After Two-Year Hiatus, Work Resumes at St. Nicholas Church
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday led a ceremonial resumption of construction at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, within the World Trade Center complex.
The building, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava (who additionally created the nearby Oculus, also in the World Trade Center) is slated to replace the historic structure, dating from the 1830s, that hosted Orthodox congregations from 1922 onward, when Greek families living in Lower Manhattan raised sufficient funds to purchase building, which had previously served as a private home and a tavern.
Eight decades later, that building (located on Cedar Street, between West and Washington Streets) was destroyed by falling debris from the Twin Towers, on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Philanthropist Dennis Mehiel (chairman of Friends of St. Nicholas, and former chairman of the Battery Park City Authority), Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, at the construction site of the St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine.
“The start of construction on the new St. Nicholas Church echoes the overarching message of these challenging times,” Governor Cuomo said on Monday. “We are going to build back the way we built back from September 11, and it will be better and stronger, with more solidarity and more faith and more spirit of community, than ever before. This St. Nicholas is going to be more splendid and more inviting than the St. Nicholas that was here before. We have gone through difficult times together, but we rise from the ashes and we rise stronger than ever before. That’s what this St. Nicholas will stand for. It is a powerful message to all New Yorkers and all Americans.”
Work has resumed on the construction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church within the World Trade Center site. The striking design (shown here in a rendering) by architect Santiago Calatrava, has made the structure one of Lower Manhattan’s most eagerly anticipated new buildings.
Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America said, “nearly twenty years ago, our St. Nicholas fell with thousands of our fellow human beings lost in the ashes of September 11, and countless others wounded in body, heart, and soul by a savage act of hatred and terror. We cannot, we must not, and we shall not let this stand. We are going to open the St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine as a sign of love, not hate; a sign of reconciliation, not of prejudice; and a sign of the ideals that exist in this great American nation, where one’s religious liberty and freedom of conscience never excludes, but only embraces.”
To lead this effort, Governor Cuomo has tapped Dennis Mehiel, a noted philanthropist and widely respected leader within the Greek-American community, who also served as chairman of the Battery Park City Authority from 2012 to 2018. Mr. Mehiel is heading up the non-profit that has spearheaded the project, Friends of St. Nicholas, serving as its Chairman.
Mr. Mehiel’s business sense and financial sophistication appear to have brought much-needed managerial expertise to the project. In December, 2017, Skanska USA, the prime contractor leading the effort to rebuild the Church, issued a letter to its subcontractors, advising them that the firm had terminated its contract with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA), “on account of GOA’s defaults in making payment under the Owner Contract.” The same letter notified all subcontractors that, “effective immediately, you are directed to stop all Work under the Subcontract.” In the two years that followed, activity at the site was limited to contractors entering to remove equipment, while security personnel secured the area.
That development followed a year of fiscal crises and financial scandal within the Greek Orthodox Church, which had acknowledged several months earlier a deficit of more than $8 million, while announcing the layoffs of dozens of employees, and the departure of the organization’s longtime financial overseer, Jerry Dimitriou. Around the same time, the Archdiocese announced the formation of a Special Investigative Committee for St. Nicholas National Shrine, “to investigate and evaluate expenditures related to (1) the St. Nicholas Shrine construction project, and (2) the potential use of certain St. Nicholas Shrine restricted funds for the payment of Archdiocesan general operating expenses.”
Above, the partially completed St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, after work was halted when cost overruns converged with alleged financial irregularities in the management of funds by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Below right, the original St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in the 1830s, stood for decades in the shadow of the old World Trade Center, until being destroyed by falling debris on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Mr. Mehiel, who had been among the advocates who pushed for the reconstruction of St. Nicholas, was also named to chair that panel. When this review was completed earlier this year, the misappropriated funds were returned to the St. Nicholas building fund, and the Archdiocese once again became solvent, after substantially reduced its overhead.
“Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority have been extremely patient as the Archdiocese went through a restructuring of its financial management and a change in leadership, and for that our community will be forever grateful,” Mr. Mehiel told the Broadsheet. “There would be no St. Nicholas without his generosity of spirit.”
Mr. Mehiel continued, “it now falls to our new organization, Friends of St. Nicholas, to complete the Church on time and on budget, and I am confident we will do so. We are committed to consecrating the St. Nicholas National Shrine on the 20th anniversary of that fateful day.” This appears to mean that the new Church will open by September 11, 2021.
Like many rebuilding projects in and around the World Trade Center site, the effort to reconstruct the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has struggled with spiraling costs. Originally budgeted at $38 million, the price tag for the church had swollen to an estimated $78 million by the time construction was halted.
These overruns arose in spite of a remarkably generous deal from a phalanx of government agencies that have subsidized the project by providing the free use of public land that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Multiple arms of government — including the Battery Park City Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — partnered on a complicated deal that was finalized in 2011, designed to keep the Church at Ground Zero. This deal, in which Mr. Mehiel negotiated on behalf of the Archdiocese, revolved around a land swap, exchanging the Church’s original parcel on Cedar Street with a nearby tract at the corner of Washington and Liberty Streets.
The exchange made sense for all parties, because the Port Authority (which owns the World Trade Center site) needed the plot on which St. Nicholas had stood for other structures at the rebuilt complex, as well as for Liberty Park. In return, St. Nicholas received a site that offers much greater visual prominence than its original location. This site is also vastly more valuable, in financial terms. But given the use to which the Archdiocese has committed, this monetary value becomes irrelevant. Indeed, because the Port Authority insisted on a non-denominational component to the building’s use, St. Nicholas will also be home to a bereavement center.
The site chosen for the new Church is publicly owned, and leased by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese from the Port Authority. The terms of this lease allow the St. Nicholas Church to remain on government-owned land at Ground Zero for a minimum of 198 years, in exchange for a nominal rent of $1 per year. This lease also provides for one optional renewal period of an additional 99 years. Under these terms, the Church’s position is secure through the year 2314. But rather than pay $297 in rent for the next three centuries, the Church also has the right to buy the space outright, also for a price of $1.
That noted, the financial commitment by St. Nicholas and the Greek Archdiocese is nonetheless significant. They will be called upon to bear an annual cost of approximately $1 million to fund security, maintenance, and energy.
In a speech delivered last October, Archbishop Elpidophoros said, “it is our duty and our responsibility as Orthodox Christians — but also our obligation and commitment to God and His people — to complete and open the doors of the St. Nicholas National Shrine. We must recommence the building of the Church immediately, and open the doors by September 11, 2021, as a tribute to those who perished that fateful day, and as a lead off to the centenary year of our Holy Archdiocese.”
He added, “the Shrine will be a shining City on a Hill, and a beacon of hope for all people of good will, and it will be the most observed and visited Orthodox Church in the world, as long as we are faithful to its mission. This is our offering to our City, to our Nation, and to the world. The rebuilt St. Nicholas Church will be much more than the historic and precious parish church that fell among the victims of September 11. St. Nicholas is a vision of what is best in all people of faith and religious conviction: love of God and love of neighbor, mutual understanding, and reciprocal respect.”
Mr. Calatrava’s design for the new St. Nicholas draws inspiration, in part, from two Byzantine churches in Istanbul: the Hagia Sophia (recently and controversially converted back into a mosque by the government of Turkey) and Church of the Holy Savior. The new structure’s translucent walls are designed to glow in the evening hours, providing both a literal and a figurative beacon to the World Trade Center campus.