The New York Times

June 12, 2003

Two Buddhist Nuns Take on a Giant of New York Realty

By ANTHONY DePALMA
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Guang-Guo Shih, left, and Jing-Nian Shih, Buddhist nuns, in their temple in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday

wo Buddhist nuns who took on one of the largest developers in New York chanted and prayed in peace and quiet yesterday at their Lower Manhattan temple after a judge issued a temporary restraining order shutting down a $200 million high-rise apartment building under construction next door.

The nuns had argued that the construction the first major residential project in Lower Manhattan since the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 was causing cracks in the walls of their temple. But their relief did not last long, because by midafternoon yesterday, the city's Department of Buildings had ordered them to vacate their property, at 10 Platt Street, because it was unsafe.

The nuns, who shave their heads and wear long gray gowns, planned to spend the night at the home of a temple member on Long Island. Short and slight as teenage girls, the nuns said they were not worried about taking on such a big company. "There are two things we can count on," said Jing-Nian Shih, 40, the temple's director of international development. "Justice and fairness have always been on our side."

The nuns went to court after an engineer they had hired found that the vibrations caused by the pile driver had cracked the foundation of the 70-year-old building so badly that the elevator could no longer descend to the basement. The west side of the building, adjacent to the excavation for the new tower, is sagging, they say, and the rear wall had separated from the concrete floor in the basement enough to let in air and light until the developer patched it up.

A lawyer for Rockrose Development, which is building the 50-story residential tower, said that the excavation work had been done properly and that the claims of the nuns' engineer were "unfounded." "Cracks don't mean structural damage," said John E. Osborn, the lawyer representing Rockrose in the litigation. "What happened is being portrayed as something that can cause a collapse, and that simply is not the case."

But yesterday afternoon the Department of Buildings ordered the nuns to leave the temple immediately because structural cracks in the interior walls, floors, stairwell and elevator shaft represented an "imminent danger" to the occupants. After receiving the order, the nuns drank green tea, fingered prayer beads and worried about what to do.

The red brick building is the only temple in the United States run by the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society, a sect of Mahayana Buddhism. The sect differs from other Buddhist groups in that it focuses on reaching out to other religions. The Platt Street building has open space on the first floor for prayer and chanting, and an artists' exhibition space and meeting rooms upstairs. Jing-Nian Shih said the society had opened the temple near Wall Street more than eight years ago because it wanted to be near people from all faiths.

Rockrose has also been involved in a dispute with community groups that oppose plans to demolish a five-story building from the 1830's to allow a driveway to the tower. The Bloomberg administration supports the project because it sees new construction downtown as a sign of confidence in the area.

The nuns said that after demolition of the buildings alongside and behind the temple began several months ago, attendance at the three chanting sessions a day began to fall off. Then, when cracks appeared in their building, they discouraged followers from coming.

During yesterday morning's chanting, Jing-Nian Shih and the other nun, Guang-Guo Shih, 35, were alone. Their lawyer, Gerard G. McCabe, said that Rockrose had tried to acquire the temple building, with the nuns insisting on replicating the temple in the new tower, but that negotiations had broken down over the amount of space and its location.

A hearing on the temporary restraining order and the Building Department's order to vacate is scheduled in Manhattan Supreme Court this morning before Judge Saralee Evans.


June 13, 2003

Builder Agrees to Stabilize Buddhist Site It Damaged

By ANTHONY DePALMA

A $200 million construction project in Lower Manhattan will remain shut down for several more days after a judge ordered engineers yesterday to come up with a plan to stabilize a Buddhist temple next door that had been so severely damaged by vibrations that the city ordered it vacated.

Judge Saralee Evans of State Supreme Court in Manhattan extended the temporary restraining order she issued on Tuesday and told both sides to try to come to an agreement before the next hearing on Monday. The judge's orders left the two Buddhist nuns from Taiwan who run the temple, at 10 Platt Street, without a place to hold their daily service. The service used to draw more than 100 devotees until disturbances from the construction site turned people away.

But before the end of the day, a deal was reached that seemed to guarantee the safety of the building, and give the nuns a place to gather. The Rockrose Development Corporation, the contractor for the project, a 50-story apartment building, agreed to stabilize the temple. It is a four-story brick building run by the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society, the Mahayana Buddhist sect to which the nuns belong.

Rockrose officials said they would work through the weekend to attach several layers of steel beams, called channels, to the length of the west side of the building and install monitors to measure existing cracks. Frank D. Vasta, a Rockrose vice president, said yesterday that he had not calculated the cost of keeping the pile driver and other heavy equipment idle, but he said it would be substantial.

An independent engineer hired by Rockrose, David B. Peraza, toured the temple building yesterday morning, measuring cracks and tracing weaknesses in the foundation. After looking at several fissures in the basement, Mr. Peraza said that while damage was evident, further movement in the foundation was unlikely, and the proposed measures to shore it up should keep the building safe after pile driving resumes.

Romen Lik, an engineer assisting the nuns, agreed that the steel beams should stabilize the building. But he said the damage might not have occurred at all if the developer had staged the work properly. "They tried to rush it," he said. Rockrose began driving the first steel piles in early June, before the temple had been completely shored up. Cracks developed soon thereafter.

After the tentative agreement was reached yesterday, Jing-Nian Shih, the nun who is director of international development at the temple, said she was glad that the developer would reinforce her building, but worried that she would have no space to hold the daily chant.

But the Department of Buildings may provide a solution. It allowed Rockrose crews to enter the temple yesterday to begin making repairs. If a department inspector approves the work, the order to vacate will be lifted and the nuns will be allowed to return.


June 14, 2003

Judge Allows Construction to Resume Next to Temple

By ANTHONY DePALMA

A Supreme Court judge agreed yesterday to allow work to resume on construction of a 50-story apartment building in Lower Manhattan following efforts by the developer to shore up a damaged building next door that houses a Buddhist temple. Lawyers representing the two Buddhist nuns who run the temple, and those for the developer, Rockrose Development Corporation, said that after hearing engineers on both sides of the dispute described the steps that had been taken to stabilize the temple building, the judge allowed the $200 million project to proceed.

Judge Saralee Evans of State Supreme Court in Manhattan had issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday afternoon shutting down the work site because cracks had appeared in the basement and first floor of the four-story brick building on Platt Street that has housed the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society since 1995.

On Wednesday, the Department of Buildings issued an order for the nuns to vacate the 70-year-old building because it was deemed unsafe. But after an appearance before Judge Evans Thursday morning, lawyers representing Rockrose , which is putting up the apartment building, agreed to substantially shore up the west wall of the temple building and to install monitors on existing cracks.

City inspectors approved the work yesterday and lifted the vacate order. Gerard G. McCabe, the lawyer representing the nuns, said Rockrose also agreed to redesign its plan for shoring up the foundation of the south wall of the temple building, and notifying the engineer for the nuns that work to underpin the foundation is scheduled.

John E. Osborn, a lawyer representing Rockrose, said the company would resume work on the construction site today. Mr. McCabe said the two nuns planned to spend the weekend with supporters in Boston.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company