Walking the High Line can be maddening and miraculous, often all at once. The crowds, the new buildings crowding out the views of the Hudson, all atop a highly manicured railroad trestle. Some park.
Yet it remains one of the best places to take in the city and its people—a big part of the reason the park attracts 3 million visitors a year, 10 times the original estimate, and has generated more than $2 billion in economic development.
The project could be considered one of the most successful real estate initiatives since Park Avenue was built by the Grand Central Railroad. And some day, probably sooner than most people realize, walking the High Line will be not unlike strolling down Park Avenue, with a wall of buildings on either side. And still, it will be the city’s new premier address.
Into this renaissance lumbers the Chelsea Market, the project that in many ways made this transformation possible when it opened two decades ago. Now it wants its share of the action, just like everybody else, planting itself on the High Line.
Already the old Nabisco factory looms over the park, as it has since the railroad was first raised in 1932, an early warning of all the development that would someday follow. Now Jamestown Properties, the Atlanta-based firm that has been involved in the building since 2004, wants to double this end of the red-brick behemoth, adding an eight-story addition on the old factory. “It’s not a fully completed asset,” a company executive told The Wall Street Journal in March of last year, when the project was announced.
The decision has terrified the neighbors, many of whom love to hate the High Line and hate to love the market, with all their crowds and commerce. But they have forged an unusual alliance to try and save both—even as they largely ignore the history of a building, and a neighborhood, that has been constantly changing to suit the needs of its masters.
Five years after the Chelsea Hotel was built, lending its name to what was then becoming a popular Gilded Age neighborhood for the city’s industrious class, the first New York Biscuit Company building began to take shape eight blocks south and one block west, in 1890.
From a series of red-brick bakeries rising six stories, New York Biscuit began to churn out the most famous sweet and savory crisps in the country. Eight years after the facilities opened, the competitors merged to form the National Biscuit Company, since known as Nabisco, and never looked back. By the 1920s, more than 22 buildings covering some 2 million square feet had been built.
The booming industry was good for business but bad for the neighborhood. The 10th Avenue freight line, the lifeblood of the neighborhood, was claiming ever more lives, so the decision was made to elevate it.
Louis Wirsching Jr., Nabisco’s chief architect at the time, came up with the turreted structure that still stands along 10th Avenue, operating from 1932 until Nabisco shipped out for suburban North Jersey in 1958.
The next year, the building was sold to Louis Glickman, a storied, bootstrapping developer who once threatened to tear down Carnegie Hall in favor of a new office building. He never did much with the old factory, nor did a succession of other owners.
In 1993, Irwin Cohen arrived, along with a group of Russian and Tajik backers, met through a friend who was an immigration attorney. They had $10 million in hand, all it took to buy an industrial building in the area back then. A former lawyer, Mr. Cohen had been doing a brisk business in renting up similar structures in Long Island City. “I like this type of building,” he said over a lunch of steamed vegetables last Friday at Sardi’s. “I couldn’t tell you why else I bought it.”
At the time, he had been working with City Hall on a plan to relocate the Flower district into new facilities, keeping it from moving to New Jersey. He thought the Nabisco plant, bought at auction, would be a good place. But the parking never worked out, so he had to figure on something different. A subsequent deal with the photography store B&H also fell through.
“And then I said, what can you do?” he recalled. “New York is food, clothing and shelter. We had lots of clothing in Long Island City, so I said, ‘Let’s do food.’”
Food was not such a wild idea, as the area was still very much the Meatpacking district, the cobblestones running red with blood. “When we first got in the building, we found three dead bodies, all on their knees, shot through the head, execution style,” Mr. Cohen said. He recalled having to devise clever ways to drive out the prostitutes who had overtaken the place.
His great innovation was requiring the wholesalers who took up in the building to also sell retail, creating the famous martketplace in the old factory’s concourse everyone now knows so well. It now attracts 300,000 visitors a year—the same number the High Line thought it would be getting. Amy’s Bread, the Lobster Place, Buon Italia, all helped attract companies to move their offices upstairs, starting with Oxygen, MLB.com and the Food Network, whose hosts regularly shopped downstairs during their shows early days. ABC’s Murder One and HBO’s Oz were among the shows shot in the vacant corners of the building, since transformed into office space.
