Opinion | Columns

Compromise on the cathedral

  • Buttress and a hard place | Saint John the Divine faces a choice between full landmark status and financial troubles, or developing on its northern plot, which would improve finances but mar its historic ground.

In the seemingly perpetual squabble over the future of Saint John the Divine, it is not difficult to conjure up doomsday scenarios. In one scenario, the cathedral, which ranks among the largest Christian churches in the world and is a regular stop on walking tours of Morningside Heights, crawls helplessly into the insatiable maw of neighborhood development and gentrification, dwarfed by towering developments as the side chapels are transformed into luxury condominiums. In another world, a money-starved cathedral, having lost the income it would have generated from the controversial apartment complex developers are building on its north side, collapses into insolvency and robs the neighborhood of one of its most precious historical treasures.       

In case it is still unclear, despite the hyperbole, Saint John the Divine seems to lose either way. It is therefore not surprising to see the two Community Board 9 resolutions concerning the cathedral, both of which passed at the end of last week’s general board meeting, elicit an outcry from local preservationists. Although the first resolution, which was passed almost unanimously, calls for an environmental impact assessment on the development site, the second proposes a compromise that board member Brad Taylor, president of Friends of Morningside Park, told me was a “three-quarters of a loaf” deal. The board proposed granting landmark status to the entire cathedral—with the exception of the northern plot, on which the development stands. In exchange, the Brodsky Organization, which is responsible for the apartment complex, will ensure that 35 percent of the building costs are contracted out to minority, women, and local-owned businesses.

In conversations last week, both Taylor and Laura Friedman, president of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, warned me that the development would compromise the architectural beauty of the building. I think they’re probably right. But given the cathedral’s current circumstances, and as much as it may hurt, preservationists should hail this as a victory rather than a defeat.

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: The preservationist camp has very little leverage to bring about full landmark status for the entire cathedral plot. Mark Levine, City Council member for District 7, told me that because the developers are not proposing a change in height or use with respect to the surrounding buildings, they do not require a zoning ordinance from the city. So full landmark status is not an option.

Furthermore, the leaders of Saint John the Divine have told Spectator that they need development to shore up the cathedral’s shaky finances, and a full landmark status would subject any attempt to build on that plot to a rigorous review, likely discouraging any future attempts. Sure, the review process would not preclude the development going forward, but why would any developer sink money into respecting strict landmark regulations when they could go elsewhere? Ultimately, those supporting full landmark status are caught in the ironic—indeed, paradoxical—bind of potentially losing everything in their pursuit of everything.

All things considered, the recent resolutions are a remarkable achievement. If the impact statement shows that the complex will seriously harm the environmental integrity of the neighborhood, preservationists will have not only more evidence for their cause, but also the leverage required to spark a broader community strategy for saving the cathedral without outside development. Even if the apartments go up with a clean bill of health—which Taylor is confident will not happen—the remainder of the cathedral will be effectively protected against further encroachment, and the development will spark jobs in construction, management, and maintenance for MWL firms.

If this were merely an issue of making a profit, I would fully support tearing those apartments to the ground. In our haste for financial gain, we must not sacrifice the aspects of the neighborhood that make it truly unique and truly ours. Indeed, you need only spend a few minutes inside the cathedral to be convinced of its sublime beauty. The development risks blocking the warm, filtered sunlight that illuminates the arched interior of the cathedral, and would undoubtedly be an eyesore for anyone attempting to admire the church from the northern side. But years of allocating funds to charitable causes like food pantries and mission trips have starved the budget for physical repairs—we must also consider the ultimate survival of the cathedral.

The recent Community Board resolutions provide arguably the best compromise that preservationists can hope for under the circumstances. However, for those who are still unsatisfied and wish to ensure that the well-being of the cathedral is not held hostage by economic uncertainty, consider this a call to action. The structure of the city’s archdiocese means the cathedral cannot turn to the bishop for funding, making a grassroots fundraising effort arguably the last, best hope for an untouched cathedral. For now, however, we must deal with the realities on the ground and urge Council member Levine to support the Community Board’s proposal.

Chris Meyer is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. He is a former deputy news editor for Spectator. Outside the Bubble runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Why isn't the city of New York helping to pay, restore, and maintain the cathedral?. Why isn't the national and international Episcopal Church helping to maintain the building? This is the largest gothic cathedral in the world and the city is letting it go to pot.

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CU_Alum posted on

The City does not spend public money to support churches. It's a First Amendment thing.

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em posted on

balanced and well written piece Mr. Meyer. tks

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