Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

Neighbors are wholly against Chelsea seminary tower

By Albert Amateau

Anxious neighbors met last week at The General Theological Seminary in Chelsea to hear alternatives for the restoration and redevelopment of the landmarked complex of 19th-century buildings in the square block between 20th and 21st Sts. and Ninth and 10th Aves. known as Chelsea Square.

The immediate focus of the Aug. 23 meeting was the proposal to replace the four-story building on the Ninth Ave. end of the campus, Sherrill Hall, whose condition is so deteriorated that it will be virtually useless after three more yeas, according to Maureen Burnley, the seminary’s executive vice president for finance and operations.

But plans to replace the 1960s building with a mixed-use project including apartments, which would pay for the 50,000 square feet of space that the seminary needs for its offices and library, were not advanced enough last week to answer the neighbors’ main question: How tall will it be?

Burnley told neighbors the seminary has a contract with the Brodsky Organization to develop the new building, while James Stewart Polshek and Partners would design the project, whose height and density are still unknown.

She acknowledged that the seminary needs as much revenue as possible from the rental or co-op apartments that Brodsky would build in order to pay for its needs on Ninth Ave. and for the restoration of other older buildings in Chelsea Square where maintenance has been deferred for years.

The history of The General Theological Seminary is that it was established on land donated in 1821 by Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Biblical languages and author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” — the poem that begins “Twas the night before Christmas….”

But its future is not certain. Very high maintenance costs for the old buildings in the wall-enclosed campus known as The Close have been a very heavy burden, Burnley said.

“The Close is a beautiful ball and chain,” she said, adding that the institution is “right on the knife edge of bankruptcy.” The endowment, $50 million 10 years ago, has declined to $27 million this year, she added. Maintenance for the old buildings takes 33 percent of the annual budget. Burnley said the goal is to reduce the burden to 25 percent. “That’s still two and a half times more than comparable institutions pay for maintenance,” she estimated.

Unless the seminary’s current efforts to put the institution on a sound financial footing succeed, “We may have to sell it off and move to someplace in the country where it would be cheaper,” Burnley said.

The Close is within the Chelsea Historic District, so the Landmarks Preservation Commission will ultimately decide on issues including demolition and the appropriateness of the proposed building on Ninth Ave.

But one neighbor at the Aug. 23 meeting, Steve Shore, a real estate lawyer who lives on W. 21st St., threatened a lawsuit even if a building taller than seven or eight stories were approved.

The special R7B low-rise zoning for the Chelsea neighborhood calls for a floor-area ratio of 3 with a maximum street-wall height of 60 feet and a total height limit of 75 feet, equal to about seven stories. Burnley, however, was doubtful that such a project would likely generate the revenue that the seminary needs.

Another neighbor, John Bowe, with the real estate firm, Stribling, Wells & Gay, suggested that neighbors face the idea that the solution to the seminary’s financial problems would be to sell The Close and move. “Everything changes,” said Bowe. It was a suggestion that made faces fall around the conference table on Aug. 23.

“We have 260,000 square feet of unused development rights in The Close, and we’d like to use some of them to help us stay in Chelsea,” Burnley said.

But the opportunities for use appear few. Although owners of landmarked properties are entitled to sell unused development rights to owners across the street, the seminary has apparently lost the chance to sell its rights to properties across 10th Ave.

Walter Mankoff, former chairperson of Community Board 4, reminded the Aug. 23 meeting that the recent rezoning of West Chelsea to accommodate the High Line, which runs just west of 10th Ave., has designated the area as the receiving site for development rights adjacent to the High Line.

Over the years, the seminary has been involved in other projects designed to help it survive, Burnley said.

Among the most difficult actions was the sale of a Guttenberg Bible from the seminary library, Burnley said.

In the past few years, the seminary converted three 19th-century townhouses on the 20th St. side of The Close and has been renting each of them as private family residences for $8,400 per month, Burnley said. However, Shore suggested that the seminary sell those buildings as residential condos or co-ops for a return of $6 million to beef up the endowment.

The General Theological Seminary is one of 11 institutions that educate Episcopal clergy, but the seminary is not a corporate part of the Episcopal Church, Burnley said. “The Church is unwilling to do for one seminary what it cannot do for all 11,” said Burnley, responding to a question about possible Episcopal Church subsidies.

Indeed, six years ago there were talks between the seminary and the Episcopal Church about sharing The Close by establishing the Church’s national offices there. But the talks came to naught.

There also had been talks of Union Seminary, the nondenominational Protestant seminary located near Columbia University, merging and moving to The Close. That also fell through. “Someone said it would have been like tying the Titanic to the Lusitania,” quipped Burnley, noting that Union is also struggling to survive.

Future plans include sinking deep wells inside The Close to tap geothermal sources to meet future energy needs and reduce costs dramatically, Burnley said.

The latest project is the construction currently underway of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Education Center inside three of the seminary’s 19th-century buildings on the 10th Ave. side of The Close.

The center, named for the Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, who was a guest lecturer at the Chelsea seminary in 1984 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, will provide new facilities for continuing education, programs for peace, interfaith relations, Christian spirituality and accommodations for participants.

The $23 million project, which will include removing most of the forbidding wall along the 10th Ave. side of the campus, is expected to eventually generate about $1.5 million a year in revenue to augment the tuition paid by 145 seminary students.

On Sept. 13, Archbishop Tutu will come to Chelsea for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the center and the official opening of the seminary’s $15 million fundraising campaign to help the institution survive in Chelsea in the 21st century.

But neighbors were most anxious about the scale of the proposed Ninth Ave. building. “If your efforts to stay in Chelsea don’t succeed after a few years, we’ll be stuck with the new building and the new owner of The Close,” observed Edward Kirkland, a longtime Chelsea resident and member of Community Board 4.

Burnley promised to meet again with neighbors in the near future when more details about the Ninth Ave. building are available.

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