Volume 73, Number 50 | April 21 - 27, 2004

Chelsea: This is progress? Time to tame high-rises

BY Tim Gay

Take a walk along Chelsea’s 10th Ave. — quick, before it is too late.

At the south end at 17th St., across from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and Red Rock Saloon, there is a parking lot. Within months, this could be rezoned and construction could start on two residential towers — one 30 stories and one 40 stories.

Go north 13 short blocks. The corner of 10th Ave. at 30th St. just might become the eastern entrance for the 30-story monolith stretching from 10th to 12th Aves. called Jets Stadium.

Not only would the stadium loom at nearly a third of the height of the Empire State Building, it would sprawl across the rail yards from 10th to 12th Aves., from 30th to 34th Sts. Imagine a steel box the size of Mount Rushmore, blocking the northern end of Chelsea.

Under the proposed West Chelsea Rezoning Plan, everything between 17th and 30th Sts. could also change. New buildings will go up along the west side of 10th Ave. and the east side of 11th Ave., while the mid-block manufacturing buildings now used as art galleries would remain protected.

On 11th Ave., the march of high-rises starting at 17th St. (the aforementioned pair of 30- and 40-story buildings) would continue up to 23rd St., so apartment views could clear the Chelsea Piers.

Already, 23rd St. between 10th and 11th Aves. is becoming the new E. 57th St., with its walls of residential buildings.

One saving factor in this development is the High Line, that stretch of abandoned elevated railroad running mid-block between 10th and 11th. If it becomes a park — and all indications seem to point to this — New York’s Department of City Planning will keep development next to the rail line low, and designate “receiving sites” for transferring right-to-build bulk. In other words, if a developer can’t stack mega-stories on or next to the High Line, the city will allow the extra bulk to be built nearby.

Appealing? — Or frightening? Yet, there is hope.

“The genie is never going back in the bottle, so we should participate in the zoning process,” noted Lee Compton, Community Board 4 member and co-chairperson of Community Board 4’s Chelsea Preservation and Planning Committee.

“What’s happening in Hell’s Kitchen South and Clinton is being driven by the stadium,” Compton continued. “What’s happening in Chelsea is being partly driven by the stadium but also by the High Line. We’ve been working very hard for a year and a half, and will continue to work diligently to defeat the stadium. And Community Board 4 is fighting hard to keep 10th Ave., from 18th to 22nd Sts., as low as possible to protect the Chelsea Historic District.”

“People who want to live in Chelsea don’t want to live in a high-rise,” commented State Senator Tom Duane, who, in the mid-1980s, was instrumental in getting the original Chelsea Plan off the ground. “Chelsea, the Village and Hell’s Kitchen are hot neighborhoods because they are human scale. Why destroy what people and businesses find attractive?”

The Chelsea Preservation and Planning Committee has fought for 30 percent of the roughly 4,000 envisioned apartments to be “affordable units,” including units for “medium-income people” including teachers, firefighters, civil servants and other working people, said Compton.

Duane, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, City Councilmember Christine Quinn and other elected officials, not to mention a number of community groups and block associations, are also heeding the call for affordable-housing units as well as appropriate zoning.

“The battle is to get the city to put on the table a real affordable-housing plan that is not rehashing the programs that are already in place,” Duane noted. “Remember, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to promote affordable housing, but we haven’t seen any programs that benefit Chelsea.”

Last October, Gottfried proposed that the West Chelsea Rezoning Plan include a “mandatory inclusionary-housing component.”

This component “would require that developers set aside a certain number of units for low-to moderate-income households at affordable rents,” Gottfried recently wrote. “Instead of relying on voluntary programs such as the 80/20 program, this proposal would make developing affordable housing a required part of new construction on Manhattan’s West Side.”

The Chelsea Plan, begun in the 1980s and enacted during the Guiliani administration in 1997, effectively kept high-rises from the residential core of Chelsea. “The Chelsea Plan was good at preserving Chelsea and keeping people in their home,” Duane said. “However, it didn’t result in new, affordable housing beyond the programs like 80/20 that were already in place.

Four thousand units of housing would be roughly equal to the entire Penn South Houses and the Chelsea Elliot Houses. To this Chelsea resident, it seems like 1,200 units for working people is a reasonable demand, if not an expectation.

Yes, Chelsea continues to boom as the latest “it” neighborhood. The soon-to-open Buddha bar at the Chelsea Market will join such trendy nightspots as The Maritime Hotel, Crowbar, Spirit, the Eagle and Marquis, all opened within the past two years.

On the quieter side, Robert Trentlyon, a founder of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association and a longtime member of Community Board 4, sees progress in the developed areas of Chelsea. Here are his five signs of progress in 2003-2004:

Renovations are underway on the little park in front of the health center at 28th St. and Ninth Ave., across from Holy Apostles Church. “The design harks back to historic parks,” Trentlyon said.

Within the next 12 months, the Hudson River Park Trust will have taken down the Pier 64 shed, opening up the waterfront north of Chelsea Piers.

A food concession stand, restrooms and children’s play equipment are going into the northeast section of Chelsea Waterside Park at 11th Ave. and 24th St.

City Planning and Board 4 should hold final public hearings in late spring and early summer on the West Chelsea Rezoning Plan.

Finally, “everyone is opposed to the stadium,” Trentlyon observed.

For additional information on Assemblymember Gottfried’s plan on inclusion of affordable housing, call Dan Golub at Gottfried’s office, 212-807-7900. For information on fighting the stadium, call John Raskin with the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance at 212-541-5996.

Gay is a Democratic district leader in Chelsea.

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