Churchs Troubles Typify Ground Zero Delays
July 3, 2008
Churchs Troubles Typify Ground Zero Delays
By CHARLES V. BAGLI
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
churchs 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 churchs 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. Theyre 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 stones 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
churchs 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 churchs foundation at about $35 million.
In keeping with the archbishops 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 banks 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 churchs 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. Were talking about a
modest facility, larger than what was there before, but modest by any standard.