Ground Zero Orthodox church in limbo
Religion News Service
September 01, 2010

Ground Zero Orthodox church in limbo

Ground Zero Orthodox church in limbo
Religion News Service
September 01, 2010

NEW YORK — 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 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


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


“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.”