The only house of worship in Battery Park City is winding down operations in anticipation of shutting entirely later this year. St. Joseph’s Chapel, located within the Gateway Plaza apartment complex, has been buffeted by exorbitant rent increases that the leadership of St. Peter’s Parish in the Financial District (of which the Chapel is an adjunct facility) views as untenable.
On Sunday, the parish bulletin contained a notice saying, “we have been in direct discussions with the landlord since last November in an effort to reach agreement on a sustainable level of rental payment. Unfortunately, we have not been able to come to an agreement. Consequently, we are now in discussion with the landlord for an early exit/termination of the lease.” Also on Sunday, the parish announced that the 10:30 am Sunday mass (and all weekday services) was being eliminated at the Chapel, effective immediately, with further schedule cuts likely to be announced soon.
The church now known as St. Joseph’s Chapel traces its roots back to the 1880s, when Maronite Christian immigrants from the Middle East populated the area near Rector and Greenwich Streets, and built a church there in what came to be known as “Little Syria.” (The Maronite Church is a branch of Roman Catholicism.) As the area developed over the next hundred years, the church was forced to move multiple times, to various addresses along Washington Street. Finally, after World War II, it landed on Cedar Street, but was forced to move once again in the early 1980s, when the site was cleared to make way for a parking facility at the World Trade Center. Thus it moved in 1983 to the newly constructed Gateway Plaza complex, where it has been hosting Catholic masses for 34 years, while also doubling as an occasional venue for Jewish services and functioning as an ad hoc community center, housing meetings for organizations such as the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association. Even today, the Chapel’s rich lineage is subtly attested to by stained-glass windows that contain Arabic-sounding names. These come from the original 1880s church.
But the Chapel’s most fundamental and enduring claim to historical value is related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the weeks and months that followed, the Chapel became a respite station for rescue personnel, and then for construction workers. As the Archdiocese of New York came to grips with the fact that Catholics were the most numerous group to have perished during the destruction of the World Trade Center, they recognized the need for a Catholic commemoration to the tragedy. St. Joseph’s Chapel seemed like a natural choice, and on May 22, 2005, then-Cardinal Egan presided over the Chapel’s dedication as, “the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero.” The newly refurbished Chapel housed numerous, newly commissioned works of art. In particular, there are statues of St. Michael (patron saint of police officers), St. Florian (patron saint of fire fighters), and St. Joseph (patron saint of workers), as well as a glass triptych of swords being beaten into plowshares.
The dilemma now facing the Chapel dates back to 2014, when the Chapel’s landlord, the LeFrak Organization (which owns Gateway Plaza) raised the rent for the space from $22 per square foot per year to $80. This near-quadrupling of costs (from a total annual rent of around $70,000, to more than $260,000) dealt a body blow to the Chapel’s finances. The jump appears to have resulted not so much from tough negotiating by the LeFrak team, who merely proposed a new rent they believed to reflect the space’s current value, as an inexplicable departure from custom by negotiators representing the Archdiocese, who had always in the past managed to limit rent hikes to modest increases.
But these circumstances were largely unknown to parishioners for two years, until details began to seep out informally in early 2016. At that point, congregants — who were being told for the first time that the Chapel might close — began to organize, in hopes of finding a way to save a house of worship to which they were passionately devoted. This group took the initiative in two ways: Reaching out directly to LeFrak, and also asking the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) to become involved. (The Authority, which owns the land beneath Gateway Plaza, and leases to LeFrak the acreage on which the giant residential complex sits, acts, in effect, as the landlord’s landlord and thus wields considerable influence in this situation.)
At this point, discussions began in earnest. After the personal intervention of BPCA chairman Dennis Mehiel, the LeFrak team offered to reduce the Chapel’s annual rent by more than $30,000 per year. But this proposal, while generous, would have rolled back only a small fraction of the 2014 increase. And, in the view of the leadership of St. Peter’s Parish, even this benefit paled beside the Chapel’s annual deficit of more than $300,000.
