High Noon at Chelsea Market
The west end of Chelsea Market’s concourse incorporates the historic Nabisco complex’s train shed. About eighty feet of its distinctive clerestory window strip would be blocked by courtyard infill from Jamestown Properties’ proposed addition of a third of a million square feet of office space above it and the High Line. Jamestown’s proposal requires a zoning change that would only hurt Chelsea Market, the High Line and the community. The proposal is slated for city certification on March 26th. While this would technically begin the city’s review process, experience says certification would all but guarantee an addition to Chelsea Market, almost certainly including the cash-cow-in-the-sky office addition above the High Line that’s driving everything. By the time a project is certified, back-room handshakes have typically secured its ultimate approval. The subsequent “review process” merely affords limited opportunities for damage control and concession-seeking by the community.
It’s thought that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who also represents Chelsea, is the one person whose opposition could stop certification. Speaker Quinn is reportedly torn between constituents’ opposition to the project and her own mayoral ambitions, which might be helped by support from a pro-development business community. Her office has asked community members how the proposal might be made more palatable, apparently in pursuit of a sweet spot between opposed interests. Viewing the project as inevitable, Community Board 4 has even publicly presented its own modifications to Jamestown’s proposal that might “benefit” the community. Refusing to play with Quislings, the community group Save Chelsea has held all along that Jamestown’s proposal is irredeemable and should simply be rejected. No doubt, other developers who would cash in on the High Line are watching how all this plays out. This week, all eyes are on Speaker Quinn. Her actions won’t just have a major impact on Chelsea, but on how she defines herself as a potential leader for all New York, and whether she can stand out against the business-as-usual backdrop of real estate running politics in New York.
If Amanda Burden’s fingerprints aren’t all over Jamestown’s proposal, the City Planning Commission Chair should know that’s what people say. Respected in the architectural community for her discernment, Burden’s perceived affiliation with this turkey is a real puzzle. As this model photo shows, the office addition looks like a giant rooftop air conditioning unit with a building attached. Bad as it is, the architecture can’t touch the ugliness of the urban planning, which would pervert zoning to place private enrichment over public good. The project’s overwhelming motivation is also apparent in this photo: cashing in on protected views of the Hudson over the small park in the foreground and up and down the length of New York’s hottest new attraction, the High Line.
What’s wrong with this picture, which looks like Jamestown’s model? Plopping a modern box on a historic building is so wrongheaded it made the dust jacket flap of a book on additions, as an example of how not to do it. Marcel Breuer’s panned design for a glass box above Grand Central is oblivious to the way “one building affects the meaning of another when their expressions are combined and interact,” in the words the late architect Paul Byard. Jamestown’s model is on view at the west end of the Chelsea Market concourse. Look for yourself. You don’t need an architect to tell you it’s wrong.
The west end of Chelsea Market is no Grand Central, but it is an authentic, integral part of the High Line, built with it and expanding on its rugged machine-age art deco vocabulary. Jamestown dismisses this architecture by pointing out that it replaced part of Nabisco’s original 1892 structure. Nonetheless, the entire block is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and begs to be left alone. A zoning change will allow the diminishment of this historic complex into a base for architectural cluelessness. Additional floor area rights aren’t needed here, with vacant lots awaiting development right across 15th Street, Ground Zero developments struggling to lure tenants with incentives, and the nearby Hudson Yards area now zoned for 26 million square feet of new office space.
To encourage preservation of light and open space near the High Line, the Special West Chelsea Zoning text allows transfer of development rights away from the park not just to adjacent lots, as is usual, but to remote sites within the District. Sherwood Equities has reportedly just sold such rights to the owner of a distant site for $500 a square foot, a premium that no doubt reflects how far the High Line has increased local property values. Imagine what property smack on top of the High Line might be worth, and you’re on to Jamestown’s formula: just reverse those pesky arrows in the zoning text illustration and pile right on the High Line; buy support for this unconscionable plan with a payout to the High Line of services within Chelsea Market and $17 million in maintenance funds. The cost is nothing next to the windfall. Joshua David and Robert Hammond are rightly folk heroes for envisioning the High Line and fighting to make it real. In return for Jamestown’s promises, they are also now its only credible ambassadors. They should take this role seriously, because they’re all the fig leaf Jamestown has, and many see them as advocating against Chelsea’s character. Some see them as working against the best interests of the High Line as well, which may be about to pass from golden age to lost innocence. As reported in a DNA Info article, a recent public forum on Jamestown’s proposal drew dozens of community members to the podium in opposition, while only the High Line’s Vice President for Planning & Design spoke in favor.
