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Romania's Cathedral vs. high rise developers.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," is one of the recent slurs being leveled against Bucharest city It leaders for concealing the beloved historical centre under high-rise office buildings, but according to some experts the shadows are the least of the concerns for St. Joseph's Cathedral. The "illegal" construction of a goliath steel and glass office building going up alongside the 125-year-old Catholic monument may lead to its ruin-or, as elementary as Fr. Ciobanu phrases it, "If the building goes up-the church comes down."

"Save our church" has been the battle cry of the minority Romanian Catholics who find themselves in a David and Goliath fight against City Hall and the developers behind "The Millennium Group."

"The spirit of communism is still active in Romania," says Archbishop of Bucharest Ioan Robu. "Under Nicolae Ceausescu we feared that the cathedral would be torn down or covered up, which was the policy towards churches at that time. Instead we are under siege today. What the Communist could not destroy because of international pressure might now be destroyed, 16 years after Ceausescu's overthrow."

During the Communist era Bucharest went through a massive period of urbanization and as a result large areas of the historical centre, once known as "little Paris," was razed to make way for bloc apartment housing and, most famously, the immense Parliament House, which today stands like a huge wedding cake over what was once populated by much of the city's medieval architecture. It was a strategy that is today highly criticized by the Romanian people and government.

"You know, this is a very sensitive subject," writes structural engineer Emanuel Necula in an e-mail correspondence. Mr. Necula, who has over 20 years' experience in the field, was hired as the project designer, but resigned in disgust because of the cut and save attitude of the developers that, in his opinion, was threatening the stability of the project. Mr. Necula's main concern lies in the owners' refusal to carry out necessary geological tests, particularly soil tests to insure the stability in case of an earthquake, and a wind tunnel study to analyze the redistribution of snow on the existing lower roofs.

"The significant accumulations of additional snow during a winter storm could exceed the load carrying capacity of the existing roof structures and bring the collapse of the existing roofs in the vicinity of the tower."

The majority of the buildings around the rising office building were built before modern building codes, and according to Mr. Necula are not designed to withstand earthquakes. The Cathedral, he adds, was built of an un-reinforced masonry foundation and has already suffered numerous damages over the years from past earthquakes. In the case of an earthquake the effects of the new tower on the soil could lead to a "sudden building collapse."

"Without a major and perhaps a very costly seismic retrofit (modifications of existing structures), the existing buildings will become death traps because they have a high rate of occupancy and because they can fail in even moderate ground shaking."

The Neo-Romanesque style Cathedral was built between 1873-1884, by the well-known Austrian Architect Friedrich Schmidth. It had suffered significant damages from earthquakes in 1940 (magnitude 7.7), 1977 (magnitude 7.5), 1986 (magnitude 7.2) and 1990 (magnitude 6.9). The devastating earthquake of '77 caused over 1,500 deaths in the city, mostly due to collapsing buildings.

"If there is an earthquake the monster will crush us," cries Archbishop Robu. But it may not even need an earthquake. According to Mr. Necula, there were no studies done on the soil around the existing buildings to determine its capacity of withstanding the pressures caused by the weight of the new tower and its additional 9000 tons on the footings, which could adversely impact the already weakened structures located within a 60-meter radius. St. Joseph's stands less than 10 meters distance.

The Cathedral is today the main place of worship for the Bucharest Catholic minority. The population of Romania is primarily Orthodox, with about 6% Catholic. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Cathedral during his historical visit to Romania in 1999, the first Pontifical visit to a predominantly Orthodox country. A plaque commemorating that momentous day stands by the entrance.

For 125 years the cathedral has stood up against the earthquakes, World War II bombing of the city, and Ceausescu's bulldozers. In 2001 it was finally acknowledged as a historical and architectural monument, granting it protection by Romanian laws. It is here where the scandals between the church, state and developer begin.

