Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Seminary prays its new design will convert

By Lawrence Lerner

The General Theological Seminary unveiled a revision of its controversial 17-story Ninth Ave. tower proposal on Oct. 25 in front of a fairly receptive crowd of 100 people at the Church of the Holy Apostles, in Chelsea.

Architects from Polshek Partnership and Beyer Blinder Belle, two firms working with the seminary, made a 40-minute presentation of two buildings that make up the current proposal. They presented a Ninth Ave. building with a five-story base and a slimmer, set-back tower rising an additional 10 stories facing Ninth Ave.; the tower steps down two stories on the other three sides facing 20th and 21st Sts. and The Close, the seminary’s historic green space that occupies the entire block between those two streets from Ninth to Tenth Aves.

The architects also presented a five-story building to go on the seminary’s tennis court on West 20th St. The latter structure will absorb the 30,000 square feet that has been trimmed from the original Ninth Ave. tower proposal to appease neighbors’ concerns.

According to Susan Rodriguez, the Polshek architect who presented the new Ninth Ave. building design, the tower portion is not only shorter and less bulky than the original proposal but also features less glass and more brick to make it more contextual with other buildings on The Close.

“We’ve taken the community’s concerns to heart while trying to generate the revenue needed for renovations of the historic buildings at the seminary,” said Rodriguez.

The revised plan also sets the tower portion back from 20th and 21st Sts. by 58 feet and 38 feet, respectively, forming what Rodriguez calls “a perimeter frame around The Close, which preserves views of the chapel tower.” The chapel view is also enhanced by a newly designed entrance on Ninth Ave., which was moved farther north toward 21st St. than the original proposal had stipulated.

The mixed-use building, which would replace the deteriorating Sherill Hall on Ninth Ave. between 20th and 21st Sts., has been the center of a battle between area residents and the seminary for more than a year. Residents charge the proposed tower would violate the 75-foot height restriction of the Chelsea Historic District, of which G.T.S. is an integral part.

But seminary officials say the building represents the best hope for generating the $15 million to $20 million needed to stabilize many of G.T.S.’s historic buildings, which have fallen into disrepair because of years of deferred maintenance and are in need of immediately attention. Replacement of Sherill Hall would bring another $20 million to $25 million from the seminary’s developing partner, the Brodsky Organization, in the form of new furnished space. In return for bearing the cost of construction for the newly designed Ninth Ave. building, Brodsky would get a 99-year ground lease and would sell or lease approximately 75 condos in the top floors of the tower for a profit of nearly $100 million. The seminary would get a portion of this revenue.

With the new design, the seminary is using 185,000 of its 240,000 square feet of available development rights, as it did in the original 17-story proposal. But with 30,000 square feet being relocated to the 20th St. building, the Ninth Ave. building will lose 2,800 square feet per floor in the tower portion of the building.

“We lose some revenue on the Ninth Avenue tower with this version, but I think it’s a better building,” said Ward Ewing, the seminary’s dean.

The five-story building on 20th St., designed by Beyer Blinder Belle, also takes into account the surrounding structures on The Close, and would be constructed primarily of red brick and glass, with one facade containing gray Manhattan schist, to blend in with the West Building next door. This structure will house administrative offices now in Sherill Hall, moving these core functions to the other end of The Close. As a result, a day-to-day entrance to the quadrangles will run alongside the building, said Beyer Blinder Belle architect Frederick Bland.

The combined design revision got mixed reviews from attendees, although supporters of the plan appeared to outnumber detractors by a slim margin. Some 20 people signed up to address the crowd during a passionate, but nonetheless cordial, question-and-answer session after the presentations.

Matt Foreman, a longtime Chelsea resident and L.G.B.T. activist, congratulated the seminary on doing “a good job trying to compromise with area residents by altering its plan” yet again. “The bulk on this tower design is slimmer and lower, which I really like. Anyone who’s holding fast to the 75-foot law should read the seminary’s financials. They can’t survive with that low a building,” he said.

Several speakers questioned G.T.S.’s claim of financial hardship, however. Mary Swartz of the West 400 Block Association snapped, “I’m against this huge tower. I don’t think a seven-story building will hurt the seminary as much as they say.”

Mark Collins, who lives at 175 Ninth Ave. between 20th and 21st Sts., disputed Swartz’s assertion. Having seen other seminaries fall into insolvency, he said, “This is not a threat or abstraction. This has happened to many religious institutions up and down the Hudson.”

