Rift between church and Port could end up in Court

BY Aline Reynolds

15/12/2010

The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed during the 9/11 attacks and the site of its future home could be decided by a federal judge.

A quaint Greek Orthodox church, which hosted Sunday services and ceremonies for 85 years at 155 Cedar Street, steps away from Ground Zero, was decimated by falling debris on 9/11. Nearly a decade later, church officials are fighting to reestablish their house of worship on a piece of land they say was promised to them in an agreement made six years ago with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In a notice of claim filed last week, officials from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America demanded their right to a parcel of land at 130 Liberty Street, near Ground Zero, where they plan to rebuild the church. They are also requesting, per the 2004 agreement, a sum of $20 million that would go towards meeting the infrastructure requirements set out by the Port Authority, according to Father Mark Arey, the church’s spokesperson and the ecumenical officer for the archdiocese.

“The church has to be rebuilt, not just the parish,” said Arey. “We need to let them know that we’re not just going to let [them] basically take away the church.”

The claim serves as a 60-day notice to the Port Authority before the lawsuit is filed.

The church officials are accusing the Port Authority of obstructing its resurrection at 130 Liberty, the site of the former Deutsche Bank building, and for launching a “bad faith media campaign” against the project. The archdiocese said it planned to build the church there in exchange for property at 155 Cedar, its pre-9/11 location.

But Arey said the Port Authority didn’t live up to its end of the deal. “They wanted us to sign over property to them and give up our title to 155 Cedar,” he said, “when they wouldn’t in fact guarantee us the ability to build our church at 130 Liberty.”

Last year, the Port Authority broke ground at 155 Cedar, the church’s property, and at 130 Liberty to make way for the Vehicle Security Center, an underground parking facility for tour buses and other vehicles visiting the future W.T.C.

In doing so, Arey explained, certain structural changes to the 130 Liberty site could make it impractical, or even impossible, to build the church. And according to the claim, the Port Authority acted “arrogantly” and “in bad faith” by unlawfully trespassing on the church’s property when excavating the property at 155 Cedar Street.

“Contrary to its posture of working cooperatively with the church, the [Port Authority] without permission, notice or any legal justification whatsoever has sent its bulldozers onto both [properties]… and conducted extensive excavation that has rendered both [130 Liberty and 155 Cedar Sts.] unbuildable by the church,” the complaint says.

The Port Authority responded by stating that the church has made unreasonable demands since the 2004 agreement, such as more money and input in the construction of the V.S.C. beneath both sites.

The Port Authority said that it made its final offer in 2009, which included up to $60 million in public money for the church.

“We had to make a practical decision to move on or risk further delaying the World Trade Center project,” according to Port Authority spokesperson Steve Coleman, since the overall rebuilding of the W.T.C. hinges in part on the completion of the V.S.C.

Arey said, however, that he and his colleagues never made such demands. “On March 16, 2009, they took the deal off the table, and said, ‘our lawyers will contact you,’” he said. “That’s when they ceased speaking to the church.”

According to Arey, the Port Authority itself made an unjust request of the deed of the 155 Cedar Street property in 2009 before handing over the parcel of land at 130 Liberty to the church.

The City Council introduced legislation on November 30 calling for the Port Authority to “reenter into negotiations with the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in an effort to have the church rebuilt after being destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Coleman said the Port Authority hopes to sit down with representatives of the church to “develop a solution that works in their interest, but also does not further delay the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site.”

Coleman continued, “We believe all parts of this complex project will reach positive resolution including the return of the church to its original home.”

Arey, however, said that constructing the church at 155 Cedar Street is not an option. “In our minds, that site is no longer suitable,” he said. “It’s a hole in the ground.”

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