A block north of Tenth Avenue Square, the wedge of space between the High Line and Tenth Avenue is slated to become “18th Street Plaza.” Text accompanying this image in the book Designing the High Line (published by Friends of the High Line) states: “A prominent street-level public plaza will become an iconic hub for the neighborhood, linking the High Line to the life of the street. A grand stair doubles as an inviting seating element, while a new elevated snack bar, cantilevered from the High Line, frames the edge of the site.” The view above shows this feature from its elevated snack bar, looking back toward Tenth Avenue Square’s viewing window, seen at left in the foreground of Chelsea Market. The ensemble would form a centerpiece for the High Line on a civic scale, its nearest thing to a Bethesda Fountain. Jamestown’s proposed addition to Chelsea Market would be a prominent presence here.
Shown in gold above, Jamestown’s tower over Chelsea Market would displace open sky as the focus of the 18th Street Plaza’s grand stair. “Views to the sky” and “view corridors” are stated concerns of the Special West Chelsea District zoning, which specifically requires that “the High Line shall remain open and unobstructed from the High Line bed to the sky . . .” Jamestown sees this as irrelevant to part of the High Line already covered by Chelsea Market, but the rule clearly wasn’t meant to protect views only for prone stargazers.
A picture of design success, the High Line’s popular Tenth Avenue Square grandstand feature is due north of Chelsea Market, seen at rear in this photo. Jamestown’s addition would cast it entirely into shadow for part of each day during the coldest few months of the year. The project’s Environmental Assessment Statement says “the High Line path areas function similar to public sidewalks, which the CEQR [City Environmental Quality Review] Technical Manual states are not considered sunlight sensitive.” See, it’s not even a park, just a glorified sidewalk. Shadows shmadows!
ArchiTakes’ study of approximate shadows at noon on November 1st shows existing conditions at left and Jamestown’s Chelsea Market addition, in gold, and its shadows at right. Tenth Avenue Square is at bottom. At left is the Caledonia apartment building, sculpted by the Special West Chelsea District zoning to step down toward Chelsea Market’s existing height and “optimize conditions on the High Line and along West 16th Street,” in the words of the District’s zoning text. Jamestown’s tower would render the Caledonia’s multimillion dollar form irrelevant and destroy the space it defines, in the name of “directing floor area toward the avenues” and “establishing lower heights on the mid-block to protect character.” Gotta protect that rare mid-block character, come hell or High Line. Jamestown also claims contextualism in aligning its addition’s lowest setback with the top of the building across Tenth Avenue, seen at upper right. This just incidentally makes for office space with unimaginably lucrative views. That the open space above Chesea Market was meant as a public amenity is crystal clear in the zoning’s insistence that the Caledonia defer to it. This space is an integral part of a deliberate, successful park design that the public paid for and owns. Jamestown would exploit the value generated by public process and funding, taking space from the people it was created for, and renting it out for big bucks to reward private investors in a fund that bundles Chelsea Market with a building uptown and another in San Francisco. Chelsea, your zoning is but the third leg of Jamestown’s investment strategy. Joshua David and Robert Hammond should remember that when the sky above Chelsea Market is gone, it’s gone for good. How long will Jamestown’s 17 million dollar sub-tithe to the High Line maintenance fund last? People are rightfully outraged that things have gotten this far, and city officials should know they’re operating in broad daylight. It’s to be hoped that Speaker Quinn represents her people, puts the populism that’s in the air behind her sails, and does everything possible to keep Jamestown’s greed-not-need zoning scam from certification.
More on Chelsea Market:
The Chelsea Market Deal, brought to you by ULURP – November 4, 2012
Is the City Building Google a High Line Skybox? – July 5, 2012
Jamestown’s Shady Plan for Chelsea Market – November 22, 2011
What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market – May 31, 2011
Saving Chelsea Market – March 22, 2011