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Columbia Spectator Staff

Carolyn Kent has spent many a Saturday looking for converts.

She doesn't ask for much, besides a signature on a petition and agreement with a point she has pursued with single-minded passion for the last two years: that no one be allowed to build on the land that surrounds the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

"A great cathedral has to rise up out of the earth with majestic invitations to all to stand inspired," she said. "Development on the land will destroy the beauty of the church."

Kent, a co-founder of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, has been campaigning against the development of the Cathedral for years. But her campaign reached new heights this May when St. John's Board of Directors announced it was allowing development of two areas of its property in order to raise funds for the financially burdened Cathedral.

Under the deal, Avalon Bay, a for-profit building group, will lease part of the southeast corner to build an apartment building. In a separate agreement, Columbia has secured the option to build on property directly north of the Cathedral, which currently houses a parking lot.

And while the community is generally committed to preserving the character of the neighborhood, they have argued over the best way to do so.

While some, including State Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell (D-Morningside Heights) and some members of the CB9 preservation committee, have rallied around Kent, others argue that St. John the Divine should decide for itself how and when it develops its funds.

"The Cathedral is a priceless resource for our community," said Curtis Arluck, a leader of the Broadway Democrats. It is "in desperate financial trouble. It is up to the Cathedral to decide what is going to happen on its sites ... [not] Carolyn Kent or a group of people with no knowledge of the finances."

And with months until the actual plans for the Cathedral are announced, the debate will go on for at least the near future.

Competing Needs:

The development fight is about money: who has it, where to get it, and how much the Cathedral needs to overcome its debt that has been piling up for the last several years.

"We have a long way to go before we can be the Cathedral we want to be," said Reverend Doctor James Kowalski, Dean of St. John the Divine.

The Cathedral reported that it has been running an $800,000 annual deficit, which has forced it to lay off staff and whittle down its endowment to stay afloat. Its financial troubles were exacerbated in 2001, when a fire damaged part of the unfinished nave.

The development will provide St. John the Divine a constant stream of rental income from Columbia and Avalon Bay, which will go a long way toward solving its problems, Kowalski said.

Others who work at the Cathedral see the development as an investment in the future.

"I have a real interest in knowing the Cathedral is going to be around 500 or 600 years from now," said Tom Fedorek, GS '80, a tour guide at the Cathedral. "That is what the development is going to provide. A steady stream of income that will ensure 600 years from now St. John the Divine will still be standing."

But some wonder whether St. John's is choosing the lesser of two evils.

"I'm not saying it's easy for St. John the Divine to stay afloat," said Tom DeMott, a local resident and member of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a group that opposes Columbia's expansion into West Harlem. "But ... Columbia and [Avalon Bay] ... should not be developing on the grounds."
DeMott and others suggest there are better ways to raise money for the Cathedral. Those who oppose the development accuse St. John the Divine of not trying to fundraise in other ways.

"The cathedral is under errant leadership," Kent said. "The dean is disinclined to raise money in a way that would not be harmful to the Cathedral."

Kent has been pushing the Cathedral to launch a national fundraising campaign, tithing Episcopalians across the country and courting wealthy donors.

"There's been no public discussion of the financial crisis," she said. "There are much better ways to raise money" than building on the Cathedral.

But Kowalski says a capital campaign would be impossible. "People won't give if they don't think [the Cathedral] has a future," he said. "Even if we raised $1 million one year, what about next year?"

Beyond the Close:

Part of the questioning over the development stems not from the project itself, but from who will be doing the developing.

Some see Columbia's role in the development in the context of its wider expansion issues.

Building within Cathedral grounds is "part of Columbia's expansion plan," DeMott said. The university "has never stopped expanding, never stopped trying to buy property."

Kowalski conceded that Columbia's role in the development might make it more difficult to win support.

"People in the neighborhood are extremely suspicious of Columbia," he said.

Columbia administrators have said that they have not decided what the University will build on the Cathedral grounds, if anything at all. Under the nine-year option, it retains rights to build in the land, as long as it follows specified guidelines. University spokeswoman Liz Golden said it is "committed to appropriate development."

Developing the Columbia site will be "difficult because it would have an impact on both the character of cathedral and the way one views the cathedral, and on St. Lukes," said Andrew Dolkart, a Columbia professor who has written about the architectural history of Morningside Heights. "It is challenging to design a good building" on that site.

Others are concerned that building for-profit housing on the Close-the area between 110th and 113th Streets from Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive-runs counter to the Cathedral's commitment to serving the poor.

"Should a profit-taking company, designing apartments for well-off tenants, be building on the Cathedral's land?" Kent asked.

The Cathedral has said that it also has grappled with these issues.

"The Cathedral had to make serious funding decisions," Kowalski said. "We tried to come up with a plan that would allow us to make revenues while providing rental options for the community ... use the revenue to create more options to do good over long periods of time."

But while some debate the merit of various builders and developers, for others, the problems remain regardless of the builder.

"It is what's being proposed, not who's proposing," Kent said.

A Question of Ownership:

At the heart of the development debate is the question of to whom the Cathedral really belongs.
"A church has a lot of owners or no owner," DeMott said. "At a certain point, those grounds become other than definable in real estate concepts."

For DeMott and others who oppose the development, the Cathedral's decision to develop is not just a bad decision, but one which would destroy not only the integrity of St. John the Divine but also the neighborhood.

"The cathedral standing by itself amidst its Close is a historic part of Morningside Heights," Dolkart said. Those who disagree with the development "are concerned about the future of the property itself, concerned about the impact on the neighborhood."

But while most agree that the Cathedral is a neighborhood staple, some argue that residents should not try to dictate how the Cathedral raises its funds.

"It's private land," said Barbara Hohol, a member of Support the Cathedral, which has advocated that the Cathedral do what it needs in order to sustain itself.

"That people think they are entitled to access to the Close because they've always had access to the Close is bizarre," she said.

This divide has shaped the way St. John the Divine does business for several years. In 2003, when the Cathedral and nearby residents first clashed over how much of the Cathedral should be given landmark status, which would have prevented development that did not strictly fit with the history and ideals of the Cathedral.

While some wanted the structure as well as its surrounding property to receive landmark status, the Cathedral's leadership wanted to apply the protection only to the building itself allowing surrounding property to be developed at will.

A fierce fight involving the city council, mayor, the landmarks preservation commission and area residents ultimately resulted in a decision not to landmark any part of the Cathedral.

"It was unfortunate," Kowalski said.

Others involved in the fight have yet to make up their minds.

"People are concerned and they could be concerned with what goes up in the neighborhood," said Brad Taylor, webmaster of a pro-Cathedral Web site and online petition. "But I urge people to wait until we have a complete set of plans" before taking action against the development.

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