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

“The Port did not want this fight,” a person working at ground zero said. “Let me underscore that–they did not want this at all.”

In one of his first acts as the authority’s executive director, in early 2008, Chris Ward, a Paterson appointee, announced he was preparing a report that would identify all major issues at ground zero and create a timeline for addressing them. Issued in July of that year, it was full of bad news, but Mr. Ward promised to forge a path forward.

Just weeks later, eager to show signs of progress, he announced an agreement with the church for its land. St. Nicholas would receive $20 million toward its new building, as well as up to $40 million for additional infrastructure work to support a larger church structure atop the security center.

This is where things began to unravel, in no small part due to the recession ushered in by Lehman Brothers’ collapse a few months later.

The July announcement was never an official deal, and it was set aside while the authority focused on other matters at the site. Both sides continued to negotiate and worked on drawing up plans to finalize the deal. Father Arey said the church was accommodating throughout, scaling down its plans when the Port Authority asked. The Port Authority argues that whenever it reached a tentative agreement, “the goal posts would move,” spokesman John Kelly said. “At a certain point, negotiations had to end or risk delaying the WTC project further.”

In March 2009, the matter came to a head. The authority sent a standard term sheet and asked for comment. According to the church’s lawsuit, the document’s real purpose was to find signs of disagreement so the Port Authority could cancel the deal. Mr. Kelly said the church had ample warning, and that it was demanding the impossible: control over the design of the park and security center.

Negotiations ceased, the deal was off, and the two sides have barely talked since. Mr. Ward announced that the authority would go ahead with construction of the security center, and St. Nicholas was welcome to build on its original land once the authority was done with it.

 

As is so often the case at ground zero, conspiracy theories abound.

“First they asked us to shrink the church, which basically meant taking off the cross,” Mr. Koutsomitis, the architect, said. “Then they move us back to 155 Cedar. I think someone decided they did not want a church on this prominent site at ground zero.”

Some believe Larry Silverstein wants the site. Others point to Mr. Ward. George Demos, a onetime unsuccessful G.O.P. Congressional candidate from Long Island, blasted a press release the day after the December 2010 vespers ceremony: “Atheist Blocking Ground Zero Church.” Mr. Ward had once told a trade publication, “I’m probably the biggest non-believer in terms of religion. If you are not going to believe in God, you have to be smarter than the people who do, because you have to answer tougher questions about why you don’t.” He was responding to a question about why he has a master’s in divinity from Harvard, a fact left out by critics. (The church’s suit also includes the quotation.)

As things stand now, more than two and a half years after the July agreement, a federal ruling in the church’s favor could create months of delays at ground zero and add hundreds of millions in costs. 

The authority won’t even entertain that scenario–though those involved in the fight over the years describe the church as tough and aggressive. They had lost their home. The other stakeholders were getting new ones, so why not them?

“They failed to realize the world had changed again,” the former Port Authority official said. “They were used to getting so much.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo