Reopening the Close: St. John the Divine unveils latest development proposal

See a version of this article, with images, as it recently appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper.

In the 120 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has gained repute for its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture but also its perpetual state of incompletion. Now, development of the cathedral grounds, called the “close,” is continuing the Cathedral’s association with construction. A deal with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003, which led the City Council to overturn the Cathedral’s landmark designation, allowed St. John’s to lease sites on the north and southeast perimeters of the close to developers. A twenty-story residential building on the Southeast Site, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive, opened in 2008 amid criticism of its size and aesthetic. Plans are progressing to break ground in 2013 on the North Site, along 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, for a controversial second residential tower.

At a recent public forum, the Cathedral unveiled initial massing studies to over 60 community members. Cathedral Dean James Kowalski explained that, despite fundraising and efforts to contain administrative costs, the Cathedral operates at a 10% deficit. With ongoing financial obligations, including repairs to the church building, Kowalski asserted that development was necessary to “preserve the economic future of the Cathedral.”

George Kruse, Vice President of Development for Equity Residential, addressed community concerns about including subsidized housing, involving local businesses and consultants, and facilitating local residents’ access to labor union membership. In particular, he noted that of the 400 units in the planned building, 20% will be reserved for affordable housing. Gary Handel of Handel Architects, LLP, most recently known for the World Trade Center Memorial, presented the firm’s massing studies; further details of the building’s design remain in progress.

Several attendees praised efforts to minimize the building’s bulk and to use the site, which currently houses stonecutting sheds from the 1980s, to integrate the close with the surrounding community. Still, many residents of Morningside Heights expressed such concerns as the building’s potential to increase neighborhood crowding, the environmental impact on traffic, noise, and light, and the visual effects on both the exterior and interior of the church. One attendee informed the Cathedral that the North Site had formerly borne the scattered ashes of AIDS patients from St. Luke’s Hospital across the street. Community members also questioned the Cathedral’s claims of financial hardship, given the wealth of the larger Episcopalian diocese.

Michael Henry Adams spoke on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins, who opposes the construction proposal, and expressed his own conviction that the Cathedral property merits more respect as a world-class landmark. “If we were in Paris, at Notre Dame, would someone propose this?” he said. “The answer, of course, is no… This is not a sustainable proposition, for the Cathedral to keep taking the very thing that makes it so unique and extraordinary and diminishing it.”

After the meeting, Kowalski affirmed that the development plans stem not only from financial hardship but also from a weighing of costs and benefits. “I understand how special this property is, and how people believe that it should be like a park, but you’re talking about almost twelve acres of land, and you’re talking about two perimeter parcels. I actually think this is good stewardship,” he said. “I think you could make a very strong argument that if you didn’t need the money, you should still generate the revenue to fund other missions.”

Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant and adviser to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, was not convinced that the plans respected the Cathedral’s historical legacy and architectural significance. Echoing the requests of a number of attendees, he said, “One of the things I think is really important is that they continue to have meetings with the community. This certainly doesn’t satisfy anybody, just to see massing studies.”

Kowalski could not confirm whether the Cathedral intends to hold additional community forums, as he expects a short timeframe for the design process. “We’re really excited because the rental market is stronger than we thought it was,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see people living in the new building for probably a couple of years. But could it be started in six months or a year? I would hope so.”

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