Thus Jamestown’s desire to expand. Between the full occupancy here, and the success of Google in attracting yet more tech talent to the neighborhood, to say nothing of the fiber-optic infrastructure below ground that the techies obsess over, this has quietly emerged as one of the city’s premier office locations.
“We easily have 350,000 square feet of need now,” Michael Phillips, Jamestown’s COO, told The Commercial Observer in March. “We can’t just go to the vacant lot down the street and build a new building, because the infrastructure, the cooling tower, the electrical vaults, the recording studios, the servers are all up in this building.” (Mr. Phillips and his associates declined to comment for this article due to ongoing negotiations with the city over the building’s rezoning.)
But the idea of Chelsea becoming an office district is precisely what repels many locals. “This is not Times Square,” said David Holowka, an architect, longtime resident and member of the Save Chelsea coalition. He has drawn up proposals of his own, on his blog Archi-Takes, that proposes Jamestown move the bulk of its development to Ninth Avenue, where it would not overhang the High Line. He argues that the move is a baldfaced attempt to plunk down a new office building, with choice views up and down the city’s hottest new attraction.
Jamestown has said that this would destroy the interior space of the building, which everyone loves so much, and the structure on the western end is all that could accommodate the expansion. They already have plans for a nine-story hotel above the Buddakkan space on Ninth Avenue, that this would interfere with, though the developer told the community board in April it would abandon the hotel if asked—though it would still build all the space, a total of 330,000 square feet on both ends on top of the 1.2 million that already exists. This is half the size of the Googleplex (which Jamestown sold to the company for a record $1.8 billion), but also bigger than just about anything else in this corner of town.
“They’re really just trying to maximize their profits, aren’t they?” said Jeff Vandenburg, Mr. Cohen’s architect on the original Chelsea Market. He worked on a similar proposal to add onto the building in the middle of last decade, but he pointed out that his stepped down toward the High Line to minimize impacts. “Money finally wins out, and these things get as bulky as possible,” Mr. Vandenburg said. “It’s always bulkamania. It’s always bulkamania.”
The big issue for a lot of locals is whether or not the community actually benefits from this proposal. More office workers may be good for the city’s tech sector and overall economy, but what does Chelsea get out of this? Furthermore, the Chelsea Market was intentionally carved out of the rezoning that led buildings to skyrocket around the High Line. Now that it is being allowed to grow, there are fears other developers will make the same requests. “Cohen asked for it, and we fought him tooth and nail,” said Ed Kirkland, former chair of the preservation committee at the community board and one of the authors of the rezoning. “At least he was a local guy. Jamestown is just going to take their money back to Atlanta.”
There is a certain irony that people who bemoan the High Line at home, and profess to rarely visit it, are now fighting for its salvation from shadows and overdevelopment. Remember the park’s Martin Luther moment, when an anonymous neighbor posted a screed throughout the area concluding, “If you see an empty space, leave it empty. Otherwise there will be no spaces for New Yorkers.” Jamestown has not taken heed, and its main excuse for building is supporting the park: it will pay $19 million to help fund the ongoing maintenance, money Friends of the High Line, a booster for the project, is desperate for.
“The High Line may not be for us, but neither are these new buildings,” Mr. Kirkland said.
Architect Gregg Pasquarelli knows a thing or two about additions on top of Chelsea buildings. His SHoP Architects, better known for the Barclays Center and East River Esplanade, designed the Porter House across the street from the market. It happens to be one of the firm’s first successes, the dark metal box with the vertical lights running through it, perched atop the yellow-brick Old Homestead Steakhouse.
Mr. Pasquarelli has called it home since it opened a decade ago, and he said he welcomes his new neighbor, even if it will block his view.
“What’s wrong with congestion?” he asks. “I’m all for congestion, it’s the lifeblood of the city. The neighborhood can handle the density.”
This is the way New York, Chelsea, Nabisco, has always been developing. The city, Google, needs the space, needs the money. There is nowhere else to go but up. A development promise has been undone. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last. At least this is taking place atop an already big building in an already crowded district.
“I just wish they had been a little more ambitious with their design,” Mr. Pasquarelli said. “It’s fairly suburban.”