Fr. Dr. Vasile Ciobanu, who is heading the campaign "Salvati Catedrala Sfantul Iosif" (Save St. Joseph Cathedral) explains that discussions of the project go back almost ten years. At that time the plans were based on a ten-story building. This more moderate plan was approved by the Archdiocese. By Romanian law new construction in the vicinity of a historical monument requires that monument's approval. However in 2003 new plans were drawn up doubling the tower's height. Although the Archdiocese retracted this initial agreement, the mayor's office went ahead and authorized a building permit. Construction began immediately.

The Mayor's office was contacted for this article, but refused to respond to individual questions. However in a press conference, Bucharest Mayor Adriean Videanu disputed the Archbishop's statements and claims the church had agreed to the construction.

"First they said it will be just offices, but now it is offices with commercial spaces, shops and a cinemaplex. The centre is not the place for it. We can't handle the cars. With this rumble maybe all the buildings will come down. It's another possibility," worries Fr. Ciobanu.

"They should do like other European cities, like in Vienna. In Vienna they built up outside of the centre. All the tall buildings are near the river and away from the historical centre."

A petition from the Catholic Archdiocese brought about an investigation by the State Building Department (ISC). It found numerous irregularities in the authorization procedure involving the City Hall and the Ministry of Culture. The detailed report carried out by 12 inspectors noted incomplete documents, missing authorizations and permits for the cranes. But what most terrified the parishioners at St. Joseph's is a clause that "there is no objective means of liability in case of damages occurred to the nearby buildings."

In light of these findings, the Chief Inspector, Dorina Isopescu, called for an immediate halt to the construction. Despite this construction is carried on at a frantic pace "both day and night and Sundays," says Fr. Ciobanu. The representative for the Millennium Group, Diana Voicu, has dismissed the ISC report as biased because chief inspector "Madame Isopescu is Catholic."

Today, the archdiocese has taken the matter to the Romanian Justice system, only to be met with frustrating postponements and transferals to other courts. Meanwhile the construction goes on. A request by the Millennium Group to have the case transferred to the distant city of Constanta was recently accepted by a high court panel and they now await that decision in September.

The local newspaper Ziua followed with a report showing that the father of Diana Voicu of the Millennium Group was president of the Appeals Court in Constanta. After this revelation, church representatives are doubtful that they will receive a fair hearing.

The Romanian press has been keeping a close watch over the events. It has come to be seen as a clash of traditional values against the quest of luring investors into the city. "Money matters too much to the people building this tower," Archbishop Robu claims. The Catholic leader in Romania has since appealed to the nation's President, Traian Basescu, who is highly regarded in the nation for his hands-on kind of leadership, though for obvious reasons he has preferred to stay out of this case.

In the bigger scope of things, some see the battle between St. Joseph's and the Millennium Group as the historical centre's last hurrah. The tower alongside St. Joseph's may well be the first of many. The Civic Media Association has stated in a petition to the Romanian President and Government, "the Mayor's plans for Bucharest not only affects the Catholic Cathedral but also the place of the Revolution where two, thirty meter high office buildings will be built in front of Bucharest Athenaeum (concert hall, built 1888), the former Royal Palace (1870), and Kretzulescu Church (1720), and the National Library (1895) ... This will replace all memories of the 1989 revolution and of its heroes with mammoth buildings which do not belong in such an area."

The petition concludes with the plea for "a real and permanent protection of the monuments of Bucharest."

As silent prayers carry on inside the solemn Catholic Cathedral, only ten meters outside its walls sounds the rumble of the rivet guns and soldering flames. Little by little, the tower rises a little more everyday. They have already completed its four basements, lying more than ten meters below the Cathedral's 125-year-old "un-reinforced" concrete foundation.

"Now all we can do is wait," says Fr. Ciobanu, "for the September surprise," he adds with a touch of sarcasm, "from Constanta."

Chuck Todaro is presently in East Europe writing a guide book about the Gypsy Culture and the Communities of Romania.
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Author:Todaro, Chuck
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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