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