Building boom changes Chelsea in New York

Posh residential projects sprout in former seedy neighborhood

May 06, 2001|By Nancy Dillon and Eric Herman | Nancy Dillon and Eric Herman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - New York's Chelsea neighborhood is trading in its seediness for a new residential role.

These days, construction sites line the avenues of the neighborhood, nearly as plentiful as the street vendors hawking wallets and nail polish. At least nine major residential projects are under construction in the area.

As many see it, Chelsea is transforming into the upper West Side, overflowing with young professionals willing to pay $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

The frenzy of construction up and down the avenues has some residents fretting.

"I hate the new buildings. They're revolting. I see them and I see the suburbanization of New York," said Michele Zalopany, an artist who has lived in the Chelsea Hotel since 1989. "I moved to Chelsea when it was a lot of older people, a lot of immigrants. It had an essence that's hard to find now."

As the neighborhood expands to encompass a greater part of the city, especially to the north and west of its traditional borders, builders and developers are taking advantage of new zoning laws and the perennial city housing shortage and erecting buildings like they're putting up pup tents.

At West 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, Pan Am Equities is racing to finish a massive building that will have 431 apartments, a Best Buy store and a New York Health & Racquet Club.

The Related Cos., led by mega-developer Stephen Ross, has three apartment complexes under construction in Chelsea: a 15-story building designed by famed architect Robert A.M. Stern at Seventh Avenue and West 20th Street; a 213-unit apartment building atop the new McBurney YMCA on West 14th Street; and a recently begun complex on West 23rd Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

Some builders already have a head start in the race. Last year, Albanese Development completed a tower at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 24th Street.

The building has 300 rental units plus a Starbucks and CVS drugstore. Albanese leased all the apartments within five months. Studio apartments start at $2,000 a month, one-bedrooms run from $3,000 to $3,800, and two-bedrooms start at $4,800.

"We were amazed how quickly the apartments rented at upper East Side rents," said Chris Albanese, the developer's executive vice president. "Chelsea has become a very desirable place to live - the galleries, the bars, the restaurants, the clubs."

Like many landmarks of the new Chelsea, the Mercantile stands north of West 23rd Street, the neighborhood's old northern boundary. Real estate brokers credit the building with anchoring the northern sprawl.

"It used to be called Clinton there. Chelsea could probably go another 10 blocks north, it has such a commanding presence," said Chris Leavitt, a vice president of the Corcoran Group.

Back in 1997, Rockrose Development bought the 16-story building, once a garment factory and later offices of the Veterans Administration, for $41 million. After a major overhaul, Rockrose marketed the condominiums at prices ranging from $300,000 to $3 million.

Flush with success, Rockrose forged ahead with another project. The company, led by developer Henry Elghanayan, bought a lot on Seventh Avenue between West 25th and West 26th streets. This time, the company built from scratch. The Chelsea Centro, as it's called, consists of 356 rentals.

Following Rockrose's lead, more developers began gobbling up empty lots along Sixth and Seventh avenues, most of which are above West 23rd Street.

"There were substantial parcels that were being used as parking lots and as a result there was no significant displacement of people," said developer Michael Steinberg, who is planning to build an apartment tower on the southwest corner of West 26th Street and Sixth Avenue.

But some of the long-standing retail traditions of Chelsea are being displaced. Some flower merchants have fled the area north of West 23rd Street known as the flower district.

The new buildings "are bringing people en masse. They're putting more people into the street, causing more traffic, and now there's no parking. It's become difficult to run a wholesale business," said Gary Page, owner of G. Page Wholesale Flowers at 120 W. 28th St.

Alan Boss, who created the flea market famous for taking over several Sixth Avenue parking lots on weekends, complained that "we're in a more and more constricted environment."

He lost two of the lots that he leased to new development - the Albanese site, and a lot at Sixth Avenue and West 26th Street where developer Harry Macklowe has put up an apartment building. When Steinberg begins construction, Boss will lose another site, though he will continue the flea market inside a garage on West 25th Street.

Despite the pain of some of the changes, many residents delight in the new choices. "When I moved in here you couldn't find a grocery store; you couldn't get a pizza delivered," said Kyle Merker, chairman of Community Board 5, which covers part of Chelsea.

Talk about grocery stores - Chelsea now is home to a Whole Foods. The gourmet grocer opened its first local store this year in the Mercantile.

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