June 23, 2012
A Note on Preservation from the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection
A Note on Preservation from the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection
Along with numerous other religious houses in New York City, the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection opposes forced landmark designation by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC). We welcome constructive ideas on preservation and community building, but we strongly believe our parish council is successfully responding to the challenges of safeguarding our beloved structures while determining the fate of our community’s religious expression. It is the desire of this Cathedral’s parish council and resident monks to continue to maintain control of our building while serving the spiritual requirements of the community, a successful model of preservation clearly demonstrated since the Cathedral’s purchase and dedication in 1943.
Landmark designation by the LPC would require government approval for any alteration affecting the exterior of the designated property, effectively transferring authority from the Cathedral to the civil government. Thus, the civil government would dictate the religious freedoms of the church, a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Any window, icon, cross or religiously expressive modification on the church’s designated facade, for instance, would require legal filings and petitions to the LPC, which would not only unconstitutionally interfere with the Cathedral’s right to free religious expression, but also unduly burden the Cathedral by causing it to incur great expense to challenge any determination of the LPC that may be violative of the Establishment Clause.
For these reasons, the Parish Council of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is asking the Landmark Preservation Committee to withdraw its proposal to designate landmark status on 59 East Second Street in New York City.
Is Landmark Designation a Financial Burden?
Landmark designation often places a tremendous financial burden on economically challenged congregations who, as a result of being designated a landmark, are mandated to request additional permits and pay extra fees for any preservation maintenance. According to the LPC website, Landmarks Commission approval is required for any project that will affect the exterior appearance of a designated building, even if a Department of Buildings permit is not needed for the proposed work. If the Cathedral were landmarked, navigating this complex approval and appeals process would require costly legal expenses and could take months, if not years, to resolve for each instance. For exceptions to this lengthy approval process, the New York City preservation law code could allow an “economic hardship” provision be petitioned by Cathedral representatives with evidence that the building is “not capable of earning a reasonable return,” defined as six percent of the value of the parcel (NYC Admin. Code 25-309, 302), if the proposed modifications to the landmarked property were not made. The Cathedral would be put in a position to continuously make legal defenses demonstrating that a lack of religious expression would prevent the use of the property or the sale of the property. Most of New York’s historic churches are not landmarked and remain under the care of their worship communities, in many cases precisely because of the burdens designation would cause.
Do landmarked properties have greater financial support to meet their preservation goals?
It is often assumed that the status of being landmarked gives religious buildings easier access to funding from private foundations. However, many religious communities have reported financial losses resulting from landmark designation. The LPC does not provide financial help for designated properties, and landmark designation commits no money for property owners. Well-intentioned non-profit organizations will offer free advice to landmarked property owners to help solicit grants from limited resources, including the New York Landmark Conservancy's Sacred Sites program whose grants average between $3,000 and $6,000 per designated site. In 2011, the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage project offered a total of $300,000 in similar grants. Competition for these funds could be further heightened in coming years as the inventory of landmarked buildings grows, owing to the proposed East Village landmarking agenda by the LPC to add 330 buildings to the existing list of 1,300 sites already landmarked.
Have other houses of worship experienced problems after being landmarked?
There are many examples of financial duress caused by landmark designation, including the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Brooklyn. This designated landmark suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial loss during a protracted appeal process to replace their copper roof, as a result of time wasted and the sudden increase in commodity costs. Other religious denominations have also suffered. At its January 26, 2010 meeting, the Presbytery of New York City – a representative body with participation from all Presbyterian Churches (Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) in New York City – voted to condemn the action by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate West Park Presbyterian Church as a landmark. According to the sentiments expressed by one congregant speaking for West Park, “Landmark designation against the congregation’s will may represent the death knell of a historic congregation that has served the vulnerable in its neighborhood and in our city.” In another case, this time involving an Anglican community of worshipers, St. Bartholomew’s Church was forced to take on a financial burden of $4.5 million, or one third of the church’s total endowment, to adapt its landmarked property. In the case of the Queens Grace Episcopal Church, members launched a campaign to persuade local members of the City Council to overturn the city Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation. "We're going to fight the designation," said the Episcopal church’s leader, the Rev. Darryl James. "It siphons off potential funding for ways in which we can really continue to do the work of Jesus Christ." When the congregation repaired a bluestone walkway to the church, the Landmarks Commission designated which materials could be used. "If we didn't have to use a particular material, it would not have cost $30,000!"
Has landmark designation been overturned?
According to LPC spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon, 20 landmark designations have been reversed since the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965. In the case of already landmarked churches, successful movements to overturn designation have occurred. The congregation of Queens Grace Episcopal Church successfully overturned landmark designation after demonstrating the destructive nature of forced landmarking on their community. City council members James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) helped lead the campaign to overturn the designation. "More attention should be focused on the financial impacts of landmarking on nonprofit institutions,” Gennaro said at the time.
Why do we believe the Landmark Preservation Law enacted in New York City is unjustly applied to houses of worship?
