The company working to develop two controversial 15-story apartment buildings on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine has dropped out of the project—but that won’t stop the buildings from being built.
The developer, Equity Residential, was occupied with other ventures, said Rev. James Kowalski, the dean of the cathedral. “We’ve been trying, particularly in this economy, to find a developer who’s ready to go to a lease,” he said. “They’ve decided they have some other projects that are easier for them to consummate.”
Still, construction will go on, Kowalski said. “We’re in conversation right now with another developer ... who’s talking to us and saying, ‘We like this project a lot,’” he said.
The residential development, which would occupy the north side of the cathedral’s grounds on 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, has riled up critics, who say the buildings are too large to be so close to the world’s largest cathedral. St. John officials say the revenue generated from building tenants is needed to stabilize the institution’s rocky finances.
“We’ve done everything we could have done to balance the budget,” including layoffs, Kowalski said at a public meeting in February. “If we don’t find a way to pay for the mission of the cathedral, we’re going to go out of business.”
The plans and architect for the development will remain the same, as will the cathedral’s agreement to take up only a limited volume of open space. “As we’ve been developing this, we’ve come up with some architectural ideas that actually are smaller than even what we said we’d do,” Kowalski said.
The change in developer is not swaying the main opponents of the project. “They intend on building the same thing. They’re looking for someone else to do it for them,” said Harry Schwartz, a leader of the Friends of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The Friends are an offshoot of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, which has led the opposition to the project.
The Friends had been doubly concerned about Equity Residential’s involvement on the project because the Chicago-based firm is owned by controversial investor Sam Zell, the owner of the Tribune Company who is known for his harsh criticism of unions. The St. John project would have included union labor under Equity Residential.
Schwartz said he thought that Zell’s reputation would have generated bad publicity. “People are savvy in this neighborhood,” he said. “Enough people know about his history with labor unions and the newspaper field to be shocked.”
To combat the development, the Friends have also submitted a nomination of the cathedral close to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Treasures list. If approved, Schwartz said, its spot on the list “doesn’t have any legal force, but it has a certain kind of symbolic value ... if a national organization considers this a treasure,” he said.
Schwartz said he expected to hear back from the National Trust early next year.
The Friends have been tabling once a month for several months in Morningside Heights, handing out leaflets and asking people to sign petitions against the development.
Update: An earlier version of this story reported that the Friends of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine were applying for recognition by the National Register of Historic Places. After publication, Gregory Dietrich, an adviser to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, clarified that the Friends are applying to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.