Cathedral's residential expansion project draws ire

March 21, 2012 4:38:09 AM PDT
A plan to build an apartment building right next to to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is being met with opposition.

The iconic gothic cathedral, the largest in the world, sits on an 11-acre tract of land along Amsterdam Avenue. But the financial burden has led church officials to lease some of that land to apartment buildings, and that is not sitting well with some. St. John the Divine is the base of New York's Episcopal diocese, and it's annual blessing of the animals is a sight to behold. To run the cathedral alone costs $9 million a year. And after an enormous fire gutted the north transept and damaged the organ in 2001, cathedral officials realized they needed a steady stream of income. "We have a ongoing structural deficit of millions of dollars every year," the Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski said. So in 2008, Avalon Morningside Park opened its doors. The 20-story glass tower has nearly 300 apartment units and generates $2.5 million a year in income for the cathedral. It sits on the far corner of the cathedral, overlooking Morningside Park. But the latest project will be front and center. The Equity Residence building will be built where a metal shed now stands, right next to the cathedral. "If, in fact, funding is the driver, and I certainly can't question completely the need for funding, but one would wonder if this is, perhaps, the best fit for the site," preservation consultant Gregory Dietrich said. "Which is this idea of for-profit residential development going on next to a cathedral." Rev. Kowalski faces the criticism head on, saying it would be worse to have the cathedral fall further in debt. "You can injure an institution in many, many ways," he said. "Allowing it to become financially crippled is a very good way of injuring an institution. And we've turned that around." The cathedral and its property are not landmarked, so there is little that can be done to stop the project. Residents will just have to get used to a new neighbor. The Equity Residence building is scheduled to break ground in 2013.

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