But Lefrak’s offer was also accompanied by a second, potentially more significant proposal. This overture opened the door for the BPCA to make concessions on the payments that LeFrak owes it, in the form of ground rent and so-called “payments in lieu of taxes.” (Such concessions would be couched within the broader context of the BPCA’s ongoing negotiations with LeFrak, in which the agency is offering to reduce future payments owed to it by the developer, in exchange for expanded and extended affordability protections for residential tenants.)
A LeFrak executive followed up on a negotiating session in January by writing to the parishioners who had kick-started the discussions, and also to Archdiocese of New York officials (who oversee all Catholic churches in Manhattan), that, “if the Church can approach BPCA and work out a deal where BPCA would reduce [LeFrak’s] payments to BPCA in an amount equal to the Church’s share of that ground lease rent, real estate taxes and civic facilities payments, [LeFrak] would be willing to pass that savings through to the Church and adjust the Church’s rental payments accordingly. If BPCA is not amenable to the foregoing, but is willing to give [LeFrak] some permanent credit against payments due from [LeFrak] to BPCA, [LeFrak] would be willing to pass that savings through to the Church and adjust the Church’s rental payments accordingly.”
In laymen’s terms, this appears to have been a pledge that LeFrak would convey, dollar for dollar, to St. Joseph’s Chapel (in the form of lower rent) any reductions that the BPCA requested and was willing to fund in the form of diminished payments owed by LeFrak to the Authority. This offer would potentially have opened the door to reducing the Chapel’s rent back to the $22 per square foot baseline that was in place before the 2014 lease renewal, or perhaps lower.
The Broadsheet has not been able to ascertain whether the leadership of St. Peter’s Parish or the Archdiocese ever followed up on this possibility, by requesting that the BPCA make such an offer to LeFrak, or (if so) how the Authority responded. What is known is that negotiations fell apart soon afterward, as (according the multiple sources directly familiar with the situation) representatives of St. Peter’s Parish focused on finding a way of shutting down the Chapel, rather than preserving it.
At the same time, the parishioners who had organized to save the Chapel and catalyzed the discussions between LeFrak and church officials were busy spreading the word that a house of worship they loved was in danger of disappearing. This resulted in publicity around the United States and as far away as Europe.
Thus, while closed-door negotiations quietly foundered in the first half of this year, public support for saving St. Joseph’s Chapel was steadily building. This began in March, 2016, when Community Board 1 (CB1) enacted a resolution supporting, “the continued presence of St. Joseph’s Chapel in Battery Park City and hope that both tenant and landlord can reach a reasonable agreement to this end.” The same measure called upon,
“our elected officials to do what they are able to facilitate and/or mediate negotiations between said landlord and tenant, so that St. Joseph’s Chapel is legally and fiscally able to operate and remain at its present location in Gateway Plaza,” and asked, “that BPCA assist in whatever manner they can to preserve this community amenity.”
In April of this year, a coalition of six national Arab-American organizations signed an open letter to the BPCA, the Archdiocese, the LeFrak Organization, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and multiple other elected officials, which said (in part), “we urge all parties to work together to identify an appropriate compromise that would enable the continuation of St. Joseph’s Catholic Chapel at the Gateway Plaza near the World Trade Center. The closure of the chapel, due to large rent increases of three hundred percent, would represent an unfortunate end to a 130-year history for a church that was founded by the earliest Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to the United States.” The letter added that losing the Chapel, “risks privileging luxury construction and short-sighted speculation to the detriment of established community institutions.”
Although elected officials have shown little interest in becoming involved in the fight to preserve St. Joseph’s Chapel, well-wishers have responded to widespread media attention by calling and emailing from around the world, offering encouragement and (in some cases) financial support. But such expressions of sympathy and solidarity thus far have availed little, and the announcement in Sunday’s bulletin appears to indicate that the Archdiocese and the leadership of St. Peter’s Church are resolved to wind down the operation of the Chapel, and move toward shuttering it. This may mean that, in addition to losing a much-esteemed house or worship, Lower Manhattan also stands to be deprived of what had been the Catholic Memorial to September 11.