Episcopal “Tower of Babel” in Chelsea?

tsprintnight 1On one level, this is your typical New York City real estate story with Chelsea neighborhood residents fighting like, well, New Yorkers to preserve the sanctity of their turf and rare views of the sky.

However, what made this recent Shadi Rahimi story in the New York Times interesting to me was the identity of the villains — the always progressive leaders of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (seminary PR photo). Here’s a brief look at the top of the story:

With hisses and boos, more than 75 Chelsea residents expressed their contempt at a recent neighborhood meeting over plans by the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to knock down a four-story building on its campus and replace it with a 17-story one. The new building would have 80 luxury apartments in a glass structure that one resident called “a Tower of Babel.”

In the latest battle waged against tall structures in Chelsea, dozens of neighbors are opposing the seminary’s attempt to build above the about seven and a half stories permitted within that part of a historic district bordered by 8th and 10th Avenues and West 19th and 23rd Streets.

I realize that real estate is, in a way, a religious subject for Manhattan folks. What caught my attention was the fact that the seminary leaders really, really need to do this tower project. And not just because they need a replacement for the 1959 office building and library that they want to tear down. According to Maureen Burnley, the seminary’s executive vice president for finance and operations, the deal:

… (Required) that the new building be at least 17 stories tall for the seminary to receive the $15 million it needs to start repairing the seminary’s historic buildings. The seminary plans to raise the remaining money needed for repairs — more than $35 million — through capital campaigns, tax credits and loans, she said. Since 1999, the seminary has spent $9 million to restore its buildings, Ms. Burnley said.

General Theological faces dire financial problems and has explored other ways of addressing them in recent years, including teaming up with other churches on real estate projects or moving from its Chelsea location of nearly 180 years, said the seminary’s dean and president, the Rev. Ward B. Ewing. But after these options fell through, the seminary believed that a private partnership would be the only way, Father Ewing said. “We needed a partner that could bring capital assets,” he said, adding that luxury housing on a seminary campus is not an ideal solution. But, “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have to do it,” he said.

Now this is interesting. I have always been under the impression that the mainline seminaries were backed by rather healthy endowments built up in the past by generations of donors. I have heard oldline leaders say that some of these seminaries could stay open with endowment alone, even without students.

So what is the nature of this financial crisis? Does this have any implications for one of the biggest stories out there right now on the Godbeat, which is the growing crisis within global Anglicanism because of doctrinal innovations that flow from institutions such as this very seminary?

Or is this just a real-estate deal that the seminary leaders cannot pass up? What lit this fuse?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.buildchurches.org Calee

    I used to walk past the seminary every day on my way to work. It’s one of my fondest memories of living in the city.

    Even though the historical buildings would remain, the tower would change the whole air of the place.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    “The mainline seminaries” are not a monolithic group. Some are in better shape than others. Very few could survive on endowment income alone. The institution I attended (BU School of Theology) is, judging at least from its generous scholarships for students, the best endowed seminary in its consortium in Boston, and it is far from that benchmark.

    But the chance that GTS can raise $35M “through capital campaigns, tax credits, and loans” is IMHO quite small. This real estate deal will be immaterial in the long run. Absent prosperous, generous alumni (which seminaries don’t have almost by definition) or a prosperous, generous, growing denomination (which doesn’t describe ECUSA at this point), there simply isn’t the capital available to sustain an institution like this.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Two other notes:

    1) The money being raised is simply to repair the current (beautiful, historic) infrastructure and does nothing to address the underlying cash flow issues that every institution of higher education faces (especially one so instructor-intensive and grant-starved as a seminary).

    2) They have already tried to “team up” with churches or simply leave Chelsea. Those options — which are themselves desperate measures that would probably require drastic concessions and changes in the seminary’s ethos and culture — have already “fallen through.” Note to seminary public relations officers: phrases like that should appear in the New York Times only over your dead body. . . .

  • Mark

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, but if there is a historic district that allows them 7 1/2 stories, then that’s what they should be required to follow. Period.
    There is plenty of less-expensive property in other parts of the country. I find it impossible to believe that the option of leaving Chelsea has completely fallen through. I have to think they could find some exceptionally nice, scenic property in Jersey or Connecticut or elsewhere, and build the perfect building for themselves for far less than they’d spend on this Chelsea project — and wouldn’t put themselves in a compromising position regarding the secular world.
    One of the selling points to seminarians at at least one of the seminaries of my Protestant denomination is that it has a beautiful, large campus in a Midwestern city that has very low cost of living. Maybe the Episcopal Church hierarchy ought to think about what a Seminary really should be about, instead of stacking millions of dollars on top of each other in an expensive corner of the world.

  • Erik Nelson

    There was a heated fight within the Episcopal Church back in 2003 over whether or not to move the Episcopal Church Center (often refered to as “815″ for its address at 815 Second Avenue) to GTS. The plan was set to go forward, but then fell through for reasons which I cannot remember (although I think events of the Summer of 2003…ahem…may have soured ECUSA on taking big financial risks with a potential church split on the horizon).

    My memory is that ECUSA was going to take on a significant amount of the debt incurred in the deal (and get most of the asset value). GTS was going to be required, I think, to make severe budget cuts to avoid running through its endowment.

    I haven’t followed the situation closely since then, but I’m not surprised the GTS has been forced to find a new solution to their financial woes and aging buildings. But if local regulations forbid them from constructing such a building in their neighborhood, they ought to look elsewhere. They’ll alienate their neighbors, and that will just lead to more problems down the road.

  • Derek Matis


    Are you speaking of Covenant Seminary in Saint Louis?

  • Mark

    I was really thinking of The Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has a very nice campus and costs of living for seminarians that are unbelievably low. But, since you mention St. Louis, I could also include the Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis in my comment, as costs of living aren’t that much higher in St. Louis as in Fort Wayne. (Both are Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod sems).