August 26, 2010
NEW YORK (RNS) -- Buried by falling rubble from the World Trade Center towers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all that remained of the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were some candles, two icons and a bell clapper.
These salvaged artifacts are being kept at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America while the church's 70 member families worship at a cathedral in Brooklyn, praying for the day they can return to a new sanctuary in lower Manhattan.
"Everything has been incredibly slow and incredibly frustrating, but until the spring of 2009, everything at Ground Zero was going slowly, not just us," said John Couloucoundis, the president of the St. Nicholas parish council. "It was a slow faucet, but at least the faucet was dripping. But then, last year, they just turned it off."
Construction has begun on the 9/11 memorial and several of the major buildings planned for the 16-acre site, with estimated completion dates between 2011 and 2014. Little St. Nicholas, however, remains in limbo.
Negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a land swap and public funding reached an impasse more than a year ago.
The stalemate is only now generating public attention due to heated protests over Park51, a proposed Islamic community center several blocks away that's been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by critics.
"St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn't be there, that's a whole different dialogue," said the Rev. Mark Arey, archdiocese spokesman.
"But it's a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?"
The entire Ground Zero rebuilding process has taken years longer than expected, due to the arduous rescue, recovery and rubble-removal efforts, followed by the bureaucratic process of establishing property ownership and designing the memorial and buildings.
By late 2008, St. Nicholas and the Port Authority had reached a tentative agreement for the church to give up its 1,200-square-foot site at 155 Cedar Street in exchange for 130 Liberty Street, a bigger site half a block away.
Six months later, the Port Authority said negotiations ended because St. Nicholas demanded too much money and approval power over a vehicle security center beneath the sites. Port Authority spokesman Stephen Sigmund said the church can return to its original location.
"In 2009, we made our final offer, which again included up to $60 million in public money, and told St. Nicholas Orthodox Church that the World Trade Center could not be delayed over this issue," he said in a written statement. "They rejected that offer."
Arey said negotiations were in the final stages, with the church "acting in good faith," when the Port Authority suddenly stopped returning calls. He and other church officials think the agency changed course because the fate of the old Deutsch Bank building next to the new site -- which is supposed to become Tower 5 of the rebuilt World Trade Center -- became unclear after JP Morgan Chase took over Bear Stearns' midtown offices and no longer needed a new building downtown.
"Maybe they wanted to figure out what else to do with that property," Couloucoundis said. "The official account is that the church was too demanding. That's completely ridiculous. We weren't suddenly asking for $100 million or to build a church 30 stories high."
The Deutsch Bank building is still partly standing at Liberty Street; a 2007 blaze that killed two firefighters there stalled the demolition, and the Port Authority has not released new plans for what will replace it.
The church is holding firm to the Liberty Street swap plan, and says its old site is unacceptable -- it's too close to the proposed vehicle security center's garage doors, and St. Nicholas needs more space for the visitors to the 9/11 memorial and thousands of new residents in the neighborhood.
The new 130 Liberty Street site could accommodate a church six times bigger than the old one, which was open only twice a week and didn't offer any children's programs.
A three- or four-story building that meets the city's Ground Zero security requirements will cost at least $30 million, Couloucoundis said. The church has raised about $4 million so far, with donations coming in from around the world. Concerns about sloppy book-keeping has prompted the archdiocese to step in to help oversee the funds, he added, and a forensic accountant will be hired to go over the bookkeeping.
"In the end, it's not about the money," Arey said. "There are people all over the world who want to see this church rebuilt. This church will be rebuilt."
Whether the church gets the Liberty Street land or returns to its original sliver of property, rebuilding will have to wait at least three years while the vehicle security center is built underground.
In the meantime, church leaders will continue to raise funds and try to make use of the media spotlight and election-year momentum to get the Port Authority back to the table.
"We've been waiting to hear from them, and we've been trying to make contact, and our efforts have been met with a wall of silence," Couloucoundis said. "Maybe all this will kick-start negotiations again."
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