Volume 76, Number 6 | June 28 - July 4 2006

Chelsea seminary drops 4 stories off its tower plan

By Albert Amateau

General Theological Seminary last week scaled back its plans to build a 17-story tower on the Ninth Ave. side of its Chelsea campus.

The new plan to build a 13-story building to replace the four-story Sherrill Hall has won only a few converts from the neighbors who opposed the first proposal.

The Seminary’s land-use lawyer, Stephen Lefkowitz, sent a letter on June 19 to Robert Tierney, Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson, saying the Seminary intends to amend the application it had filed at the end of last year.

“As a result of many discussions with members of the Chelsea community and elected officials, the Seminary has decided not to pursue the application in its present form,” the letter says. “Instead, the Seminary is reviewing its needs and plans … and expects to amend the application. The current thinking, following discussions with the community, is to reduce the size of the building on Ninth Ave. by transferring certain program space to a new building to be constructed on 20th St. between Ninth and 10th Aves. on the site of the Seminary’s tennis court,” the letter said. The courts are in the middle of the campus and a small building there has not drawn opposition.

Chris Ballard, a Seminary staff member involved in community outreach, said the move to amend the L.P.C. application would require less time and trouble than withdrawing it and filing an entirely new application.

In response to neighborhood opposition to the 17-story mixed residential and academic uses project, the Seminary on June 15 presented an alternate scenario for a 13-story building with residential condos on the Ninth Ave. end of the campus and a three-story building with 35,000 sq. ft. for the academic uses on the tennis court within the walled campus on the 20th St. side between Ninth and 10th Aves.

While a few neighbors at the June 15 meeting were willing to consider the alternative, most of them were not receptive.

“The community doesn’t want anything taller than the 75 feet allowed by the zoning,” said Robert S. Trentlyon, a founder of Save the Chelsea Historic District, a group organized in response to the project.

“Many of the people into neighborhood preservation are trying to preserve the Seminary right out of existence by being so inflexible,” Ballard said later.

Founded in 1819 on land donated by Clement Clark Moore, a Seminary professor of oriental languages and author of the verse that begins, “Twas the night before Christmas,” the first building was completed in 1827.

G.T.S., the oldest Episcopal seminary in the U.S., needs a Landmarks Commission Certificate of Appropriateness for the project because the campus, known as the Close, between Ninth and 10th Aves. from 20th to 21st Sts., is within the Chelsea Historic District. The zoning of the Close mandates a height limit of 75 ft., about seven stories.

The Ninth Ave. project, a partnership of the Seminary with the Brodsky Organization, originally called for the 17-story mixed-use complex with 82 residential condos and space for the Seminary’s administrative offices, the dean’s residence and the G.T.S. library. The site is the current location of the four-story Sherrill Hall, which is in bad condition despite having been built in 1959.

The proposed luxury residential condos are intended to generate $15 million that the Seminary needs to restore and maintain its 19th century buildings, which are badly deteriorated because maintenance has long been deferred. The Seminary’s agreement with the Brodsky Organization guaranteed that G.T.S. would receive the $15 million in return for Brodsky’s control of the residential and commercial income from the project.

At the June 15 meeting, Trentlyon said he consulted several real estate developers, who assured him the Seminary could realize the $15 million it needs by building its own replacement of Sherrill Hall with high-rent ground floor retail space on Ninth Ave.

However, Maureen Burnley, G.T.S. vice president for finance and operations, replied that the Seminary did not want to create “a commercial mall” on any part of the Close. She also said that if the Seminary developed its own non-academic profit-oriented uses, it would have to pay considerable real estate and income taxes from which it is now exempt as a religious and educational institution.

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