Port deal lets St. Nicholas Church rebuild

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |   On Oct. 14 in the New York City office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a 10-year odyssey ended for tiny St. Nicholas Church that was destroyed on 9/11. Port Authority Executive Director Christopher Ward and Michael Jaharis, an official of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, signed an agreement giving the church title to land on the east end of Liberty Park, the former site of 130 Liberty St., in exchange for the church’s land at 155 Cedar St., where the Port is building a Vehicle Security Center for the World Trade Center site. Gov. Cuomo and Archbishop Demetrios witnessed the agreement.

Ten minutes before the second of the Twin Towers was struck on 9/11, the church’s custodian had locked the door behind him and fled. The church, which was quartered in what had once been a mid-19th century row house at 155 Cedar St., was obliterated. Part of an airplane landing gear lay next to where it had been.

The parishioners, some of them fourth and fifth generation descendants of the Greek immigrants who had founded St. Nicholas in 1916, regrouped in Brooklyn and began their struggle to get a place near the church’s former site on which to rebuild. After negotiations with the Port Authority broke down, the church and the Archdiocese finally hired the firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett to bring their case against the Port, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., and several other defendants to the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. A suit was filed on Feb. 14, 2011 alleging “arrogance, bad faith and fraudulent conduct.”

“It was with great reluctance that we employed Simpson Thacher,” said Father Mark Arey, a spokesman for the Archdiocese. “But we said, ‘OK, if this is what we have to do, this is what we have to do.’ The Port Authority had seized our land at 155 Cedar St. and had seized our land at 130 Liberty St., which is the land we had agreed to swap it for, and we felt we had no recourse at that time.”

John Kouloukoundis, President of St. Nicholas’ Parish Council, credits the lawsuit with changing the outcome of the struggle. “The federal judge was clearly alarmed at what the Port Authority had done and was requiring answers,” he said. “The lawsuit was a wake-up call. It forced people to pay attention. The Port Authority knew they had serious issues they would have to answer to. Gov. Cuomo took a personal interest in trying to find a mutually acceptable solution to getting St. Nicholas built.”

The governor acted as a broker, getting the warring parties to agree to a four-month-long study led by engineering expert Peter Lehrer to determine whether structural issues could be resolved so that the church could be rebuilt at 130 Liberty St. without delaying other construction at the World Trade Center site.

The answer came back, yes.

At a cost of no more than $25 million, the Port Authority has agreed to build a platform and below-grade infrastructure so that the church can rebuild on top. The platform should be ready by 2013.

The church that was destroyed was only 1,200 square feet. The new one will be 4,100 square feet. “We want it to be a space open to people of all faiths and also to people who don’t believe in any particular religious faith,” said Father Arey. “If they want a space to enter that’s quiet and meditative, they will be able to do that. Our goal is to be part of the Downtown memorial space but also part of the Downtown community. The archbishop talked years ago — and I think he still feels this way — about having the church open 24/7. I think there’s a need for that.”

Father Arey said that the money to rebuild the church had not yet been raised and an architect had not been selected because it was necessary first to know where the church would be built and how big it would be. He said that raising the money was “the least of our worries.”

“This is a win-win for everybody,” Arey said of the agreement. “The Port Authority finally gets to take legal possession of the land they’ve had physical possession of. The church was never willing to contest the seizure of our property, because that would have meant we would have tried to put a halt to what was going on at Ground Zero — and that was never our intention.”

“I’m thrilled that the church will resume its rightful place in the community,” said John Dellaportos, a parishioner and Battery Park City resident. “I’m incredibly grateful to Gov. Cuomo.”

John Kouloukoundis agreed. “The parish is elated and very relieved,” he said.