By Carter B. Horsley
It is not easy to squeeze an institutional
campus into the fabric of a developed city as evidenced by the
continued controversies over the expansions of Columbia and New
York Universities in Manhattan over the past few decades.
Given the activism of many community and neighborhood
groups, it is not even easy to do when the institutional already
has a campus and simply wants to expand within it as evidenced
by the recent inability of the Fashion Institute of Technology
to close 27th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, a block
on which it owns virtually all the buildings, so that it can have
a "real" campus.
The General Theological Seminary occupies the
entire block between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 20th and 21st
Streets in the heart of Chelsea and the Chelsea Historic District.
It wants to replace Sherrill Hall, a five-story
building that now occupies its frontage along Ninth Avenue with
a 17-story, mixed-use tower and on November 21, 2005 it made an
informational presentation before Community Board 4.
Sherrill Hall, which was designed in 1960 by
OConnor & Kilham, is an attractive, but not inspired
building that bears little contextual relationship to the older
brownstone buildings of the seminary.
The seminary's older buildings are not architecturally
very distinguished but historically they are among the most important
landmarks in Chelsea and they are bordered on 20th and 21st Streets
by two of the loveliest blocks of townhouses in Chelsea.
The seminary does have a nice chapel tower
and attractive gardens that are visible from 20th Street.
Because the seminary is in the Chelsea Historic
District, approval of the plans will be needed from the city's
Landmarks Preservation Commission.
At the community board meeting, which was jam-packed
and very raucous, the Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing, Dean and President
of the seminary, said it was "at a critical moment in its
190-year history" and is faced with "urgent problems."
He said that Sherrill Hall and other structures "are severely
damaged." He said that since 1999, the seminary has spent
$9 million on restoration but needs $50 million to $60 million
to preserve its buildings.
About 30 people, including many students at
the seminary, signed up to speak in favor of the plan and about
50 people signed up in opposition, but because the hearing was
regularly interrupted by a front-row heckler not everyone was
able to be speak.
The seminarys block has about 240,000
square feet of unused air-rights and the proposed building would
only use about 185,000 square feet.
The Polshek Partnership is the architect for
the new building, which would include 50,000 square feet for the
seminarys library and offices and 135,000 square feet of
apartment space. The developer is the Brodsky Organization.
The building would have a double-height lobby
along Ninth Avenue that would permit views through the building
to the close. The northern part of the frontage along the avenue
would be used by the seminarys bookstore, but Robert Trentlyon,
a Chelsea resident, argued at the meeting last night that it should
be used for major high-end retail space that would bring the seminary
more money and permit it to build a less tall building.
The seminary maintains a daycare center, a
homeless shelter and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings on its campus.
Most of those speaking in opposition were concerned about the
height of the building, despite the fact that it is the same height
as a 1928 apartment tower just across Ninth Avenue. The new tower
would be a bit higher than the seminarys church spire in
the center of the block. One speaker said that the seminary "has
far more space than it needs" and another one declared that
the community "certainly doesnt need any more luxury
housing" and Michael Thayer said "a garden is not more
important than air and space." Several of those in opposition
also said that the seminary until very recently did not make its
gardens readily available to the public.
The plan calls for the building to have about
80 apartments, and a garage for about 130 cars.
In a four-page letter distributed at the meeting,
Dean Ewing said that the new building will "replace a shabby
and forbidding structure with something far more attractive and
welcoming." "It will contain an expanded and improved
," he said, "and will provide
a spacious room that will be available for exhibits or meetings
by community groups and organizations."
The design of the proposed new building is
The base of the building would continue the
51 1/2-foot-high brownstone streetwalls of the campus and the
southwest corner at 21st Street would have the brownstone cladding
rise up much of the height of the new building, which will be
covered mostly in glass. This treatment is also used at the rear
of the tower, facing the gardens. The brownstone portions of the
base of the tower do not wrap entirely around it as the glass
of the tower extends to the bottom for narrow portions on both
its east and west facades to demarcate entrances. In fact, the
four facades of the tower's base are all different. The south
facade, for example, has very large windows that enclose the library.
In recent years, several major towers at the
south end of Times Square have featured similarly complex designs
with different facades. Such an approach is interesting, but not
always successful. The visual cacophony can be confusing and often
does not reflect a "form follows function" design. It
is certainly a far cry from the cookie-cutter mentality that for
too long dominated much of the city's commercial and residential
high-rise design, but it is also quite a leap away from the purity,
simplicity and elegance of a unified design. Often, one gets the
feeling that the complicated designs are rather "forced"
and "show-offish," but there is no hard-and-fast rules.
Indeed, given the city's post-war history, it is hard to argue
against the "new" complexity, which is, in part, an
alternative to decorative, Post-Modern-like flourishes and one
has to applaud experimentation, especially when dealing with such
James Polshek has designed some superb buildings
such as 500 Park Avenue Tower on East 59th Street that meshes
wonderfully with the adjacent Modernist low-rise building at 500
Park Avenue, and he has designed a brashly non-contextual new
entrance to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Here, his firm's solution is good, but probably
could use some more tinkering.
The biggest design problem is the brownstone
cladding that does not extend to the top of the tower. The decision
to continue the brownstone walls of the older buildings around
the base is excellent. The question is whether the cladding should
climb up the tower, or just be relegated to the base, or whether
it should completely enshroud the tower, or whether it should
cover more of the tower.
The solution put forward by the Polshek Partnership
most likely took its reasonable cue as to the height of the brownstone
cladding from the enclave's mid-block tower including the finials.
The new tower has neglected to include any finials of its own,
which might have been a nice doffing of the cap, so to speak.
