Developers Reveal Plans for High-Rise Next to St. John the Divine

By Emily Frost on October 31, 2013 1:18pm 

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 The development will feature more than 400 apartment units. 
St. John the Divine Apartment Building
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — The community got its first glimpse of the 14-story apartment building developers are set to build alongside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Wednesday night. 

Developed by the Brodsky Organization and designed by Handel Architects, the 428-unit apartment building is the answer to the 121-year-old Gothic Revival cathedral's financial woes, religious officials said.

The cathedral needs millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance that will require a far greater revenue stream than fundraising alone would provide, cathedral dean James Kowalski told a packed crowd, including members of Community Board 9, Wednesday night. 

Without the development plan, which began with the construction of a 20-story building on the cathedral's south side by AvalonBay Communities in 2008, "we will see the cathedral close its doors," Bishop Andrew Dietsche warned.

Architect Gary Handel shared plans for the glassy modern building, whose eastern edges feature cutouts to provide a view of the cathedral's transept.

"We felt that the north transept should be visible to everyone," he said.

Another separate, smaller building, part of the north site development, will sit slightly east on West 113th Street, he added. The two buildings will be connected by stairs.

Cutouts along the building to create sight lines of the cathedral's transept mean the development takes up only 53 percent of the buildable space agreed upon with the city for the development, Handel explained.

The cathedral has agreed to only develop the north and south sites, and to allow everything else on its property to be landmarked when its proposal is made to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, church officials said. 

The buildings will be set back from West 113th Street by 15 feet, as well as from the cathedral, creating a "new north cloister," Handel said.

The trash removal that was occurring in the parking lot will be moved to the building's basement, where there will also be a community parking lot, replacing the one the buildings will eventually sit on, he said.

The cathedral will invest $8 to $10 million in creating service roads and "other physical work," but the north and south sites combined will generate $5 million a year for the cathedral, St. John's officials said.

The Brodsky Organization is signing a 99-year-lease for the north site.

The developer will access tax-exempt bond financing using the 80/20 program, making 87 units affordable, starting at $696 per month for a studio apartment.

Residents gathered to see the design thought a greater portion of the apartments should be affordable, given the mission of St. John's.

But Brodsky Organization managing director Daniel Brodsky said a higher percentage of affordable units "doesn't work with the amount of cost we have for this building." 

Rents for the market-rate apartments will start at $1,700, and tenants will likely be Columbia students, Brodsky said.

Many neighbors of the cathedral are opposed to the new development, arguing it will forever mar the historic building, and they have formed the group Friends of St. John the Divine in opposition to the plan.  

"What it would be like to have two towers next to Notre Dame?" said Laura Friedman, an organizer for the group. "Once the building is there, it’s there forever. That’s it. It’s done." 

Others argued the building was too large and obstructed the cathedral. 

"The two structures are somewhat in competition with each other in terms of space," said CB9 member Vicky Gholson. 

Board member Walter South noted that "it seems to me the whole intent of the cathedral was to be God’s house on a hill...You are hiding God’s house by enclosing it on all sides."

A cathedral spokesman said that construction date has not yet been set.

"The cathedral first wanted to share the plans with the community before proceeding," he said. "We are looking forward to a constructive relationship to make the project a success."

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