What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has denied a recent community request to add the Chelsea Market block to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District. In a May 19th response to the Request for Evaluation, the Commission’s Director of Research wrote that “the properties do not appear to meet the criteria for designation . . . in part due to the fact that this block does not have a strong connection to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District, either geographically or historically.”
This was a second attempt to have the block included in the City designated historic district. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had earlier gotten the complex listed as part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but wasn’t able to convince the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to include it in its own smaller version of the district that the City designated in 2003. The distinction between City versus State and National designation is critical. Lacking City protection, Chelsea Market could be legally demolished by a private owner despite its State and National Register status, which only regulates publicly sponsored alterations. The website of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation states: “There are no restrictions placed on private owners of registered properties. Private property owners may sell, alter or dispose of their property as they wish.”
Chelsea Market’s private owner, Jamestown Properties, is proposing a zoning change that would bring the block under the High Line related Special West Chelsea Zoning District, allowing an additional 330,000 square feet of construction to be built in return for a contribution to the High Line of about $17 million. The proposal has polarized Friends of the High Line, which strongly supports it, and a community that has no use for the hotel and office space Jamestown would build, or the traffic, impact on neighborhood quality and loss of sky exposure it would bring. As far afield as Britain’s Architectural Review, a recent article featuring the High Line is titled, “New York’s future is being shaped by a Faustian pact between private developers and not-for-profit charities.”
The zoning change looms especially large in the absence of preservation oversight. While it wouldn’t make much sense for Jamestown to alter or demolish Chelsea Market under its current maxed-out zoning, the proposed increase might well put historic construction at risk. Generally speaking, there’s only so much new that can be added to existing construction before it starts making more financial sense to demolish everything and start from scratch. This is because much of the cost of mobilization for new construction could go toward replacement of old, and the new construction itself will typically cost less without the coordination complexities and unforeseen conditions of working with, or especially through, antiquated construction that must be preserved. An all-new final product may also be viewed as more marketable. Such reasoning might not make Jamestown eye the entire Chelsea Market block as a teardown, but a third of a million square feet is a lot of addition, and the block is made up of several historic parts which individually might be vulnerable to alteration or removal. The proposed zoning change would open the door to this possibility.
Jamestown would add a hotel tower over the east end of the Chelsea Market Block, and an office component over the west end, above the High Line pass-through, as seen in the poster above. The renderings of the design have been roundly booed, but are well considered in one regard; they show the additions deposited atop intact existing construction, like huge prefabs delivered by helicopter. What they don’t show is the impact of the structural supports, stairs, elevators and services that would need to pass through underlying historic construction, all to be paid for at a premium if this stratum of history is to be preserved. What of construction access? Or the street presence and lobbies the new upstairs commercial space will call for? Can the people at Jamestown be counted on to respect the historic quality of their proposed construction site? Does the design they’ve presented reflect their idea of appropriateness? Is Jamestown committed to sticking with the project, or does it plan to flip the property once a zoning change has increased its value, as has already been rumored?
If the block’s architecture is worth preserving, its current zoning may be no less so. After all, the block was deliberately excluded from the Special West Chelsea Zoning District by city planners who had in mind both the High Line and the public interest. An earlier reader comment nicely sums up the futility of abandoning this zoning’s priorities for a one-time cash fix: “Allowing intrusive development to degrade the High Line in return for money to maintain it is like burning your furniture in the fireplace to keep your house warm: more of a last resort than a plan for the future.”
The development of 15 West 63rd Street sheds light on what might be expected for a rezoned Chelsea Market. Existing air rights were filled by the mid-block condominium tower when it was built in the 1990s. It’s red brick shaft is seen here rising directly behind the façade of notable architect Dwight James Baum’s 1931 McBurney School, which serves as the tower’s entrance. The developer at first proposed replacing the historic McBurney School facade with new construction that would match the tower and flatter potential buyers with a grander, centered entrance. Taking down the McBurney School façade would also have greatly simplified construction of the tower, allowing direct access from street to construction site. What stopped the developer from demolishing Baum’s legacy? The Landmarks Preservation Commission, by creating the Central Park West Historic District in 1990. The proposed zoning change for Chelsea Market could bring similar market forces to bear upon its current street wall, but without the preservation oversight that made the difference on West 63rd Street.
