Volume 75, Number 35 | January 18 - 24, 200

A rendering showing the planned 17-story, glass-walled building, at left, the General Theological Seminary hopes to erect on Ninth Ave. in the heart of the Chelsea Historic District.

Seminary forging ahead with tower despite opposition

By Albert Amateau

General Theological Seminary has taken the first formal step in its quest for city approval of a new 17-story mixed-use tower to replace its existing four-story academic building on the Ninth Ave. side of the seminary’s Chelsea campus.

Polshek Partnership, architects of the project with 13 stories of luxury residences on top of a four-story base for the seminary’s offices and library, filed an application Dec. 16 for a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Landmarks approval is required because the project, located between 20th and 21st Sts., is within the designated Chelsea Historic District. The project would also require a special permit from the Department of City Planning for a building that exceeds the height ceiling set by current zoning.

As proposed by the seminary in partnership with the developers, the Brodsky Organization, the project would be more than twice the 75-foot height allowed by current zoning for the low-rise district and has aroused anxious opposition from Chelsea neighbors.

Seminary officials have said the project is essential for the future of the 180-year-old institution, the oldest Episcopal seminary in the nation. The seminary needs to replace the leaking four-story Sherrill Hall, built in 1959 on Ninth Ave., and also needs to restore the 19th-century buildings on the seminary grounds, which is known as The Close, between Ninth and 10th Aves.

Maureen Burnley, seminary vice president for finance and operation, said earlier this month that the project architects were still adding details (“appendices and odds and ends”) to the Landmarks application, which also includes the G.T.S. plan to preserve the historic buildings in The Close.

“The preservation plan details the current state of the historic buildings and specifies how we propose to preserve them,” Burnley said. L.P.C. has not yet scheduled a hearing on the application, a spokesperson for the agency said last week.

“The seminary is requesting a special permit [from City Planning] under Zoning Regulation 74-711 which obliges us to use proceeds from the new building for preservation of our historic buildings,” Burnely added.

Nevertheless, Community Board 4, whose district includes the seminary, two weeks ago approved a letter to the commission outlining neighborhood opposition to the project and expressing concern that a 17-story tower in an area zoned for seven-and-a-half stories would “form a dangerous precedent and contribute to the reduction of the rich diversity of the community.”

Although the seminary’s formal application has not yet been submitted to the community board, the letter, ratified at the Jan. 4 full board meeting, said the importance of the issue compelled the board to make a preliminary statement.

The west side of the seminary Close on 10th Ave., is also the western edge of the Chelsea Historic District, designated in 1970 and extended in 1980. Last autumn, the Department of City Planning created the West Chelsea Plan for the area west of 10th Ave., the C.B. 4 letter noted.

“We are very appreciative that City Planning, as part of the West Chelsea Plan, agreed to limit buildings on the west side of 10th Ave., across from the Historic District to a height no greater that eight stories,” the C.B. 4 letter says. “The board is very seriously concerned about maintaining the 75-foot height restrictions of the Chelsea Plan in the Historic District and that the built form of the Chelsea community and the integrity of the Historic District and its heart, the General Theological Seminary block, remain intact,” the letter continues.

Burnley told The Villager on Jan. 5 that she hadn’t known the seminary project was on the agenda. She said she was disappointed that she was not invited to the Jan. 4 meeting, and since she wasn’t notified she consequently did not send a representative. “This is only the beginning of the process and the letter sounds like it’s the end of the process,” she added.

Edward Kirkland, chairperson of the board’s Chelsea Preservation Committee, said the seminary project was on his committee’s Dec. 21 meeting agenda and noted that no one from G.T.S. was at that meeting either. “I probably should have told [the seminary] about it but the agenda for the committee and the board meetings was on our Web site and we’ve been talking about the project with G.T.S. since August,” said Kirkland. “It’s an indication of how separated they are from the community that they didn’t consult the Web site,” Kirkland added.

Neighbors of G.T.S., however, turned out in force at the Jan. 4 community board meeting and spoke against the project. The objections largely repeated concerns expressed at a Nov. 21 public forum at which G.T.S. outlined the proposals and the reasons the project was necessary.

The height and bulk of the project was the prime concern, but speakers also protested that creation of 82 high-end co-op apartments would put pressure on housing costs in the neighborhood. One speaker said the proposed glass facade of the tower would compromise the integrity of the Chelsea Historic District.

Among the speakers were Bill Borock, president of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations; Robert Martin, a member of the Chelsea Coalition on Housing; Mary Swartz, president of the West 400 Block Association; Dorothea McElduff, who was raised and lives in a house across 21st St. from the seminary; Hilda Regier, former president of the community board and of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations and author of the Chelsea entry in the Encyclopedia of New York City; Lynn Ramsey, a founder of Chelsea Community Church that meets in the landmarked St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on W. 20th St.; and Stephen Shore, an attorney and community activist who also lives on 21st St. across from the seminary.

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