The solution also limits the height of the
new tower and is the same as an apartment building across the
avenue, a not irrational approach albeit one that still irked
many community residents professing to be concerned about the
neighborhood's precious "light and air" as opposed to
their own views or draw-up-the-drawbridge mentality (a.k.a. NIMBY
- Not In My Back Yard). This tempest in a courtyard is reminiscent
of the great landmarks fight over a plan to erect a good-sized
skyscraper in the front garden of St. Bartholomew's Church on
Park Avenue just across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
(see The City Review article). In that
rather nasty dispute, the church's leader suggested that dissidents
ask what Christ would do. The leader had argued that the proposed
tower would provide the church with significant revenues to carry
out its missions.
Many of those who spoke in opposition to the
seminary's plans were not very charitable. One speaker said that
the gardens were not more important than the neighborhood's light
and air, an incredibly warped illogic.
Somewhat less crazed were the comments of several
anti's that the seminary's tower would set "a dangerous precedent"
that would lead to the area getting more tall towers. Several
of these speakers wanted to keep the tower's height to no more
than 7 and a half stories, apparently confusing height with F.A.R.
(floor-to-area ratio) since the existing as-of-right zoning for
the site is 7.5, but F.A.R. only relates to building bulk, not
The seminary's plan obviously was thought out
to minimize community opposition to tall towers and one could
probably argue effectively that it perhaps should be considering
a much taller tower since the seminary is Chelsea's principal
landmark (perhaps rivaled only by the taller London Terrace residential
enclave a couple of blocks to the north, or the Chelsea Hotel
on West 23rd Street). A taller tower would become a significantly
more visible "landmark" for Chelsea and, perhaps more
importantly, provide greater views for the apartments, which would
provide the seminary with greater revenues. A taller tower, located
on the northwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 20th Street, furthermore,
would be a less bulky and dominant intrusion onto the "campus,"
less obstructive of views of the existing mid-block church tower,
and an opportunity to be make a more interesting architectural
statement of the seminary's historical vision and commitment to
the neighborhood. Such a tower could open up views of the inner
gardens more, and still wrap the base with brownstone and provide
a more lively, better lit retail frontage along Ninth Avenue.
Of course the design of such a tower would
still present challenges.
Should it be in light-colored material, or
glass, to contrast with the existing architecture, an approach
recently taken by Sir Norman Foster for a very tall tower at 610
Lexington Avenue that will abut the Seagram Building on Park Avenue
and use its air rights (see The City Review
Or should it be clad in dark materials or bronze
glass to complement the existing architecture?
The point is not be daring for the sake of
daring, or patronizing (to the community) to the point of stifling
or limiting institutional missions.
The point is to create something memorable,
workable, and inspiring.
High-rise buildings are not inherently horrible.
They can be well or poorly done. Historic preservation need not
wear blinders. The immediate neighborhood has lots of not small
and bulky developments such as Fulton Towers, or the huge 111
Eighth Avenue building.
Along with TriBeCa, Chelsea is one of the "hottest"
real estate markets in the city and is enjoying an incredible
and very lively renaissance.
Most speakers, on both sides of the proverbial
fence, at the community meeting seemed to agree that the seminary's
existing building along Ninth Avenue is less than inspired and
the seminary's speakers make a strong case for the need to restore
and maintain their older buildings.
The city has made significant progress in the
past few years in altering its design "sensitivity"
and the NIMBY syndrome has eased somewhat, but not enough.
One of the speakers for the seminary argued,
correctly, that its students and its work reach out beyond its
Neighborhoods are, of course, important, even
if they are not always easy to quantify. In the spirit of good-neighborliness,
the community here should be supportive of the seminary's needs
and constructive rather than destructive, conscientious rather
than conservative. And both sides should be appreciative of the
complexity of architecture, both old and new. Architecture is
the most public of arts and often the most permanent. It is never
enough to think only of what is best for the client, but of the
community at large, even if that goes beyond the neighborhood.
Chelsea may not need a Calatrava-esque, or Foster-esque skyscraper,
but why not something that locates the very vibrant and wonderful
community of Chelsea on the city's skyline?
The seminary's plan met great resistance
with the community and eventually the seminary revised its plans
and lowered the height of the 17-story planned building to 15
stories. The second design was not bad, but the community activists
were adamantly against it on the grounds that it violated the
area's new zoning limitations on building heights and they insisted
that the building not be taller than 75 feet.
The seminary went back to the drawing board
and came back with a 7-story building on the avenue and a new
5-story building on West 20th Street. Still, the community was
unhappy with the design of the building on the avenue as being
The seminary redrew its plans once again
and in September 2007 the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved
the new plans.
As a result of the community activists'
pressure, the community is getting a pleasant but uninspired low-rise
building on the avenue and the seminary will not get enough revenue
from the developer to take care of needed restoration and maintenance
of its campus.
The community board's hard line indicated
that it has no sense of charity and no sense of civic pride. To
maintain that the seminary could not built a structure as tall
as some of its immediate neighbors is downright mean, nasty, onery
and outrageous, especially since the seminary is not using all
of its available development rights and since the recent rezoning
deprived them of the possibility of selling them for the development
of affordable housing nearby.
The community board is actually one of the
more alert and intelligent ones in the city and unfortunately
it is not alone in its intractability on such zoning issues where
exceptions could reasonably and rationally be made to the benefit
of the community and the city. The board's "strict constructionism,"
its determination to defend the literal "word" of zoning
as divine and sacred is just plain stupid in an increasing number
of instances in the city. (9/29/07)