The playground and rose garden are no more in the southeast corner of the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. They’ve been replaced by pile drivers, whose pounding drowns out the mewling of the peacocks that prowl the church’s lot, called the “close.” Construction has begun on a market-rate rental building, after the failure of a variety of preservationist salvos that included calling for the entire grounds as well as the church to be landmarked. The cathedral’s trustees have signed a 99-year lease with the developers, AvalonBay.
As has become commonplace in these situations, the neighborhood isn’t happy, but what’s unusual here is the degree of rancor. Morningside Heights is a tight-knit neighborhood, and one of the few areas of prime Manhattan that still has some more or less middle-class apartment prices. “That [the trustees] could throw the close away—it’s dumbfounding,” says Carolyn Kent of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee. “They’re ruining the views and cheapening the history and mission of the cathedral!” She’s calling on the National Trust for Historic Preservation to intervene here (and on another part of the close optioned by Columbia University), continuing to fight even as those piles are driven into the ground.
“It’s a nice problem to have that this many people love and care for the cathedral, but we have a fiduciary responsibility,” says Dr. James Kowalski, the cathedral’s dean. “A cathedral with financial troubles [won’t] be around in 100 years.” He says the church, which is constantly repairing its aged physical plant, needs to pay bills and fund its arts and community programs. (The eighties effort to complete its never-finished towers ground to a halt several years ago.) The tower will bring in $2.5 million a year, and at the contract’s end, it will become church property. He adds that 20 percent of the units are set aside for affordable housing, and the structures will be situated so as not to diminish the cathedral’s prominence. Besides, not everyone in the neighborhood objects. “It’s sort of like if you run out of money, and you have a $2 million apartment, you need to sell and move,” says congregant and neighbor Ed Napier. “The cathedral has no option … They can’t even light the place in winter.”