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Landmarking Battle: East 2nd Street Cathedral

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Not very much was accomplished at last week’s Community Board 3 meeting on the future of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The 1867 gothic-style church at 59 East 2nd Street has been the subject of a bitter fight between neighborhood preservationists and the congregation since 2008.  Thursday night, the groups faced off at CB3’s landmarks subcommittee, where there was plenty of bad blood to go around.

Since last spring, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has been weighing whether to “protect” the building, one of only three Russian Orthodox Cathedrals in Manhattan.  Clergy and parishioners say land-marking would add greatly to maintenance and renovation costs and, perhaps, more importantly would be an unacceptable intrusion into their private affairs. CB3 declined to take sides, urging the groups to seek the services of a professional mediator.

The East Village Community Coalition and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) sought landmark status for the Greek Orthodox Cathedral three years ago, after a proposal to build an 8-story residential tower above the church became public. That plan was ditched and cannot be revived, since 2008’s rezoning of the Lower East Side would prohibit it. But preservationists remain convinced that the only way to protect the church, long-term, is through the landmarking process.

Elizabeth Finkelstein of the GVSHP argued that landmarking helps, rather than hurts, communities. She said it’s a misconception that most renovation projects become significantly more expensive when a building gains landmark status. She added that grants are available to help religious institutions pay to take care of landmarked buildings.

Explaining the financial struggles his congregation has battled for many years, Father Michael Suvak expressed fears that landmarking would be a burden. One contractor, he said,  warned him about the added costs and especially the added hassles dealing with notoriously slow Landmarks Commission.

But, more fundamentally, members of the congregation suggested the preservationists were interfering in their lives. One congregant, Richard Wright, said “this is not something to add to your collection (of historic landmarks)… We best understand what our own needs are.”   Another woman said, “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”  A man, who grew up in the Jacob Riis housing development, told the committee, “A heart beats inside that church… Look beyond the stones. We’re not being respected… That’s why we feel so hurt.”

Members of the community board urged the two sides to acknowledge that they both want to protect the Cathedral and that working together is the only viable option. A compromise is not going to be easy achieved. The preservationists, backed by City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, have said their efforts are aimed at blunting the gentrification of the neighborhood.  Parishioners, who say they also care deeply about the community, are incensed at what they see as a campaign by outsiders to impose their will.

In spite of their differences, both sides said they were open to the idea of mediation. There’s no indication when the Landmarks Commission will make a decision.

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