When people talk about the old St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was detroyed on 9/11 when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto the four-story wood-framed rowhouse, one of the first things that comes up is its diminutive size, made all the moreso not only by what were once the city’s tallest buildings but also the church’s location in the middle of a vast parking lot.
Recently, The Observer chronicled the trials of the church, which remains unable to rebuild its parish following a very public spat with the Port Authority, the agency overseeing the ground zero reconstruction effort. Part of the problem that led St. Nicholas to file a lawsuit against the Port last month is that the agency claims the church kept asking for more money for its new project, a far larger church and interfaith community center. Church officials flatly deny this.
It turns out this is not the first time the church has been offered a large sum of money to move. A reader who used to work in government recently informed The Observer that Milstein Properties, one of the city’s grand old development families, had offered the church millions of dollars to relocate, along with an offer to build a new facility around the corner. (Milstein owned all the land around the church except for the church itself.)
A number of other properties on the block accepted the deal, including a Catholic Church, according to our reader. But not St. Nicholas. “It was considered a runaway church,” the official said.
Paul Milstein, who ran the company with his brother Seymour in those days, was said to have been in charge of the deal, though he passed away last year. His son, and the current head of the company, Howard Milstein, could not be reached for comment, as he is travelling.
The Reverand Mark Arey, the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, told The Observer that he did not have direct knowledge of the Milstein deal but he had heard about it from other church officials. “The church just never sold out,” Father Arey said. “Churches generally don’t sell out unless there’s a tremendous offer or a spectacular need.”
The Milsteins wound up selling the 18,889-square-foot property to the state in 2005 for $59 million–about as much money as the church is seeking from the Port for its new project. It was twice the amount that had been offered a year earlier, but the state acquiesced because the land was seen as essential to the construction of the vehicle security center at the new World Trade Center site. It is the exact same argument that has been made for taking the St. Nicholas property, though the Port has yet to pay for it. Whether it will remains to be seen, most likely in court.
UPDATE: A St. Nicholas parishioner writes in to say that the church has actually declined a number of offers over the years, including some predating the World Trade Center: “The church had ample opportunity to ‘vacate the premises,’ but chose to remain on its sacred and hallowed ground–until a spectacular need came along. The church placed its eternal integrity as a house of worship above the temporal value of real estate.”