One proposed rendering of a plan for development of the St. Vartan Cathedral Plaza of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, New York (from "Facts on the Diocesan Development Plan Proposal: Architectural Renderings and Elevations," Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern))

What Is the Future for St. Vartan Cathedral and Diocese?

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To the Editor:

After months of turmoil, there seems to be a reprieve with regard to the initial plan to “sell or lease” the air rights of the Cathedral/Diocesan property. For the time being there is calm in the waters, but that does not mean the circumstances that triggered this storm are laid to rest.

By building this wonderful complex (that I have often referred to as a “Beacon” to the world), the greatest Armenian generation of the 20th century, made their mark. They, in my view, never thought that the future was going to be ‘so financially stressful’ that such severe measures would need to be made to the extent of what almost occurred a few months ago. But, there was definitely concern in this regard.

I remember my father, Joseph Chorbajian, (a member of the original Steering Committee and the first $1 million campaign chairman) telling me stories about how some members of the Steering Committee wanted to buy the empty lot on the southeast corner of 34th and 2nd Avenue with the intention of eventually “selling/leasing the air-rights”’ and having a privately-owned underground garage built to accommodate the cars for services/events at the Cathedral. They were forward thinkers!

It would interest the reader to know, that some of the naysayers to this idea on the Committee were individuals who were financially well positioned and honored today as being the main sponsors in the development/building of the complex. This is water under the bridge but had those naysayers heeded that sage advice, today’s problem would have been significantly of less concern, if at all.

I have spent months thinking about what my father and his peers what say if they were with us today as to what should be done next. For sure, they would never have approved the idea to outright sale or lease of the air-rights! That would have been completely against any concept they would consider given the dangers in doing so. Lest we remember, the purchasing the particular parcel of land which now houses the Cathedral/Diocese was done so with the idea that unrelated future construction could not occur thereby encroaching on the complex.

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Had the plan the current Trustees/Council attempted to ram through during this year’s Diocesan Meetings been successful, the possibility of who would/could be a future owner or occupier of the new structure or its apartments/offices would have been left wide open!

No matter what “clauses” one can build into an agreement between sellers/buyers, etc., you can never totally control who or what entity will eventually move into a building that now looms 30+ stories over the Cathedral. This is the US and discrimination is not supposed to be part of our nation’s creed!

Although this is sadly violated, we live in a country that has a legal system that permits the offended to take action. Therefore, even if there is the world’s finest contract written, that will not prevent any entity from taking the Armenian Cathedral/Diocese into a court of law and sue them for discrimination.

Having said all of this, where do we go from here?

My thought, and I think this would be the thought my father and his collaborators would agree to, is that a building does get erected, but, it is owned and operated by the Armenian Diocese of America. This way, it is always going to be under the control of the Church and if it is private property, there are many more laws (still not perfect) that will protect who occupies/resides in it.

One idea that has bounced around over these last few weeks is that the future New York Armenian Home (NYAH) becomes part of the new structure. Without any success over the last three years to locate a property to build on in New York, the NYAH almost lost their gain of $50 million from the sale of their Flushing property.

Unbeknownst to the majority of us, me included, when a charitable organization sells property, it doesn’t have the same privileges that a private corporation does with those assets. That is why it is a charity and permitted to act as one with the benefit of not paying taxes to the federal/state/local governments. The Attorney General office watches over this like a vulture and they certainly did so where the NYAH was concerned.

Fortunately, due to the smart advice given to the Home by someone who is not a Board member, a portion of those assets have been earmarked for the NJAH, while the balance is placed in an Endowment Fund. The aim is to still find a place to build a new NYAH.

So…there are alternatives. The most important things I have learned are:

There shouldn’t be knee jerk reactions when there are problems no matter how slow that jerk is.

The secrecy by which this plan was executed did more damage to the Trustees and Council then could have been imagined. Building trust and confidence in this group of individuals will take a long time to return, if ever.

There needs to be individuals, without hidden agendas, who are brought from the outside who are knowledge specific about the situation to provide expertise. No matter how smart, dedicated, or well-intended the members of the Trustees and Council are, they are volunteers! This is light years from being hired for a specific position because you come with credentials.

Once a new plan is put into place, a written report needs to be made available to the community as to the whys and wherefores going forward. The Cathedral/Diocese is not a private entity! It represents the members in the Armenian community, who paid for the building and maintaining of them. Like all investors, that community is owed accountability!

There is always more than one way, and maybe a better way, to get to the same goal.

Before there is a new wave of protest against the suggestion that I have made, I think it’s important to stop for a moment and think about what, if any other alternatives there are. If you don’t have an alternative suggestion, or are not willing to dig deeper into your pockets to support the Cathedral/Diocese, I recommend you not condemn the idea of the construction of an addition to the Cathedral complex.

If there are better alternatives, by all means, present them, in writing to the Diocesan Trustees and Council as well as the community. There is a silver lining in everything that goes awry; let’s make this lining gold!

Joyce Chorbajian