The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the Seat of its Bishop. In the spirit of Christ, it is chartered as a house of prayer for all people and unifying center of intellectual light and leadership. The Cathedral serves the many diverse people of our Diocese, City, Nation and World through an array of liturgical, cultural and civic events; pastoral, educational and community outreach activities; and through the preservation of the great architectural and historic site that is its legacy.
A Cathedral campus that is a religious, civic and cultural center; an oasis and a dynamic urban “village” that contributes to the neighborhood, the Diocese, the City and the world; a holy place where people are welcome as visitors or where they may worship, live, work, participate in a variety of public activities or come for inspiration, personal challenge, peace or solace.
In 1997, the Trustees embarked upon an effort to take a comprehensive look at the Cathedral’s 11.3-acre campus and understand the condition of its buildings and surrounding open space. The study, completed in 1998, identified almost $20 million in necessary immediate repairs to the buildings and grounds and another $20 million in deferred maintenance and repairs essential over the next 10-15 years to preserve this campus and world-renowned institution. Also, given its limited endowment resources, the Cathedral had suffered more than a decade of annual structural deficits that genuinely threatened its continued ability to carry out its mission, let alone be a proper steward of its historic physical legacy. A strategy to address these economic realities was deemed crucial to avoiding insolvency and assuring the Cathedral’s survival.
The study identified two underutilized sites on the perimeters of the Close where new buildings might be located and where additional buildings had been planned in the master planning of the 1920’s – one on the southeast corner of the campus and the other north of the Cathedral between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. In 1999, the Trustees decided to pursue the possibility of ground leasing for development these two perimeter parcels to private interests. The Trustees stipulated that no land be sold and no buildings on the grounds be demolished or altered and established the following goals for the project. New development should be:
- Congruent with the Cathedral’s mission and vision;
- Compatible with its historic architectural qualities; and
- Capable of generating revenue to help sustain the Close for future generations.
The Cathedral reviewed its plans for these two sites with the staff of the New York City Landmarks Commission (the Cathedral building and Close were on the LPC’s calendar at that time and had been for several decades prior). As a result, the LPC held three public hearings in late 2002 and early 2003 to review the Cathedral’s plans. In June of 2003, the LPC voted unanimously to de-calendar the Southeast and North Sites, contingent upon the Cathedral’s recording the agreed-upon guidelines in a Restrictive Declaration with the City of New York. These guidelines established footprint and volume standards, severely constraining the scale of buildings that the Cathedral might otherwise build as-of-right (go to the Southeast Site and North Site pages for specific site guidelines).
In June of 2003, the LPC also voted, with the Cathedral’s endorsement, to designate the Cathedral building a landmark. Subsequently, the City Council rejected the designation at the urging of the local councilperson responding to the concerns of those who had opposed the de-calendaring action, advocating instead for the designation of the Close as a whole.
The Cathedral building was actually calendared for designation shortly after the enactment of the Landmarks Preservation Law in 1966, and the entire Close was calendared in 1979. In both instances the LPC determined not to designate because of the Cathedral’s position that both the Cathedral building and the campus as a whole represented an unfinished enterprise.
The Cathedral supports the future Landmark designation of the Cathedral building and all of the historic buildings and grounds of the Close, excepting the two de-calendared parcels.
In September 2006, the Cathedral entered into a 99-year ground lease with AvalonBay Communities, Inc., a real estate investment trust, to build a residential building, with a twenty-percent affordable-unit component, on the Southeast Site. The building was completed and occupied in 2008.
In April 2005, the Cathedral reached an agreement with Columbia University for the
North Site. The University had an option to ground lease the Site and develop an academic facility there. The University withdrew from the option in April 2009 due to the downturn in the overall economy. In 2012, the Cathedral entered into an agreement with a New York-based developer to build a residential building, with a twenty-percent affordable-unit component, on the North Site.
The strategic focus of the Cathedral’s real estate initiative is to preserve the historic buildings and grounds of the Close and to sustain and improve the religious, educational, cultural, social and civic programs that form the Cathedral’s historic mission. Consequently, the trustees of the Cathedral determined not to sell land and to adopt a financial structure that precluded any up-front capital infusion in favor of the payment of annual ground rent, reset periodically, that would assure a long-term, steady stream of revenue over the life of the leases.
As to the allocation of these funds, the Cathedral made a commitment within the Restrictive Declaration to use substantially all of the proceeds from the development of the North and Southeast Sites to:
- Restore its operations to a sound financial footing and sustain its ongoing operations in accordance with its mission;
- Maintain, preserve and restore the historic buildings on the property including the performance of deferred maintenance thereon; and
- Increase its endowment.
Preservation of the Close
As a result of the Southeast Site ground lease, the Cathedral was able to secure a substantial loan, which resource, combined with additional fundraising, has made it possible over the past five years to invest some $25 million in critically deferred restoration, maintenance and improvements to the Close. Approximately $1.2 million has also been added to endowment to support the annual maintenance of the building and grounds.
In addition to improvements associated with the Southeast Site development (see Southeast Site), these projects have included remediation of the South Tower (allowing for the removal of the scaffold that had been in place for 19 years); restoration of the exterior of the Cathedral School building; new roof systems for the Apse, St. James, St. Ansgar and Baptistery chapels; and completion of the restoration of the Ithiel Town Building (formerly the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum), the original building on the grounds and the oldest structure in Morningside Heights.
Future critical priorities in addition to improvements associated with the North Site development (see North Site) include replacement of the main Nave and Triforium roof systems, resurfacing of the Crossing Dome, rebuilding of the North Transept (destroyed by fire in 2001), and the repair and restoration of the masonry and cleaning of the Cathedral exterior stonework.
The Cathedral’s real estate initiative has been a two-step process from the outset, requiring the ground leasing of both the Southeast and North Sites to accomplish the aforementioned projects and priorities and meet the long-term objectives critical to the Cathedral’s future.
Over these same five years, a total of approximately $8.0 million has been earmarked toward support of the Cathedral’s annual budget for operations (mission programs, administration, maintenance, security and insurance). The current annual budget is $9.5 million and includes, on the revenue side, a challenge to raise some $1.5 million in general unrestricted contributions. In addition, the Cathedral established a Housing Mission Fund to help support the affordable housing component of the Southeast Site development. Under this program the Cathedral has committed to providing $200,000 annually for a period of thirty-years.
After the downturn in the economy and the withdrawal by Columbia University from its North Site option, the Cathedral implemented a major reduction in staffing and program services. Some 15% of full-time employees were eliminated and salary reductions were mandated for clergy, program managers and senior staff ranging from 5-20%. On the capital side, given the debt service obligation on the above-mentioned preservation loan, all pending deferred restoration and preservation work was suspended.
The Cathedral hosted a community forum on February 21, 2012 to present the initial architectural massing studies for the North Site.
Separately, the Cathedral and the developer have made a commitment to the chair of Community Board #9 to include a 20% affordable housing component in the project; to make good faith efforts to hire local workers and to use local subcontractors, vendors and suppliers; and to form a joint monitoring committee.