|A log about land use and transportation that is updated . . . from time to time|
C. Virginia Fields
Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
Councilman Bill Perkins
Death & Life of Great American Cities
Manhattan Community Board 9
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
Morningside Area Alliance
Morningside Hts. Historic District Cmte.
Morningside Heights Residents' Assoc.
New York City Council
NYC Landmarks Preservation Comm'n
"Save" the Cathedral petition
Support the Cathedral
St. Patrick's Cathedral
Chronology of Events
Brozan, Nadine. "Sacred Spaces But Earthly Challenges." The New York Times. 25 April 2004. Real Estate, pp. 1, 6.
Croghan, Lore. "Columbia Battle Developing." The Daily News. 21 Jan. 2004. p. 52.
Dunlap, David W. "Big Buildings Planned on Grounds of St. John the Divine." The New York Times. 27 June 2003. pp. B1, B3.
Dunlap, David W. "Columbia in Talks to Built at St. John." The New York Times. 31 Oct. 2002. p. B3.
Dunlap, David W. "Landmark? Just Wait Till It's Done." The New York Times. 17 June 2003. pp. B1, B4.
Gassman, Brandt. "Community Boards: C. Virginia Fields Modifies Stance on St. John the Divine Landmarking." The New York Observer. 13 Oct. 2003. p. 10.
Hu, Winnie. "No Landmark Status for St. John the Divine." The New York Times. 25 Oct. 2003. p. B4.
Lee, Denny. "Council Threatening to Block Cathedral's Landmark Status." The New York Times. 23 Oct. 2003. p. B3
Lee, Denny. "On the Heights, a Chill Wind Begins to Blow." The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2003. The City, pp. 1, 15.
Lind, Diana. "St. John the Divine May Lease Nearby Land." Architectural Record. Sept. 2003. p. 54.
Lombardi, Frank. "The Devil's in the Details: Church Landmark Vote Put Off." The Daily News. 24 Sept. 2003. Suburban, p. 1.
Lombardi, Frank. "Don't Landmark Cathedral, Says Pol." The Daily News. 23 Oct. 2003. p. 29.
Lombardi, Frank. "A Landmark Battle: Mayor vs. Council on Church Status." The Daily News. 6 Nov. 2003. Suburban, p. 1
Mindlin, Alex. "St. John the Unfinished Becomes St. John the Downsized." The New York Times. 24 Oct. 2004. The City, p. 6.
Preserving Parking Lots as a Cathedral Decays|
St. John the Divine's trustees recently tried to allow the construction of two buildings on its grounds that not only would have paid for a restoration of this aging architectural treasure, but would have enlivened the street life around the cathedral, replaced ugly fences and parking lots and reinforced the neighborhood fabric. Unfortunately, well-meaning neighbors, driven by a knee-jerk reaction to save any piece of open space no matter how unremarkable or unnecessary, temporarily stopped the cathedral from allowing development to occur on the grounds and are organizing a petition drive to permanently ban development on these two underused sites. Refreshingly, a larger group of Morningside Heights residents has organized their own petition drive to alert elected officials to the fact that sensible development on the cathedral grounds would improve the land and cathedral at the same time.
But if the cathedral appears to be a dreary, forgotten place, it sits in good company. During the day, the streets along the cathedral's north and east sides are populated chiefly by people entering or leaving Morningside Park or St. Luke's Hospital, dog walkers, joggers and people walking to their cars. At night, there is a sinister air about the area. The chain link fence and barbed wire ominously hug the rear of the cathedral, silently protecting it from the potential mischief that is invited by the dark and little used area. Other signs of neglect can be found on these streets, including those shimmery kernels of shattered glass that indicate broken car windows, and a sign that proclaims "AREA PROTECTED BY MORNINGSIDE AREA ALLIANCE RADIO CARS AND FOOT PATROL." A security squad is paid to patrol this area because there's nothing there to attract people, who, in going about their daily business, would protect the area far better and at no cost. Buildings in this area would provide light and life to these streets, bringing safety with them.
One could imagine that in Manhattan, people would accept new buildings and even welcome them as the thing that makes their place in the world different from the low-density sprawl that stretches throughout the rest of the nation. But in Morningside Heights, neighborhood residents quickly mobilized to fight to preserve what they argue is much needed urban open space, though the land in question behind those barbed-wire fences is occupied by parking lots, a security guard's tower, a tangled knot of trees and two large and unsightly aluminum stonecutter's sheds.