To help the seminary offset its financial woes, a few speakers pushed for G.T.S. to include high-rent retail on the ground floor of the Ninth Ave. tower. Bob Trentlyon, founder of Save the Chelsea Historic District, doubted G.T.S.’s position that only mom-and-pop stores could be placed in the space.

“Obviously, the seminary folks don’t know the real-estate market on Ninth Ave. And we never said big box, though they keep bringing that up.”

But Virginia Davies, a West Village resident who has been through similar development battles there, cautioned the crowd not to let commercialism get out of hand at the seminary.

“I’m not sure that preserving buildings for Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs is what you want,” she warned. “Trust me. We got this in the West Village, and we’re not happy about it.”

The new G.T.S. proposal calls for a few small shops on the ground floor of the Ninth Ave. building.

Throughout the Q&A session, several in the audience castigated the seminary for not using its residential space well, prompting Maureen Burnley, G.T.S.’s executive vice president for finance and operations, to issue invitations “to come and see for yourself how tight our student quarters are.”

Lynn Hade, a senior at the seminary, later testified, “I have 160 square feet, no kitchen, and I share a bathroom. I’m not complaining, but it’s certainly not the lap of luxury.”

No other issue has remained as important — and contentious — during the yearlong battle over the seminary’s preservation plan as the height of the Ninth Ave. tower, however. Not surprisingly, that was foremost on many participants’ minds during Wednesday’s meeting.

Steve Shore, a real-estate lawyer who resides near the seminary at 401 W. 21st St., spoke for many in the room when he insisted during the Q&A that the deal G.T.S. struck with the Brodsky Organization to develop the Ninth Ave. tower would set a precedent for other nonprofits in the area to circumvent the Chelsea Historic District’s zoning restrictions by using Article 74-711 of the Landmarks Law.

“If many nonprofits in Chelsea can do what the seminary is doing, and sell development rights for $15 million to $20 million to a developer like Brodsky, then I would expect to see the Chelsea Plan go by the wayside and see lots of towers in Chelsea.” It was the Chelsea Plan — a land use plan and rezoning — passed in the late 1990s, that set height limits for the Chelsea Historic District, as well as other parts of Chelsea.

But Burnley said that’s not likely to happen, since no other nonprofits in Chelsea are in a position comparable to that of the seminary.

“This doesn’t set a precedent, because there are only three buildings that might qualify under 74-711, and two of them are owned by the seminary. The other is a modern structure that probably wouldn’t fall under the provision,” she said, adding later that because height variances correlate to building footprint, no other Chelsea nonprofit “could come close to qualifying for a variance as high as the one we qualified for.”

One issue that did not surface at the presentation is G.T.S.’s geothermal drilling plan, which will start in November, pending final approval from the New York City Department of Transportation. The project is occurring in conjunction with G.T.S.’s renovation of the Desmond Tutu Education Center on the Tenth Ave. side of The Close and should reduce the seminary’s long-term energy costs.

“This is a heating and cooling system that is environmentally friendly and will take nine years to pay for, but the savings will be upwards of a half-million dollars per year,” said Burnley in an interview earlier this week. “That’s money we can then put toward our preservation plan.”

The green energy initiative calls for five wells to be drilled on Tenth Ave., followed by three wells on 21st St. Each well will take about a week to drill and will extend 1,500 feet below the earth’s surface.

To start, engineers will erect a 150-foot-long pen on one side of Tenth Ave., which will leave one lane of available traffic and cut off parking on the other side of the street. There will also be a sound barrier around the pen to control noise. Drilling will occur on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Burnley took pains to assure area residents that vibrations will be kept to a minimum and will be monitored at all times by the engineers.

“We’ve got four teams of engineers who will minimize the impact on neighbors in every way, and no drilling will take place under houses or property lines,” she said. “Drilling will occur on sidewalks only, about 6 to 7 feet from G.T.S.’s walls and 60 to 70 feet from neighbors’ buildings. Plus, bedrock absorbs vibration, so the deeper we drill, the less the vibration.”

According to Burnley, other geothermal heating systems in New York City can be found at the South Street Seaport, which has eight wells located only 3 feet from some of their historic buildings, and at Diane von Furstenberg’s historic building in the Meatpacking District, which has three wells.

“There aren’t too many examples of this technology in New York City, but there are some, and they have been proven to be safe, green and very cost effective,” she said.

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