On 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?