What was saved: a column capital on Baum’s façade shows a class in filmmaking, advertising the McBurney trade school’s offer to West Side youth of a story line beyond Shark or Jet. Even buildings that don’t qualify as “frozen music” can freeze the time of their making, embodying the local history that gives a place its unique identity. In an increasingly anonymous world, such qualities make New York someplace people want to live.
The Bromley Manhattan Street Atlas shows the Chelsea Market block around 1920, before construction of the High Line, when New York Central rail lines still plied Tenth Avenue so perilously it was called “Death Avenue”. The block was formerly part of the Nabisco Bakery complex. The original 1892 Nabisco Bakery building, at left, had a siding of the rail line routed through its courtyard in 1904, establishing direct access to regional and national markets. Today the courtyard is Chelsea Market’s shopping arcade. When the High Line was built in the early 1930s, the west end of the bakery was rebuilt in machine-age Art Deco style, its upper floors pierced by the elevated freight line. By then the Nabisco complex was the largest bakery in the world.
An illustration from Le Corbusier’s seminal 1923 manifesto, Towards a New Architecture, bears a striking resemblance to the Nabisco complex’s progressively efficient assembly of piers, rail sidings, aerial bridges and generously daylit factories. Le Corbusier called early twentieth century American factories “the first fruits of the New Age.” Their impact on European modern architecture is well documented. To name just one instance, Walter Gropius’ influential Bauhaus was clearly inspired by the new world of science and technology they represented. The presence of such a sophisticated industrial park in the heart of the City testifies to New York’s history as both manufacturing center and place of vision.
The red brick buildings above predate Nabisco’s acquisition of the entire block. At left, the 1906 stable with richly textured brickwork could already have benefited from landmark protection. To its right is the oldest building on the block, a warehouse and ale vault dating from 1883, now appropriately home to Chelsea Wine Storage. Jamestown Properties’ proposed hotel would rise directly above the stable building and the black wall of Buddakan Restaurant to its left. Will the stable be visually reduced to a sofa leg propping up a corner of Jamestown’s addition above?
The block’s original 1892 red brick bakery component was designed by Charles William Romeyn. The architect studied with Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted but here seems more influenced by H.H. Richardson. The bakery included several peaked pavilions of which only the one at left remains, facing Sixteenth Street and here viewed from the High Line. Romeyn’s use of towers would be picked up by later Nabisco architects as a corporate trademark, on the rest of the block and throughout the country.
Romeyn’s Neo-Romanesque pavilion has rich terra cotta details.
As viewed from the High Line, a 1930 sky bridge connects the former Nabisco Bakery at left to a building across 15th Street that served as company offices. The bridge brings historic resonance, spatial drama and poetry to the street. With Tribeca’s much photographed Staple Street footbridge, it’s one of only a few contemporary examples in New York. An incidental but significant part of the High Line’s appeal, the bridge is unprotected by City landmark status.
A Nabisco bridge built a few years later is a High Line placemaker.
A service door of the 1892 bakery seems archaic and mysterious.
One from the 1930s expresses its own machine age.
Nabisco’s entrances were typically marked by ornate door surrounds and the company’s trademark towers.
A block south of Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue, an Apple Store emphasizes glass with its steel mullioned windows and typical all glass stair. Apple’s self-branding with a signature material was pioneered by Nabisco’s nationwide use of brown brick and buff terra cotta to create a corporate identity, in evidence by the time of the 1907 bakery extension in the background above, at the southeast corner of Chelsea Market.
To support saving Chelsea Market, come to the Community Board #4 meeting on June 1st, 6:30pm, at the Hudson Guild Auditorium, Fulton Houses, 119 9th Avenue at 17th Street.
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
Saving Chelsea Market – March 22, 2011