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Church’s Troubles Typify Ground Zero Delays

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/nyregion/03trade.html?hp July 3, 2008 Church’s Troubles Typify Ground Zero Delays By CHARLES V. BAGLI The story of the tiny
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 3 8:51 AM

      July 3, 2008
      Church’s Troubles Typify Ground Zero Delays

      The story of the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox
      Church and its efforts to rebuild after the
      collapse of the World Trade Center is one of
      well-intentioned promises that led to endless
      negotiations, design disputes, delays and mounting costs.

      It is, in other words, a microcosm of the
      seven-year, $16 billion, problem-plagued effort
      to reconstruct the entire trade center site.

      Within a month of the attack on the trade center,
      Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek
      Orthodox Church in America, pledged that the
      four-story church would rise “on the same sacred
      spot as a symbol of determined faith.” Gov. George E. Pataki agreed.

      But today, the church exists only on blueprints.
      The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,
      the agency overseeing reconstruction, has not
      finalized the exchange of land needed to provide
      the congregation with a new home near ground
      zero. Until that deal is completed, the authority
      cannot proceed with building the southern
      foundation wall for the entire site, and cannot
      draw up designs for a bomb screening center for
      buses and trucks that would go under the new church.

      And because security is crucial, delays in the
      vehicle security center mean delays in other parts of the site.

      On Monday, the Port Authority acknowledged that
      many parts of the sprawling reconstruction
      project — including the new PATH station, a 9/11
      memorial and several office towers — faced delays
      of a year or more and cost overruns into the
      billions. With 26 interrelated projects squeezed
      onto 16 acres in Lower Manhattan, a delay or
      dispute at one project is almost certain to
      create problems at adjoining projects, the report concluded.

      The Greek Orthodox Church offers one example, but
      there are others. For instance, the design of the
      $2.5 billion World Trade Center Transportation
      Hub is being substantially revised, even though
      construction is under way, making it impossible
      to accurately predict its completion date or
      costs. That in turn has made it difficult to
      predict the timetable and budget for a half-dozen
      other projects that depend on the hub.

      The church has for several years wanted to build
      the new St. Nicholas a block northeast of its
      original home on Cedar Street. But doing so would
      require trading land with the Port Authority, and
      an agreement has proven elusive. In the meantime,
      the church designed a domed marble complex that
      would be six times the size of its original home, and far more expensive.

      Both St. Nicholas and the Port Authority are
      eager to resolve the issues quickly, especially
      since the authority plans to pick a contractor to
      build the southern perimeter wall for the entire
      site this summer, and it needs title to the
      church’s property to proceed. But officials
      involved in the talks say there remain
      substantial differences over the size of the
      church complex and the amount of money the Port
      Authority will contribute to building it.

      “We understand the church’s mission,” said Chris
      Ward, executive director of the Port Authority.
      “It is part of the history of the site and we
      want to maintain that. We just need to put the project in the right context.”

      John E. Pitsikalis, president of the St. Nicholas
      parish council, said his congregation of 70
      families wanted both a new home and a place where
      visitors and tourists, regardless of their
      religion, could commemorate the lives lost on
      Sept. 11. Most of the families currently worship
      at SS. Constantine and Helen Cathedral in
      Downtown Brooklyn, where their priest, the Rev. John Romas, was assigned.

      “My main concern is having a church for our
      community as soon as possible,” Mr. Pitsikalis
      said. “Our congregation has not had a building
      for almost seven years. They’re restless.”

      Mr. Pitsikalis said his family is linked to the
      origins of St. Nicholas Church. In 1919, five
      families, including his grandfather, raised
      $25,000 to buy a tavern at 155 Cedar Street and
      converted it into a church. Before that, the
      congregation had conducted services in a hotel
      owned by his grandfather at Greenwich and Liberty
      Streets, where the former Deutsche Bank building
      is now being demolished. It was a neighborhood of
      Lebanese, Greek and Syrian immigrants, filled
      with small businesses and produce stands.

      The sliver of a church, with its four-story
      whitewashed exterior and lavishly decorated
      interior, survived even as the World Trade Center
      was built in the 1960s, just to the north. On
      Wednesdays, the church opened its doors to the
      public, and dozens of office workers and tourists
      found it a soothing refuge from the hurly-burly
      of Lower Manhattan. Although many of its
      congregants moved to the suburbs, St. Nicholas
      rebuffed offers for the property from the
      Milstein real estate family, which owned the
      parking lot that surrounded the church.

      Its quiet existence ended on Sept. 11, 2001, when
      the church was crushed by the fall of the south tower.

      The congregation quickly vowed to rebuild, but
      from the beginning it realized it would be a
      “small player” in the huge undertaking of
      rebuilding the trade center, said Nicholas P.
      Koutsomitis, an architect who prepared a master plan for St. Nicholas.

      In 2005, the Lower Manhattan Development
      Corporation bought the Milsteins’ parking lot —
      less than a half acre — for $59 million. Its plan
      was to transform the land into Liberty Park,
      stretching west from Greenwich to West Street,
      between Cedar and Liberty Streets.

      But the church retained the 1,200-square-foot
      parcel where its building once stood. Initially,
      the Port Authority suggested that St. Nicholas
      move to the northeast corner of Cedar and West
      Streets, a stone’s throw away. But parish leaders
      and the archbishop balked, saying that the site
      would be more than 20 feet above street level
      because of the screening center that is to be
      constructed below, and that they wanted a more
      prominent location on Greenwich Street.

      The church settled on an alternative, at the
      southwest corner of Liberty and Greenwich
      Streets, in front of the soon-to-be-demolished
      Deutsche Bank building. The idea was to swap the
      church’s land on Cedar Street for that spot, which is seven times larger.

      But a deal was never struck, as negotiations were
      interrupted time and again by an array of
      disasters and distractions, including the
      discovery of human remains atop the former
      Deutsche Bank tower in 2005 and a fire at the
      bank tower in which two firefighters died in 2007.

      There have also been design problems. The
      entrance to the screening center was moved to
      Cedar Street, just below the spot the church
      wanted. That would require the church to install
      an expensive blast-proof concrete slab beneath
      its building to protect it from a possible
      explosion on the screening center ramps. The
      authority estimates the cost of the church’s foundation at about $35 million.

      In keeping with the archbishop’s vision, Mr.
      Koutsomitis planned for a roughly
      24,000-square-foot marble church and adjoining
      spiritual center at an estimated cost of up to
      $40 million. But church leaders say they have
      raised only $4 million. JPMorgan Chase has agreed
      to give $10 million toward the rebuilding of St.
      Nicholas, as part of the bank’s tentative deal to
      build an office tower on the site of the Deutsche Bank building.

      The Port Authority and the church are reluctant
      to talk about their negotiations publicly. But
      officials familiar with the talks say they have
      taken on a familiar refrain in light of current
      efforts to eliminate some of the grander and more
      costly elements of the $2.5 billion transit hub.

      The church wants the authority to provide roughly
      $55 million toward the estimated $75 million cost
      of rebuilding St. Nicholas. The Port Authority in
      turn wants the church to scale back its plans,
      move the location slightly and raise more money privately.

      “The church’s role in the rebuilding effort is
      complementary, not adversarial,” Mr. Koutsomitis
      said. “We need a resolution on the land so we can
      move on with the design. We’re talking about a
      modest facility, larger than what was there before, but modest by any standard.”
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