In 2002, Robert E. Roistacher of the Morningside Heights Residents’ Association, a group that opposes the buildings, told The New York Times, "The cathedral has been an environmental sanctuary in so many ways. I think it's incredibly regrettable that we lose any open space there." Parking lots an environmental sanctuary? Hardly.
They also argued that views of the cathedral would be obstructed by the new buildings, which would have risen along 113th Street and at the corner of Morningside Drive and 110th Street. But the view corridors that matter, to the east and west along 112th Street and from the southwest by those traveling north on Amsterdam Avenue, would not be affected by the buildings. Two lesser view corridors indeed would be affected. The hospital rooms that now look out over a parking lot and the cathedral's weathered north side would see instead a new, well used residential or institutional building no more than 146 feet high. People standing at the southeast corner of Columbus Avenue and 110th Street who now see a forbidding thicket of trees (but only glimpses of the cathedral) would lose that wonderous view. These seem like small prices to pay for a greatly improved, financially secure cathedral building, but it seems the neighborhood activists would prefer to preserve the cathedral right out of existence.
Promptly after the City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg's veto, Columbia abandoned its hope of building on the cathedral grounds for fear of damaging its relationship with the City Council. Meanwhile, it began a more earnest pursuit of an expansion plan that will have more serious negative consequences for a great many more people. In July 2003, Columbia made public its intention to expand to a swath of 17 acres between West 132nd Street and Tiemann Place, west of Broadway. The Manhattanville Area Consortium, which is comprised of businesses facing eviction, and the Coalition to Preserve Community, made up of local residents, have mobilized to fight this expansion. The Coalition fears the sundering of an existing neighborhood and the displacement of blacks and Hispanics to make way for a bigger Columbia. "This is going to be a much greater magnet for gentrification throughout the western and central areas of Harlem," Neil Smith, New York's resident expert on gentrification, told The Times. A large neighborhood uprooted, low-income residents forced to find shelter elsewhere, long-standing businesses forced to move, all while two perfectly good development sites go unused.
Generally, community activists, who have often gathered much sustenance from Jane Jacobs enormously influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are often responsible for tremendous improvements to the city's landscape. But the neighbors around Columbia seem to have ignored her most important ideas. Their actions have left us with the 400 block of West 113th Street, where ambulances idling outside the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital are often the only signs of life. This type of desolate street scene is exactly what Jane Jacobs was hoping to eliminate when she described three qualities that make a successful city street:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in the suburban settings or in projects.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
The front of St. John the Divine faces Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street. The cathedral turns its back on the rest of the streets nearby, and the few other small buildings on the cathedral grounds fail to enliven the surrounding streets. If a residential building were built on its site, windows would be lit in the evenings where now there is only darkness. People would be coming and going from the lobby. Even an institutional building, say one used for classrooms, would have light streaming from its lobby, and a doorman to watch over the area.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers.
The cathedral is used most intensively on Sundays. Residential buildings would be busy in the evenings, and or institutional buildings would be used during the work week, either of which would compliment the cathedral's use schedule. All of this would give this part of the city a more robust version of that "intricate sidewalk ballet" that Jacobs found in successful streets. It would give the area a sense of urbanism that it is lacking now. Strangers passing on the sidewalk, friends recognizing one another, people brought onto the sidewalk at different times for different reasons, yet sharing the same space. This is perhaps the greatest feature of urban life.
Far from ruining its setting, the many large buildings around St. Patrick's contribute to its ongoing financial health. But St. John the Divine would benefit even more than St. Patrick's does because St. John the Divine would receive direct financial aid, not just the contributions that come from visitors. St. John the Divine pursued its deal with Columbia because it wanted direct financing to help it shore up its struggling accounts. The money Columbia would have paid to the cathedral would have allowed the cathedral to finally embark on years of deferred maintenance. But perhaps the indirect financial benefit to having more people around the cathedral would be more important in the long run. If some of the people drawn to the area by the new buildings — and the general milieu of activity they would help to create — would be encouraged to give money to the cathedral's maintenance and construction or even join the congregation it could help lead to a larger, healthier congregation. Perhaps more tourists would give money as well if they saw a neighborhood with a more relevant, less forbidding cathedral. Maintenance no longer a problem, donations increasing and rolls of parishioners growing, congregants once again would talk about continuing to build what could become not just a magnificent architectural gem in Upper Manhattan, but a marvel of the world.