In the 120 years since its cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has gained repute for not only its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture but also its perpetual state of incompletion. Now the development of the cathedral grounds, called the “close,” continues the cathedral’s association with construction. A deal with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003, which led the City Council to overturn the cathedral’s landmark designation, allowed St. John to lease sites on the north and southeast perimeters of the close to developers. A 20-story residential building on the southeast site, at 110th Street and Morningside Drive, opened in 2008 amid criticism of its size and aesthetic. Plans are progressing to break ground in 2013 on the north site, along 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, for a controversial second residential tower.
At a recent public forum, the cathedral unveiled initial massing studies to over 60 community members. Cathedral dean James Kowalski explained that, despite fund-raising and efforts to contain administrative costs, the cathedral operates at a 10 percent deficit. With ongoing financial obligations, including repairs to the church building, Kowalski asserted that development was necessary to “preserve the economic future of the cathedral.”
George Kruse from developer Equity Residential addressed community concerns about including subsidized housing, involving local businesses, and facilitating local residents’ labor union membership. In particular, he noted that of the 400 units in the planned building, 20 percent will be reserved for affordable housing. Gary Handel of Handel Architects presented the firm’s massing studies; further details of the building’s design remain in progress.
Several attendees praised efforts to minimize the building’s bulk and use the site, which currently houses stonecutting sheds from the 1980s, to integrate the close with the surrounding community. Still, many residents of Morningside Heights expressed such concerns as the building’s potential to increase neighborhood crowding and the environmental impact on traffic, noise, and light. Michael Henry Adams spoke on behalf of state senator Bill Perkins, who opposes the construction proposal, and expressed his own conviction that the cathedral merits more respect as a world-class landmark. “If we were in Paris, at Notre Dame, would someone propose this?” he said. “The answer, of course, is no.”
At the time, Kowalski could not confirm whether the cathedral intends to hold additional community forums, as he expects a short time frame for the design process. “Could it be started in six months or a year? I would hope so,” he said.