In his last act as Port Authority executive director, Chris Ward signed off on a deal he has sworn for almost his entire tenure was impossible: the relocation of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at a site promised by Governor George Pataki, at 130 Liberty Street. Instead, he wanted it built at a smaller and less prominent site at 155 Cedar Street. The deal was reportedly brokered by Mr. Ward’s antagonist, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The main issue holding up the church was the Port’s insistence that building at 130 Liberty would cause an expensive and time-consuming reengineering of the Vehicle Screen Center, the heart of the new World Trade Center site that will check tourist and delivery vehicles before they enter the massive basement serving the 16-acre complex. The Port argued it would cost tens of millions of dollars and could set back the entire rebuilding at least a year, but a four-month independent engineering review found that the church could be built as planned with minimal new expenditures and no impact on the construction time table, where Towers 1 and 4 are set to open in 2013, along with the VSC.
The church had filed a lawsuit last December, and it was set to go to trial today. It had originally been located on Cedar Street, but Governor Pataki promised the new location as a symbolic gesture that would give it pride of place on the southern edge of the new Memorial and along a rebuilt Greenwich Street
“We lost St. Nicholas Church in the destruction of September 11 and for too long its future has been uncertain,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “Rebuilding St. Nicholas Church, with a nondenominational bereavement center, is not just good news for the Greek Orthodox community, but for all New Yorkers. With this agreement, we are continuing New York’s collective healing, restoration, and resurgence.”
As The Observer reported in February, part of the problem surrounding the church project was ambition. With tacit approval from Governor Pataki to rebuild, the church went ahead and planned a 40,000 square foot religious center. That is far larger than the four-story church that had been destroyed on 9/11, but technically within the development rights of what the church could have built on its land, even if that would have been a 20-story sliver building.
Mr. Ward, who could potentially be gearing up for a a mayoral run, seemed happy just to be done with the matter. “I am delighted that we were able to find a way to rebuild the Church with no impact on the construction schedule at the World Trade Center,” he said. “The Church is an important and appropriate addition to the site, and will serve New Yorkers of all faiths for generations to come.” Some in the church community had accused him of opposing the project because the Port chief has spoken of being an atheist in the past.