.3-acre cathedral campus—also known as “the close”—under consideration in 1979. But on both occasions, the commission decided to hold off on the landmark designation until the cathedral was “finished.”

In 2003, the commission decided it was time. It also decided to remove the campus’s two future building sites from landmark consideration to help the cathedral raise enough money to pay for repairs.

Though the cathedral endorsed the commission’s decision, some neighbors, led by then-City Council member Bill Perkins, objected. They argued that designating the cathedral a landmark while keeping sites on its campus open to development was inadequate.

“If the cathedral and the close deserve to be protected as landmarked, then why did the city exempt two elements of the landmark?” said Michael Henry Adams, an aide to Mr. Perkins, now a state senator.

Mr. Perkins persuaded his colleagues to unanimously reject the commission’s proposal for St. John the Divine, a power little used by the council. Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the council’s rejection, but the council overrode this as well, a vote even rarer than overturning the commission’s initial plan.

The moves and countermoves left the cathedral still without landmark protection, and the commission hasn’t taken any major steps toward landmarking the cathedral or its campus since 2003. But the commission now is “actively reviewing the timeline for designating the important historic resources at the site,” according to landmarks spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon.

Since 2003, the cathedral has moved ahead with its development plans but only on the two sites that the commission had voted to remove from landmark consideration.

It awarded a 99-year lease to AvalonBay Communities Inc. for construction of a 20-story apartment building at the corner of Morningside Drive and Cathedral Parkway, which was completed in 2008. The building provides $2.7 million in annual income for the cathedral, according to Mr. Facey.

At the leased site on the north side of the campus between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, Equity Residential selected Handel Architects to design the planned apartment building and hopes to start construction in early 2013, depending on when building permits and construction documents are received.

Cathedral officials have set certain restrictions for the new building, including holding the new development’s height to about 145 feet—the same as the eave line of the cathedral—and protecting certain street views of the cathedral.

The new building “will respect the architectural legacy of the cathedral, but anything designed and built will be ‘modern’ and not neo-Gothic or a mini-cathedral,” the Very Rev. James Kowalski, the cathedral’s dean, said in an interview. He said the building’s design “should be available for review in the next few months.”

Overall, Dean Kowalski said he supports landmarking St. John the Divine. “I think having the cathedral landmarked just clarifies what most people think anyway,” he said.

Mr. Perkins said he is willing to work with cathedral officials on alternative ways for them to meet their financial needs, but he hasn’t changed his stance since 2003 on wanting the entire campus landmarked.

“My position today is basically the same,” he said recently.