Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

Despite Chelsea seminary’s statements, unbelievers persist

By Albert Amateau

Since the end of April, General Theological Seminary has been trying to tell its Chelsea neighbors that it no longer intends to build a 17-story glass residential and academic building on the Ninth Ave. side of the square-block campus known as The Close.

But the message seems to have been lost on most of the hundred or so Chelsea residents who turned up at a May 24 Community Board 4 public forum on the seminary project.

Opponents spoke as if they believed the 17-story mixed-use building proposed last year by G.T.S. and its development partner, the Brodsky Organization, was still a threat to the integrity of the Chelsea Historic District, which limits new development to seven and a half stories.

Seminary officials who attended the forum but were not asked to present the G.T.S. point of view, were puzzled at what they felt was a serious misrepresentation of their position.

“The 17-story building is off the table,” said Chris Ballard, a G.T.S. staff member, who spoke informally after the meeting. He characterized the assertion that G.T.S. has not given up on the oversized project as “a complete fabrication.”

Michelle DeMilly, a public relations consultant for G.T.S., said, “The project is on hold and we’re exploring alternatives — end of story,” in a conversation at the end of the meeting.

One source of mistrust, however, is that the seminary’s application filed in December with the Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to allow the 17-story project in the historic district has not been withdrawn, although it is no longer active.

“I feel like [the seminary] has a mega-missile pointed at us and then saying they’re not going to use it,” said Robert S. Trentlyon, a founder of Save the Chelsea Historic District, referring to the L.P.C. application. Save the Chelsea Historic District is an advocacy group organized in response to the seminary project.

“I believe they are looking at alternatives,” said Walter Mankoff, a vice chairperson of Community Board 4, in a phone interview the day after the forum. “But I don’t think we were ever told they would never build the 17-story project,” he added. He said later that he had only heard “indirectly” that the project was off the table.

Lee Compton, Community Board 4 chairperson, said he had not scheduled a formal role for G.T.S. officials at the May 24 forum because the seminary did not have a new plan to present. Compton also noted that the seminary’s application to L.P.C. for permission to exceed Chelsea Historic District height limits has not been withdrawn even though the seminary is not actively pursuing it.

However, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who had attended a private April 27 meeting of elected officials, neighbors and C.B.4 leaders with seminary representatives, said at the May 24 forum that it was clear to him that the seminary had understood that the 17-story building could not be built.

Maureen Burnley, G.T.S. vice president for operations and development, who was not at the May 24 forum, said later that she thought she had made it clear at the private meeting that the oversized project was no longer under consideration.

Colin Casey, an aide to State Senator Tom Duane, recalled that at the April 27 meeting, which he attended, a model of the entire G.T.S. campus was on the table.

“At the very beginning, [Burnley] took the individual model of the 17-story building out of the block and said, ‘This is symbolic. It’s no longer on the table,’ ” Casey said.

The 17-story project, with 82 luxury residential condos and ground-floor space for the G.T.S. library and administrative offices, was proposed as a replacement for the present four-story Sherrill Hall, which is badly deteriorated even though it was built in 1959. The project is intended to generate $15 million to restore several 19th-century seminary buildings whose maintenance has been deferred for many years. The restoration is deemed an immediate necessity if the 180-year-old Episcopal institution is to continue in Chelsea.

The alternatives to the 17-story project include the possibility of putting up a revenue-producing project on the current site of a tennis court on the 20th St. side of The Close. The seminary is also exploring the idea of building retail uses on Ninth Ave. in a new building that conforms to historic district requirements.

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