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Port Authority sued over still-unbuilt church near ground zero

By Chris Kokenes, CNN
  • St. Nicholas Church was destroyed in the collapse of the WTC south tower on 9/11
  • Greek Orthodox archdiocese claims Port Authority reneged on deal to rebuild
  • Port Authority says it had "to move on" after archdiocese rejected a generous offer
  • Each side claims the other is refusing to respond to overtures

New York (CNN) -- A lawsuit claims that the owners of the World Trade Center reneged on an agreement for rebuilding a Greek Orthodox church destroyed in the collapse of the twin towers after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan, cites "...arrogance, bad faith, and fraudulent conduct" on the part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an agreement that would have allowed St. Nicholas Church to rebuild at 130 Liberty St., adjacent to the church's original location.

The church claims that the Port Authority reneged on paying $20 million in due consideration for their property at 155 Cedar St., where the church building originally stood.

The Port Authority said in a written statement that it would not comment on the specifics of pending litigation, but added that the agency worked hard to reach what it described as a very generous agreement with Greek Orthodox Church representatives:

"Unfortunately, after eight months of negotiations in which the demands of the Orthodox Church continued to increase over and above what was originally agreed to in 2008, the Port Authority had to make a practical decision to move on or risk further delaying the entire World Trade Center project, which was a completely unacceptable alternative. The Orthodox Church continues to have the right to build a church on their original site, and, as we indicated last December, we remain open to meeting with Orthodox Church representatives, but they have thus far refused to meet, choosing to initiate litigation instead."

A spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, a plaintiff in the suit along with St. Nicholas, denied that version of events.

"They have misappropriated the church," said Father Mark Arey. "The truth is that after our agreement in 2009, the Port Authority cut off negotiations and have not responded to any of our overtures. No one ever called us. Don't they have our phone number?"

The three-story St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, founded in 1916, had a congregation of about 70 families and until its destruction stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center's south tower.

The church negotiated with the Port Authority, which oversees construction at the site, and in 2008 both sides tentatively agreed that the church would be rebuilt nearby using tens of millions of dollars in public money. The plan also allowed the authority to move ahead with a vehicle security center as part of the World Trade Center redevelopment.

But the authority said the church made extra demands that threatened to delay the construction of the entire site. The authority said it made its final offer in 2009 of up to $60 million and told St. Nicholas that the World Trade Center could not be delayed by the issue. It says the church rejected the offer and walked away.

"It's not about money," Arey said. He said the church still retains the deed for the land where the house of worship stood and gave up the land to the Port Authority without any complaints in an effort to be part of the process.

"How do we exchange fairly the church property, which included the ground and air rights at ground zero, for another piece of property at 130 Liberty St., which has smaller land specifications and no air rights." said Arey. "We went from a silo to a pancake."

"We assumed we agreed that a deal was on the table" Arey said. "St. Nicholas no longer exists, and it needs to be rebuilt for ethical reasons. There are other things that are relevant than just money."

Arey also says the discussions have also been complicated by the fact that since 9/11, there have been three state governors and four directors of the Port Authority.

The authority previously had said that St. Nicholas has the right to build on its original location and that work could begin in 2013 when the vehicle security center is completed.

Arey said church leaders are determined to rebuild St. Nicholas on or near its original location. "What the Port Authority is doing is disingenuous and they should be ashamed of themselves," Arey said. "It does not look good to bully a church."

CNN's Mary Snow contributed to this report.