In early 2006 the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea announced plans to demolish four-story modernist Sherrill Hall. Built-in 1961 to house the seminary’s library, the architecturally insignificant Hall is in danger of water damage as a result of the building’s poor construction and deteriorated condition and the school hopes that a new building will generate funds to renovate and restore the cloister of Gothic Revival buildings that make up most of the campus.
The Seminary partnered with the Brodsky Organization, a real-estate-development firm, and Polshek Partnership, and came up with a 17-story, glass-sheathed tower perched on a four-story base that follows the lines and form of the other seminary buildings nearby. The proposed building would have housed 80 residential units while and the seminary’s library, administrative offices, and bookstore will occupy the lower floors.
In response to community criticisms about the size and scale of the proposed building and the possibility that allowing GTS to bypass the historic-district rules that took effect in the neighborhood more than 30 years ago, as well as a local zoning regulation that limits new buildings to a height to 750 feet will set a precedent, the Seminary revised the plan. The 15-story height of the tower is reduced from the original 17 stories and new plans also call for using more masonry and less glass than originally proposed.
The proposed structure would rise on Ninth Avenue between West 20th and West 21st streets. At 151 feet, it would be shorter than several nearby buildings outside the historic district, but still, be more than twice the imposed height restrictions in the district. A city zoning resolution can grant exemptions when doing so brings in money to preserve historic properties and the plan is appropriate for a historic district. The revision also includes plans for a smaller building on the Seminary grounds facing 20th Street near the corner of Tenth Avenue.
The GTS also pledged to devote approximately 50,000 square feet of unused development rights to the creation of affordable housing in Chelsea. The Brodsky Organization, a real estate developer, has agreed to pay the seminary $39 million — a deal contingent on the project’s approval — to develop the property.
Opponents insist that the new design remains out of context, isn’t much of an improvement on the original, and would set a dangerous precedent for building towers in a historic district. In April, 2007 the Seminary bowed to intense community opposition and promised present a “compromise plan” that would involve a scaled-back redevelopment scheme that would cut the proposed tower height half, leaving a seven-story mixed-use residential building on Ninth Avenue, and a five-story administration building on 20th Street. Seminary officials say the new plan will not be able to finance the extensive renovation needed across the historic campus.