Saving Chelsea Market
David Burns of STUDIOS Architecture presented his firm’s vision of an expanded Chelsea Market, above, to a meeting of Community Board 4 last night, attended by residents wearing “Save Chelsea Market” buttons. He promptly heard one viewer’s verdict of “ugly building” endorsed by a peal of applause. The view above looks northeast from the West Side Highway. The design tries to break down its oppressive mass by collage effects which could conceivably be said to take inspiration from the accretive vocabulary of the Chelsea Market complex, although Burns didn’t seem to have the heart to even bother trying this pitch. As for fitting in, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. Chelsea Market is part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this insures State Historic Preservation Office oversight only for public development. Somehow, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would oversee private alterations such as those now proposed, neglected to include the Market in its version of the District.
In a view looking north from the Hudson River Park bike path, and lined up behind other High Line straddlers, 450 West 14th Street and the Standard Hotel, the proposed Chelsea Market tower begins to summon the urban planning object lesson of Midtown’s soulless slabs marching up Sixth Avenue. Midtownization seemed to be on the minds of several audience members; it was repeatedly asked just what the project offered a contentedly residential neighborhood aside from 250,000 square feet of un-asked-for Class A office space, above the High Line on Tenth Avenue, and an extraneous 90,000 square foot hotel on Ninth, across the Avenue from both the Maritime and Dream Hotels, and a few blocks north of the Gansevoort and Standard Hotels. Community Board members called the project, which would require a zoning change to bring the Market into a special High Line district, profit-driven rather than community-minded. (Ironically, the zoning district is meant to encourage ”the preservation of light, air and views” along the High Line, according to the City Planning Commission’s website.) Behind the proposal is Jamestown Properties, fresh from the $1.9 billion sale of 111 Eighth Avenue to Google, and buying out its ownership partners in Chelsea Market. The zoning change would bring the Market into a special district that allows extra floor area in return for $50 per square foot paid into a City-managed High Line improvement fund to meet the Park’s long-term capital needs.
Studios Architecture briefly presented the hotel that would rise above the Buddakan restaurant at the Ninth Avenue and Sixteenth Street corner of the Chelsea Market block. Proof that there’s no satisfaction to be had in smacking around One Police Plaza, the hotel’s design manages to make the housing project in the foreground a welcome relief. In the background, the proud corner tower of the National Biscuit Company, which once owned the block, would be reduced to a bobbed tail. Jamestown presented the hotel not as another contribution to the Meatpacking nightclub scene, but as sober support for businesses based in the upper floors of the Market. The additional office space was pitched as a deterrent to flight from the complex by its growing businesses.
Nabisco’s plants across the country had a national architectural identity of brick, terra cotta, copper, and place-making towers. Even deprived of their role in corporate branding, these elements and the great (once the world’s largest) bakery’s repetitive piers bring a distinctive grandeur and monumentality to the streetscape. They underline a uniqueness of place at odds with the anonymity of speculative office space and hotel rooms.
The High Line, which runs through the full width of the west end of Chelsea Market, was a major presence in last night’s discussions. Its phenomenal success raises the threat, voiced in the meeting, of a neighborhood “catering to tourists rather than neighbors,” and the burden of high maintenance. If Jamestown is granted the zoning variance it seeks, its proposed development would generate about $17 million for long-term capital improvements to the park. Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line and one of the park’s two original visionaries, addressed last night’s meeting on behalf of the much needed benefit this revenue would yield. Jamestown’s proposal would also build, behind the wall at left in the photo above, public toilet rooms, a freight elevator, and program space for events and education. Mr. David emphasized the real need for these services given the 2.2 million visitors the Park had seen in the last year, and its further potential, particularly for education, with the critical support of these services. Even before he had made his clearly sincere appeal, a Community Board member had twice stated that he “resented” having the community asked to pay a ransom for the High Line’s deliverance.
The dreamy appeal of the High Line is that it’s at once a place apart and yet so much a part of its incidental environment, seen from a strange new perspective. We walk down a street between buildings, that’s also a park, made for us, not cars, and closer to the clouds, a little like our dreams of flight. Being closer to the sky is a critical piece of this. Selling off bits of it into private hands may be self-defeating in the same long run that proponents like Joshua David so clearly care about.
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
High Noon at Chelsea Market – March 20, 2012
Jamestown’s Shady Plan for Chelsea Market – November 22, 2011
What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market – May 31, 2011