The Other Controversy at Ground Zero: Church vs. State Over Tiny Site

st nicholas wtc The Other Controversy at Ground Zero: Church vs. State Over Tiny SiteA bitterly cold wind tore across the 50th floor of One World Trade Center on Dec. 5, yet the crews in hard hats kept their pace, driving the most important building in the city skyward a floor a week, putting to rest years of complaints about indecision and inaction at the world’s most famous construction site.

Hundreds of feet below, on the other side of the 16-acre site, nearly 1,000 Greek Orthodox congregants had gathered for the annual vespers honoring St. Nicholas. The faithful crowded about the trailers, heavy machinery and sundry materiel of ground zero, preparing for a ceremony they had undertaken annually ever since the attacks of Sept. 11 destroyed their tiny church honoring the patron of sailors, bankers and bakers. TV crews stood ready to film.

Three Port Authority officials told them to cut.

“In nine years, we’d never seen anything like it,” the Rev. Mark Arey, a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, told The Observer last week. “They were hiding their badges; they were clearly uncomfortable doing this. Only when one of our priests put in a direct call to Chris Ward did they relent.”

Mr. Ward, the executive director of the bistate Port Authority, has had to answer many such calls since taking over in 2008. All ask the same thing: Why has the authority reneged on a three-year-old deal with the church to give it a grand new home at 130 Liberty Street, something promised personally by Governor George Pataki back in 2004?

The church has found every opportunity, including within the recent “ground zero mosque” mania, to remind everyone of its plight. The December vespers were another deliberate reminder, a mingling of protest and sacrality. “Church left out of 9/11 renewal,” declared the next day’s USA Today. (The local church had agreed to no media at the vespers, prompting the Port Authority’s intervention.)

Now, even with all the recent progress at the once international punch line, the church last week filed a federal lawsuit that could bring everything at the site to a halt. Again.

 

In 1916, a growing Greek community bought an old four-story, wood-framed tavern at 155 Cedar Street; placed a belfry on top; and called it St. Nicholas. It was the only religious institution destroyed on 9/11.

Well before it was decided what would become of the rest of the site, it was agreed that the church would be rebuilt. As the site’s master plan began to take shape, the church was granted a more prominent plot at 130 Liberty Street, atop the Vehicle Security Center. “It always seemed like it was a settled issue where it was going to be,” a former Port Authority official said. “It just kept getting inherited and passed off from one group to another. It wasn’t until later when they really realized what that would mean, building on top of the security center.”

Like God directing Noah, the message the church took from the Pataki administration was one of trust and deliverance. But instead of captaining the ark, the church was but cargo. “Other than us pledging to rebuild the church, that was all that was said,” a Pataki administration official told The Observer. “It never got down to that level of detail.” (The former governor continues to lobby on the church’s behalf.)

As plans were drawn and redrawn between the numerous stakeholders, the church in 2005 set about creating schematics for its own project, hiring architect Nicholas Koutsomitis. The plans called for a new chapel along with a non-denominational interfaith center–24,000 square feet total.

One person described it as “trading a brownstone for St. Patrick’s.” An obvious exaggeration, it belies the concern many public officials, especially those post-Pataki, had when they saw the project’s parameters. Still, the church has a point. In light of the development rights at 155 Cedar, it is not building anything larger than it would legally be allowed to. “We were never asking for more,” Mr. Koutsomitis said, even though were he building on the old site, he would effectively be replacing the four-story parish with a 20-story one.

 

In spring 2006, the Pataki administration and the Port Authority reached its deal with Larry Silverstein, the twin towers’ leaseholder, to build out the site, but an agreement was never formally reached with the church. When the Spitzer administration began to grapple with what its predecessor had promised, it was somewhat taken aback but still happy to work with St. Nicholas.

Even as plans were drawn up to bring JPMorgan Chase to the former Deutsche Bank building site behind the church, its new tower was designed with a “beer belly” for its trading floors overhanging the church, quite the accommodation by one of the world’s most powerful banks–and yet another gonzo project of the real estate boom. 

Then the BlackBerrys began lighting up.

A morning meeting between the church, JPMorgan and government officials was just starting in a conference room inside 115 Broadway on March 10, 2009, when phones began buzzing. They were checked and set aside, as preparations continued, but the buzzing continued unabated: The Times‘ Client 9 scoop was about to upend everything.

“I thought it was a prank at first,” a person present said.

The meeting was canceled in preparation for Governor Spitzer’s press conference. The church continued to wait, continued to make its plans.