A landmarked house of worship, whose core motives are religious worship and expression as well as community development, is treated by the LPC in the same way as a landmarked for-profit organization. The law is applied to houses of worship so to force a church to invest, if necessary, all its available funds in the upkeep of its landmarked property as mandated by the LPC, or to sell its property and relocate its community elsewhere. We believe these are unreasonable requests given the spiritual permanence of a place of worship, and the inherent lack of financial resources.
Why do we believe United States federal law prohibits the imposition of burdens on the ability of parishioners to worship as they please?
The forced landmark designation of a church contravenes two U.S. federal statutes: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993; and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Additionally, there has been legal precedent on a state level as was decided with First Covenant Church versus City of Seattle in 1991, when the Washington Supreme Court found that Seattle’s landmarks preservation law was an unconstitutional violation of a church’s First Amendment free exercise rights.
Why did the LPC Calendar us for Landmark Designation?
In the summer of 2008 the Cathedral was approached by an outside developer to erect housing using legal air rights above 59 East Second Street in New York City. The Cathedral’s parish council considered the proposal and rejected it because of a strong protest within the church community and the discontinuation of legal air rights development when city ordinance laws changed on November 19, 2008. On this date New York City Council adopted new East Village/Lower East Side rezoning laws establishing contextual zoning districts with height limits. The zoning changes are now in effect where the Cathedral building resides, thus making illegal any significant vertical construction on the site of the 2nd Street Cathedral.
In October 2009 the New York City Landmark Preservation Committee (LPC) calendared the 2nd Street Cathedral for landmark designation despite a strong protest by the Cathedral’s worship community.
What Efforts has the Cathedral Made to Work with Preservationist Advocates?
Following many months of hurtful accusations against our worship community, representatives from the 2nd Street Cathedral parish approached Manhattan Community Board #3 and asked that preservation advocates cease publishing media releases implying that the Cathedral building’s integrity is in danger. We also asked that organizations put a stop to spurious petitions misstating the building is in danger of demolition. Following, the Cathedral parish council participated in city-sponsored mediation with representatives from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and pro-landmark designation advocates from Manhattan Community Board #3. During these meetings, material preservation goals were described in detail, resulting in a mutual agreement on nearly all preservation goals for the Cathedral building. In response to this mediation, landmark advocacy groups were hosted at the Cathedral and presented with the results of ongoing preservation efforts. Who should control the Cathedral building remains in dispute despite agreement on nearly all preservation goals.
We believe the best route to long-term neighborhood preservation is to foster and support the communities that inhabit and care for the buildings in our neighborhood through transparency and direct responsibility, without the burdens of legislated regulation. We have clearly demonstrated our commitment to preserving our building, spending more than $1 million of our own money in the last decade alone. We do not have plans to significantly alter our building nor is it legally feasible to do so under existing zoning laws. We are asking for the right to maintain full control of our preservation budget and responsibilities.
We share the sentiments of a fellow house of worship that feels they would be stripped of their religious expression: “Once you’re landmarked, you’re not the owners of the building anymore,” said Rabbi Pesach Ackerman, who has been the Rabbi of Meseritz Synagogue in Manhattan for 42 years. “Anything you do, you have to ask their permission.”
Who are we?
Our religious community is based out of 59 East Second Street in New York City and has an elected parish council of 12 members who meet with two full-time priests to govern church business and report on preservation issues at regularly scheduled meetings. The Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of New York & New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). The parish originated in 1870 as the Russo-Greek Chapel of the Holy Trinity to serve the needs of the Russian and Greek Embassies. In 1895 it was re-organized as the Church of St Nicholas and the community began to flourish under the pastorate of Archpriest Alexander Hotovitsky, who began a vigorous campaign to raise funds to build a permanent church. In 1898 Bishop Tikhon (Belavin) arrived in New York, and in 1904, after the completion of construction of a new church on East 97th Street, he transferred the center of the Diocese from San Francisco to New York City, raising St Nicholas to the status of Cathedral. Our church life in America was thrown into turmoil during and after the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia, and in the process, the government of the Soviet Union sued for ownership of all properties built with Tsarist funds abroad. It would only be in New York City that the Russian communist government prevailed by taking control of the church by court order in 1926. The dispossessed community, now re-organized as the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, would wait another 17 years before enough funds were raised to purchase the Olivet Memorial church on East 2nd Street, our present home. The building, constructed in 1867 and designed by the prolific architect Josiah Cady, has been adapted to Orthodox worship over the years. The icons were painted at various times and are of both traditional Byzantine style as well as the westernized style popular in Russia in the 19th century. In recent years we have made a conscious effort to adhere to the traditional Byzantine style that better communicates the other-worldly theology of the Orthodox Church.
Church preservation is at the discretion of a 12-member church parish council and two resident monks. Our stated preservation policy is to preserve the building’s historic character and spiritual integrity while working within our community to share common goals. While the civil government currently has authority with respect to such matters as zoning, building code, and fire code, the Cathedral generally retains wide discretion in the use of its property, and has independently and successfully financed its own preservation maintenance since 1943.
This note was issued June 24, 2012 by the elected Parish Council of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection located at 59 East Second Street, New York City 10003 and http://www.nycathedral.org. The 2nd Street Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of New York & New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).