Skyscraper Scandal

In spite of international protests, developers are proceeding with plans to build a skyscraper directly next to cathedral in Bucharest, endangering the church.

BUCHAREST, Romania — Persecution comes in so many varieties.

In Bucharest, the capital of Romania, a tenacious archbishop has led a five-year struggle against a Goliath next door — a 19-story skyscraper, with four underground levels, being constructed about 25 feet from the Cathedral of St. Joseph.

The cathedral is the region’s Catholic spiritual center, besides being the seat of the archdiocese. When Pope John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, his first visit to a majority Orthodox country, he said Mass at St. Joseph’s.

Even winning stop-work orders from local courts and gaining support from the European Parliament, the Romanian Senate and the Vatican haven’t been enough: This ominous tower is virtually complete.

“Cathedral Plaza,” as it is called, is owned by Millennium Building Development, a local holding company for U.S. and Israeli investors, through Miller Global Properties of Denver.

“The Catholic Church is experiencing a form of treacherous disregard from authorities,” said Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest. “Political protection is the only way to explain how the developers have gotten this far.”

Miller Global Property’s offices in Denver and New York did not respond to requests for comment on this matter.

Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, was Bucharest’s mayor when Millennium bought the property on which they are building Cathedral Plaza.

The city’s current mayor, Sorin Oprescu, reviewed documents in the city’s archives and concluded that the sale of land to Millennium was a corrupt arrangement because, as public land, it should have been auctioned publicly. The mayor has taken Millennium to court.

The church is the country’s largest Latin-Catholic edifice, a 19th-century cultural treasure located in one of Europe’s most active seismic zones.

During thunderous drilling next door, “Worshippers could barely hear me say Mass,” said Archbishop Robu, who has led the Latin-Catholic community, approximately 1.2 million strong, since 1990.

Romania also has some 800,000 Eastern-rite Catholics who are in communion with the Pope. Their church was banned by the communists, who tried to forcibly liquidate them.

“Some parishioners are too afraid to come to the cathedral anymore, because the monstrosity threatens us. Cracks are already appearing in our walls, but the real nightmare is the possibility of an earthquake, when we could be crushed.”

Code Violations

The archbishop isn’t exaggerating. An independent study by specialists from an Italian seismic observatory concluded that all buildings within about 200 feet of the office tower could be destroyed in an earthquake of the scale experienced in the region. The cathedral’s foundation, composed of unreinforced masonry, has already suffered damage from four earthquakes since 1940.

Emmanuel Necula, a Romanian-American structural engineer who worked for Millennium, quit the project when he concluded the developers were cutting corners and not performing necessary tests of the construction’s ability to withstand high winds or tremors: “I have spent years telling Romanian authorities that Cathedral Plaza is dangerous. Archbishop Robu is exactly right.”

Besides hypothetical risk, the archdiocese has assembled convincing evidence that the construction, begun in spring 2006, is illegal.

Because the cathedral is included on a list of national historical monuments, the developers were required to get the archbishop’s approval — as well as approval from the Ministry of Culture — before construction began, but neither the archdiocese nor the ministry signed off on the architectural plans as implemented.

Soon after the project took off, 12 construction inspectors and the state inspector general signed a report listing numerous building-code violations.

A series of court decisions in 2007, 2009 and 2010 have sided with the archdiocese against Millennium. Last November, a Romanian court of appeals in the city of Suceava issued an order that “irrevocably canceled” construction authorizations for the project.

Yet, as journalist Razvan Savaliuc observed, “Since the ‘irrevocable’ decision, not only didn’t construction on the tower stop immediately, it accelerated, despite a chain of protesters around the building, who assemble every day.”

Cathedral supporters continue to hold demonstrations at the construction site, taking turns filming the ongoing work to share with the police and post on the archdiocesan website.

Victor Gaetan writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.