BY SALLY GREENSPAN (BOARD MEMBER, SAVE CHELSEA) | When Christopher Watson — an adjunct professor in the Urban Studies Department of Queens College, CUNY — viewed the documentary feature film “Class Divide,” he instantly recognized a teaching opportunity for the students in his Urban Studies Program. In its examination of gentrification in the West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the film addresses the impact on neighborhood housing and real estate resulting from the development of luxury properties in the former industrial zone around the High Line and throughout the Chelsea neighborhood. It also addresses the issue of rent-stabilized tenants forced out of their homes by unscrupulous real estate developers. In the film, Chelsea residents Cher Carden and Andrew Rai speak at a local rally where tenants are protesting the displacement of rent-stabilized tenants by devious developers who have lied on their permit applications.
The opportunity for Watson’s Urban Studies class to tour Chelsea was initiated when he reached out to Ms. Carden and Mr. Rai, who are both board members of Save Chelsea — a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned with preserving the integrity of the Chelsea Historic District and maintaining a varied mix of economic, social, and generational populations of that neighborhood. The group works to protect architectural treasures and insure a healthy gentrification that preserves housing and protects the health of the overall community.
On Sat., April 14, Professor Watson and eight of his Urban Studies students explored West Chelsea on a walking tour themed around development, preservation, and gentrification as if affects West Chelsea, the industrial historic district, the High Line, and Hudson Yards. The tour was led by Laurence Frommer (President of Save Chelsea), and other members of the Save Chelsea board. Community Board 4 (CB4) Chairman Burt Lazarin also spoke to the group, as did Jesse Bodine, District Manager for CB4.
The tour began with an introduction by Laurence Frommer, and a panoramic view of Chelsea and beyond, as seen from the rooftop of Fulton Houses. Bodine provided handouts for the students and discussed The Special West Chelsea District (SWCD), and the Voluntary Inclusionary Housing Program (VIHP). The SWCD regulates the development of new commercial buildings, encouraging mixed uses. The VIHP incentivizes the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments. It was particularly meaningful for the students to hear the challenges of urban planning in this neighborhood, while being able to visually scan the whole area from above.
The group continued the walk by heading north toward 20th St., while Save Chelsea board member Pamela Wolff gave a brief history of the innovative Chelsea zoning plan. The zoning plan filed by CB4 in the late 1980s was the city’s first community-based proposal for zoning changes. The plan was proactively proposed by the Council of Chelsea Block Associations (CCBA), and set some limits on growth and building cap heights. CCBA advocates continue to monitor zoning, but development and zoning remain a constant challenge throughout Chelsea.
The group soon arrived in front of 404 W. 20th St., the oldest house in the Chelsea Historic District. Save Chelsea board member David Holowka gave an informative talk about the architectural detail of this distinctive period house, and about what Save Chelsea views as an egregious and irresponsible ruling from The Landmarks Preservation Committee that has set the stage for the demolition and demise of this historic, irreplaceable building dating from the 1830s.
The tour ended in front of the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) Buildings on Seventh Ave. and W. 22nd St. These affordable housing units have been boarded up and in a state of disrepair for decades. Save Chelsea’s Greenspan and Wolff gave an overview of the TIL program and discussed the current status of this particular property. The Chelsea community and the District Office of Speaker Johnson have been involved in a long-standing effort to work with Housing Preservation and Development as well as CB4 for the restoration of these buildings for the existing TIL tenants, in addition to new tenants eligible for TIL housing.
It was a great afternoon, and the weather fully cooperated. If your school is interested in participating in similar walks, Save Chelsea welcomes your interest. Contact Laurence Frommer at email@example.com. To learn more about Save Chelsea, visit savechelseany.org.