Episcopalians Jeered in Chelsea

gtsbldg Episcopalians Jeered in ChelseaPeople in Chelsea aren’t happy about the General Theological Seminary’s plans to demolish its run-down Sherrill Hall to make way for a 17-story, mixed-use, income-producing building.

The plans were unveiled late last year as part of the seminary’s capital-improvement project. The upshot: The school’s endowment is beleaguered; operating expenses are climbing; and the school’s other buildings are falling into disrepair. The idea is that the new building will generate funds to renovate and restore the cloister of Gothic Revival buildings that make up most of the campus, which makes up most of the city block on Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st streets.

But in the neighborhood they’re complaining about the size and scale of the proposed building and the possibility that allowing GTS to bypass the historic-district rules that took effect in the neighborhood more than 30 years ago, as well as a local zoning regulation that limits new buildings to a height to 750 feet will set a precedent.

Enter yet another Manhattan neighborhood group: Save the Chelsea Historic District.

“This is the classic story that’s happening all over New York, and there’s no question that if this goes through, there are other institutions in Chelsea which all of a sudden will start thinking, ‘Hey, this will solve our problems too,’” said Robert Trentlyon, the president of the group and a member of the local community board. “The whole [Chelsea Historic] District will go.”

The General Theological Seminary has rather older roots in the neighborhood, having moved there in 1827 after Clement Clark Moore (author of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas), donated it to the seminary.

The first of the seminary’s existing red brick and brownstone Gothic Revival buildings was built in 1836; together, these buildings are grouped around “the Close,” a landscaped quadrangle nestled in the interior of the block. The four-story modernist Sherrill Hall was built in 1961 to house the seminary’s St. Mark’s library, which, according to a press release, is in danger of water damage as a result of the building’s poor construction and deteriorated condition.
One school official told The Observer the repairs aren’t worth it on such a valuable piece of real estate.

“We thought, ‘Why are we going to put $4 to $6 million into a lousy building that’s ugly and doesn’t contribute to the historic district or to the Close, and also doesn’t really function well for the seminary?’”

The seminary teamed up with the Brodsky Organization, a real-estate-development firm, and Polshek Partnership, and came up with a 13-story, glass-sheathed tower perched on a four-story base that follows the lines and form of the other seminary buildings nearby, according to Ms. Burnley. The upper floors will house 80 residential units, and the seminary’s library, administrative offices and bookstore will occupy the lower floors. Financing will be provided via the Brodsky Organization, which will pay the seminary $25 million to develop the project; in return, it will receive a 99-year lease on the residential floors of the building, which will reverts to the seminary on expiration.

The Commnity Board is going to send a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the City Planning department detailing its objections to the project. In part, the letter will detail why the Community Board believes the seminary is embellishing the story of its financial difficulties. Both addressees will have to sign off on the seminary’s plans before they can get underway.

- Matthew Grace