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Testimony By New York State Senator Thomas K. Duane Before The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's Hearing On Certificates Of Appropriateness For Block 718, Lot 1 (general Theological Seminary)

 

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, in which General Theological Seminary (GTS) is located. Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) today.

The application before LPC is to garner Certificates of Appropriateness for the demolition of Sherrill Hall, on Ninth Avenue between West 20th and West 21st Streets, and for the construction of its replacement on that site as well as another building on West 20th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. This hearing today is the culmination of nearly two years of discussions concerning the development. After community consultation, and much community suggestion made in the public realm, significant changes have been made to the original plans, including the addition of a building on West 20th Street, and the significant reduction in the size of the building that will replace Sherrill Hall. I and the community are particularly appreciative of the reduction in the scale of the latter building and pleased that it conforms to the height and bulk restrictions set forth in the enacted Chelsea 197-a Plan.

I do, however, still have reservations about the application before LPC today. Community Board Four (CB4) has laid out its critique with great eloquence, detail and, as we have come to expect from CB4, sensitivity to the community’s concerns, which include preservation of the Seminary and the Chelsea neighborhood. Having only been shown the plans yesterday, at this time, I offer my support for the CB4 resolution, and simply want to emphasize for LPC some of our shared reservations.

The block under consideration today, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, and West 20th and 21st Streets, lies at the heart of the Chelsea Historic District, which was created in 1970. The Historic District's buildings are characterized by a sense of solidity and horizontality, and the primary facade materials are brick and brownstone. LPC included in its original Designation Report for the Chelsea Historic District a "Statement by the Commission," which explicitly allows for new buildings to be added to this protected and historic block so long as they continue the basic architectural guidelines followed by the pre-existing buildings.

The proposed Ninth Avenue building has several redeeming features. At 75 feet high, it is within the scale of the Historic District. This is especially important given the significant and widespread opposition to a taller building that was previously proposed. Additionally, the Seminary's library is planned for the southeast corner of the block -- its historical home. Finally, its primary material is brick, in accordance with neighboring structures. These attributes make this proposed replacement for Sherrill Hall agreeable in scale and concept.

Despite these positive points, however, the building's large treatment of glass makes it inconsistent with the Historic District, especially the GTS block. The architect has attempted to create a modern building that pays significant homage to the history which surrounds it. Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, the largely glass designs characteristic of modern-day residential and commercial buildings do not relate well to the solidity of the surrounding structures. Most inappropriate are the vertical stripes of windows that run above the building's entrance on Ninth Avenue and on the West 20th Street facing, and the top two floors of the building, of which the majority of the facing is glass. Also inconsistent with the Historic District's other buildings are the penthouse's significant metal treatments. Combined, the large amounts of glass and the metal elements, which could be deemed architecturally distinctive and pleasing in a vacuum, unfortunately undermine the applicant's effort to replicate the solidity that characterizes the neighboring buildings.

The administrative building proposed on West 20th Street just west of the existing West Building was originally added to the development in order to decrease the bulk on the Ninth Avenue site and is therefore, in concept, a welcome addition to the development. Further, it is appropriately sized, fits within the pattern of the block, and employs a design that blends well with the preexisting buildings on the street. However, to further enhance its integration, I would suggest that the top floor of the new building be reconsidered so that its windows match those of surrounding roofs; as they are now, they are inconsistent not only with other rooftops in the area, but also with the lower floors of the building itself.

While I was generally pleased with the West 20th Street building, I cannot say the same for the adjoining addition, a glass structure the applicant calls the entry, which acts as both an entrance to the Close and a connection between the new building and the West Building. The entry must be viewed as part of the new building and, unfortunately, only further alienates it from the rest of the Historic District. Made entirely of glass, it is an alien form to West 20th Street. It is also disturbingly effective in destroying the independence of the West Building, which should stand alone as an example of the block's earliest architectural tradition. This is inevitable, however, as one of the primary purposes of the entry is to connect the new building with the West Building, thereby conforming to regulations prohibiting the close proximity of the two structures. While I am sensitive to the planning conundrum faced by GTS and its architect as they seek to conform to regulation while providing for an entrance to the Seminary on West 20th Street, the entry is entirely inappropriate because not only is it out of character with the broader historic district, but also its presence takes away from the integrity of the West Building. It must be also noted that the main entrance does not have to be on West 20th Street.

As I have briefly noted, and as CB4 has more thoroughly explained, the application before you requires several changes before it merits Certificates of Appropriateness. The Ninth Avenue building is appropriate in scale and concept if not in material makeup. The West 20th Street building, with some exceptions, relates well to the Historic District. However, the glass entry and the Ninth Avenue and West 20th Street penthouses, with their predominantly glass and/or metal facades, are by far the most problematic elements of the application and deserve extremely careful consideration by LPC for the reasons enumerated here and by CB4.

I sincerely hope that, after almost two years of an often tense and public negotiation, LPC will only approve a development appropriate to the Chelsea Historic District at this site. GTS is an integral part of the Historic District, Chelsea and New York City. This important institution has stated that this development is financially necessary for its continued presence in Chelsea. GTS makes excellent use of this historic block, and is, in fact, the history and soul of the block, and it would be tragic if another tenant had to be found were the Seminary to leave its historic home.

I have always been, and remain, confident that the goals and mission of the Chelsea neighborhood, the Seminary, and LPC can be achieved during this process. Thank you for allowing me to testify today and for your consideration of my recommendations.