Chelsea Market’s Growing Pains



Proposed changes to Chelsea Market's current building have created both tension and hope in residents and workers. Photo: Beyond My Ken

The women’s apparel and home accessories store Anthropologie is the first store that Chelsea Market visitors see when they walk through the building’s main entrance on Ninth Avenue. Its vibrant window displays have drawn in many tourists in the year and a half since it opened, but local residents fear that the arrival of a major retailer signals the beginning of a negative trend in the neighborhood.

“There was a unanimous groan of ‘Anthropologie!’” when the retailer moved in in 2010, said Jim Jasper, a member of Community Board 4. “It’s just wrong for Chelsea Market.”  These days, though, Anthropologie seems like a very small deal compared to a development proposal that involves a 330,000 expansion on top of the existing eight-story building, including a 150-room hotel and new office space.

Jasper is part of the 300 West 15th Street Block Association, a group that vehemently opposes a proposal by the Atlanta-based development company Jamestown, the developers behind the existing market, to add floors to the century-old building.

Jamestown’s proposal includes plans to build a hotel and high-technology office space, according to a report the company commissioned from Appleseed Consulting. The $194.5 million plan would create approximately 1,200 jobs, most of which will be in the internet publishing/broadcasting and data services sectors, joining other tech-savvy companies already in Chelsea Market such as MLB Advanced Media, Google, and NBC Universal . These offices would be built on top of the current market building, and would help to establish the area as a growing “Silicon Alley,” as the New York Times has called it, an area that runs from West Chelsea north to the Flatiron District and south to Soho.

Originally the home of the National Biscuit Company, the 1890 building reopened in 1996 as a place for food wholesalers to cook, ship and sell their wares. Jamestown took over the market in the early 2000s and updated the architecture, adding flourishes like a fountain to the market itself, and developing office space on existing floors, including space for New York 1 and The Food Network. Some of the original businesses, like Amy’s Bread and Sarabeths’, are still headquartered there. Bowery Kitchen Store is one of Chelsea Market’s oldest stores, and co-owner Robyn Coval has watched as new businesses have moved in and out. She is ambivalent about the new proposal.

“I’m an old-school person,” said Coval, when asked about the developer’s proposed changes, taking a momentary break from arranging platters in her store. “I don’t love it when they [Jamestown] do this. But it helps bring business, and jobs.”

Other businesses seemed to have fewer reservations about the proposed expansion, which would bring both tourists and workers from the increased number of offices into the market.

“I think it’s great,” said Aylon Hadar, a manager at Ronnybrook Milk Bar, which has been in the market since 1997. “When you build, you hire, it makes jobs! Those offices will bring more customers too.” He did admit that he is not a local, and because of that understands some residents’ resistance. “Because we don’t live here, we don’t mind – the locals don’t want it to be a hotel area.”

Jasper says that over 1,000 new hotel rooms have already opened in the blocks surrounding Chelsea Market during the past 10 years, as the area has shifted from its past of crime and prostitution to a trendy neighborhood. “This place has come full circle,” said Coval.

Jamestown came before the community board for the first time in March of 2011, because an expansion of this scope requires a special zoning permit. At first their proposal included an entrance to Chelsea Market from the High Line Park, which was popular with community board members, but in its most recent revised proposal, that change was gone due to objections from the High Line Park itself.

“It’s hard to see what [would] improve,” said Jasper of the overall proposal. “It might create a few jobs? But no one from the neighborhood will ever see those offices. These jobs are too high-tech.”

Jasper hopes that the community can keep the developers from changing the neighborhood, and is mindful that the community made a difference once before with the High Line. “Giuliani wanted to tear it down,” he said. “We sent letters, we saved it, developers wanted to tear it down. And now they’re making millions off of it.”

But business owners still remain hopeful that the proposed changes will increase traffic. Relative newcomers to Chelsea Market, Posman Books, have already seen an increase in the two years that they’ve been at their location. Store manager Faye Bowles says that “This could triple our customer base. People in offices, above, tourists, if it adds more, we’re for it.” She also noted, “Everything I’ve heard from other businesses about the expansion is positive.”

Coval, who is starting a renovation suggested by Jamestown, says she only hopes “that the Gap doesn’t start here.”

Jamestown representatives would not comment on the expansion. They are currently awaiting zoning certification from the New York City Unifrom Land Use Review Procedure, and if that passes, Community Board 4 will have 60 days to give their suggestions and concerns to their Land Use committee.