GTS Plans Stopped By Commuity
Chelsea Opponents Stymie Seminary Development Plan
BY ANNIE KARNI – Special to the Sun
April 3, 2007
The General Theological Seminary’s plan to build a 15-story condominium development on its collegelike campus in Chelsea has been foiled by local opposition, seminary leaders said yesterday.
Church officials said they sought to build the 151-foot-tall glass apartment tower to help pay for $21 million of badly needed restoration to the seminary’s Gothic buildings that date back to the 1880s, but decided to withdraw the plan when they realized they were fighting a losing battle.
“It’s a big defeat,” the executive vice president of the General Theological Seminary, Maureen Burnley, said during an interview yesterday. “The seminary’s preservation plan was killed by people who call themselves preservationists.”
Chelsea residents said they recoiled at the proposed apartment tower because it would have clashed with the historic character of their neighborhood, where city zoning regulations cap building heights at 75 feet.
The seminary, which occupies a full city block between 20th and 21st streets and Ninth and Tenth avenues, resembles a college quad in a New England town. The grounds are covered by sycamore trees and American elms that date back about 150 years. Church officials said that if the institution does not raise preservation money soon, it could be forced to leave Chelsea.
Seminary officials said they would present a “compromise plan” to their board next month. They described the plan as a scaled-back redevelopment scheme that would chop the rejected tower in half, leaving a seven-story mixed-use residential building on Ninth Avenue, and a five-story administration building on 20th Street.
The buildings would require landmarks approval or a special permit to waive the 75-foot height limitation for buildings in the neighborhood. Any structure that would exceed the neighborhood’s height cap requires approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as the City Planning Commission — a process that could take about two years, according to Ms. Burnley. She said the seminary did not have that much time to wait, as significant repairs are “absolutely critical” and construction costs in Manhattan are rapidly rising.
The seminary is returning to the drawing board to figure out how it will finance the restoration of its crumbling buildings, where leaky roofs have destroyed entire floors and where mortar is falling out from between bricks, creating hazards for the buildings as well as for passersby on Ninth and Tenth avenues, according to Ms. Burnley.
While the new proposal would pay for the replacement of the decaying building that currently houses the seminary’s library, Sherrill Hall, it would not generate money for the preservation of seminary’s other historic buildings.
“This is a very serious concern for us, as it should be all those who care about Chelsea,” the dean of the seminary, Ward Ewing, said in a statement.
“I don’t know that we can raise $21 million in a realistic timeframe,” Ms. Burnley said.
While the seminary’s board develops a new capital plan and attempts to identify pockets of money available for preservation, community groups and elected officials said yesterday that they were thrilled with what they called a “tremendous victory” for Chelsea.
“I’m pleased that we’re going to be able to preserve the integrity of Chelsea’s historic district, since so much of Chelsea is being lost,” a Democratic state senator, Tom Duane, said during an interview yesterday. Mr. Duane, who worked against the seminary’s plans, said he would now help the seminary identify private funding sources to aid its effort to survive. He said that at the moment he did not know what those sources might be.
“We’re confident that the seminary can go ahead with its building plans, but not at the expense of the scale of the historic district,” a member of Community Board 4’s landmarks committee, Andrew Berman, said. Mr. Berman, who is also a member of the Chelsea Historic District group, said he felt confident the luxury condominium building on Ninth Avenue, as well as the Desmond Tutu Education Center that the seminary now uses partially as a conference center, could generate the funds needed for preservation.
“It’s Easter Week, which is all about death and resurrection,” Ms. Burnley said. “That’s where our heads are at right now.”