Seminary Submits New Proposal to Landmarks Commission
New York City -- The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (General) today submitted to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission a revised proposal for construction of a new mixed-use building along the Ninth Avenue side of its campus located in Chelsea between 20th and 21st Streets. The revision also includes plans for a smaller building on the Seminary grounds facing 20th Street near the corner of Tenth Avenue. The proposed Ninth Avenue building will replace the existing building known as Sherrill Hall, a severely deteriorated 1961 building without historic merit or architectural significance.
The submission follows a year-long conversation between General, its neighbors, elected officials, Manhattan Community Board 4, and the Seminary's architects, the Polshek Partnership and Beyer Blinder Belle. In response to neighbors' concerns about the size of the original building proposed in December 2005, architects reduced its mass by over 30,000 square feet by designing a second, smaller structure to house the Seminary's faculty and administration. In response to neighborhood concerns about aesthetics and height, the new plan for the Ninth Avenue building features less glass and more brick, resulting in a building the Seminary's Dean, Ward B. Ewing, described as "shorter, slimmer, and more elegant...both very contemporary and very contextual." Reduced to 15 stories it would be shorter than the building directly across from it and London Terrace, a large residential complex on 23rd Street. The new design reduces the square footage of a typical residential floor by almost 2,800 square feet. In addition, 15,000 square feet of space will be put underground, a significant increase from the original proposal.
Susan T. Rodriguez, a partner at the Polshek Partnership, explained that the design for the building is a reinterpretation of General's late 19th century structures, collectively known as Chelsea Square. The use of brick and brownstone in the five-story base of the new building creates a visual continuity with the existing historic buildings whose window designs are also echoed in the new building. The residential tower, the articulation and proportions of which create a strong visual connection to the Chapel tower, has been redesigned as a masonry building with glass infill. The glass is set within vertical buttress-like elements providing a further reference to the historic fabric of the block. The tower's smaller footprint, with an increased setback along 21st Street, preserves views of the Chapel tower from Ninth Avenue. The newly-located double-height threshold to the Close (interior gardens) also frames views of the Chapel's tower upon entry.
Although the re-designed Ninth Avenue building is primarily residential, it will also include the Seminary's prestigious St. Mark's Library, recalling the location of the library in the original 19th century campus configuration. Helping to minimize the size of the new building above street level are two levels of below-grade library stacks, mechanical spaces and accessory parking for both the residences and the Seminary. The library's reading room is placed in a four-story glass structure on the garden side of the new building. The remainder of the block along Ninth Avenue is devoted to retail space, enhancing the streetscape.
As outlined by Frederick Bland, managing partner of Beyer Blinder Belle, and Elizabeth Leber, associate partner, the new 5-story building proposed for 20th Street will have a cornice line below that of the adjacent structures. An elegant glass atrium will connect the new building with the West Building. The 25,000 square foot above-grade building will house faculty and administrative offices and student meeting spaces. There will also be 5,000 square feet of space below grade.
The materials for the 20th Street building have been carefully selected to fit seamlessly within the existing architectural context. The facade is red brick with brownstone elements evocative of the 19th century buildings on the Close. The brownstone base of the building is a direct reference to the similar base found on the other historic buildings, and the highest floor, set back from 20th Street, is zinc to match the color of the slate on the surrounding roofs.
Construction of the two new buildings is expected to leave the Seminary with between 55,000 and 60,000 square feet of unused development rights, the Seminary's only transferable asset. Earlier this month Dean Ewing pledged to devote approximately 50,000 square feet of these development rights to the creation of affordable housing in Chelsea. "Our development partner, The Brodsky Organization, has authorized us to state its commitment to act as the developer of this housing under one of the City's and/or State's affordable housing programs," stated the Dean in a letter to the leadership of the Fulton Houses Tenants Association. "We pledge to work closely with the Fulton Houses Tenants Association, Community Board 4, and the City to find a site in Chelsea for the development of affordable housing."
By law the funds generated by the Ninth Avenue project would be earmarked for the preservation of the Seminary's landmarked campus, in keeping with the original 1970 designation of the Chelsea historic district which makes specific allowance for such developments. Peg Breem of the New York Landmarks Conservancy has called the new proposal "a great improvement over the first design. We are very encouraged by the direction this is taking, and we are looking forward to seeing it as it progresses."
Following submission of the revised plan, Dean Ewing commented, "Today represents a significant milestone in our on-going efforts to preserve the legacy of Chelsea Square, a place of natural and architectural beauty and a resource for all New Yorkers. This new plan accommodates the wishes of many for a smaller building while producing the revenues so critical to our continuing presence in Chelsea. We are delighted with the work of the architects and very hopeful about proceeding with the approval process."