Chelsea Market Community Givebacks Neither Permanent Nor Guaranteed
We were extremely disappointed this past October when Speaker Christine Quinn and the City Council voted to grant permission for two huge office towers to be built atop the historic Chelsea Market complex, over the objections of many in the community (including our three organizations). Yet again, the City Council was changing local zoning rules to allow developers to reap enormous profits in our neighborhood, while increasing congestion, overtaxing infrastructure, eliminating more light and sky and, in this case, compromising a historic landmark.
We were told, however, that there was a silver lining — the Council made their approval contingent upon a series of community givebacks, including one which (according the Speaker’s press release) “permanently protects 75%” of Chelsea Market’s ground floor space for non-chain food uses. We and many others had complained that Jamestown Properties, the international developers who bought Chelsea Market and sought this upzoning, was replacing the independent food shops which made Chelsea Market special with chains and clothing stores that could be found anywhere. Additionally, the Speaker and the Council promised that Jamestown would be advertising jobs to local residents, providing start-up space for new businesses and providing training and education programs to local residents in need.
While we were unhappy about the overall deal, these “guarantees” at least meant that the community would get some ongoing benefit in exchange for the permanent gift to Jamestown of allowing them to add hundreds of thousands of (previously prohibited) square feet of office space to our neighborhood, on top of a beloved landmark.
Or so we thought. After weeks of inquiry and investigation, we discovered that in fact none of these “guarantees” we just described were really guarantees at all. If Jamestown failed to deliver on any of these promises, they would face no penalty and would get to keep their lucrative approvals from the City Council — even if the community got nothing.
For instance, in spite of the Speaker’s claims, under the agreement the entire ground floor of Chelsea Market can be replaced with The Gap, McDonald’s, or K-Mart. If they did so there would be no penalty, and no rescission of the approvals they received. The same is true if they do not provide any of the other community benefits we mentioned.
Is Jamestown likely to keep these agreements in the short term, in order to avoid embarrassing themselves and their benefactors on the City Council? Probably. But in the long term, we know from experience there is little if any chance of these “guarantees” being kept. A written promise from an owner (who may sell the property at any time ) to an elected official who will, at some point, no longer be in office, hardly constitutes a “permanent guarantee” — which is what these agreements have been touted as. As all parties now agree, these provisions have absolutely no legal enforceability. It’s a handshake deal between players who may not be around to even complain to years down the road (and if they were, could not do anything about it — legally speaking — if they wanted to).
Whether this arrangement was constructed in this manner as an oversight or by design, we cannot know. Similarly, throughout the public review and approval process for the Chelsea Market upzoning, Jamestown argued and the Council apparently agreed that the large additions to Chelsea Market were necessary in order to accommodate growing tech companies in Chelsea Market and an increased need for office space in the lower Chelsea/Meatpacking District area. But shortly after the approvals were granted, we became aware that Jamestown Properties had in fact already purchased a large office building directly across the street from Chelsea Market at 450 West 15th Street, as well as an adjacent development site, upon which such space could easily be located.
Additionally, we discovered that among Jamestown Properties’ vast holdings in New York was 1 Times Square — a strategically located office building atop one of New York’s largest transportation hubs and in the middle of one of New York’s most robust office markets, which Jamestown has kept almost entirely empty for more than fifteen years. These highlight the lack of transparency and candor in both the application and approval process for this zoning change, and the lack of consistency between the justifications for these approvals and the actual facts.
Factual inconsistencies have unfortunately been pervasive in this process. What is clear however is that the community will indisputably bear the permanent consequences of the upzoning granted to Jamestown in increased traffic and congestion, loss of light and air, and compromise of a cherished local landmark. But the permanent benefits we have been promised in return are very unlikely — at least in some cases — to be permanent at all.
Lesley Doyel, Co-President, Save Chelsea
Andrew Berman, Executive Director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
William Borock, President, Council of Chelsea Block Associations.