Both sides say they want to protect the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 2nd Street. But it became clear yesterday, in testimony before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that the agreement ends there. On one side, preservationists, who believe the building should be landmarked. On the other, members of the congregation, who contend the hisoriical designation could destroy their struggling parish.
The battle began in 2008, when the cash-strapped Cathedral announced a plan to build apartments above the building. The proposal was scrubbed following the sweeping rezoning of the Lower East Side. But preservationists and other neighborhood activists were taking no chances. With the support of Councilmember Rosie Mendez, they urged the Landmarks Commission to take swift action.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation argues the century-old gothic cathedral is not only architecturally significant but also an important symbol of the neighborhood’s immigrant roots.
At yesterday’s hearing, parishioner Jacob Walker said the building has “serious physical plant issues.” When the Cathedral was approached by a developer, they saw the chance to create an endowment to help pay for major repairs. Now he fears landmark status would make any improvements to the Cathedral prohibitively expensive. The bottom line, he said, is that it would “endanger our parish.”
Richard Wright, also speaking for the Cathedral, said the historic designation would restrict the parish’s right to change the facade and even what they put up on the interior walls. He suggested this would constitute a violation of religious freedom.
Preservation advocates offered to help the parish find grants and other financial resources to pay for repairs. But members of the congregation were not convinced. More to the point, perhaps, the struggle during the past two years has created a lot of ill-will.
Anthony Donovan, who facilitates an inter-faith group in the neighborhood, said, “I have been taken aback by the process.” Implying that preservation activists have spread untrue rumors about the Cathedral’s intentions, he added, “It’s been hurtful and harmful to the community.”
One of the last speakers, Mary O’Connor, said it was obvious both groups love the building. She urged them to come together in search of a real solution. Commission Chairman Robert Tierney echoed her sentiments. He thanked everyone for taking part in the discussion, and said the commissioners would carefully weigh all of the community’s concerns before making a decision.