By Tara Kyle
CHELSEA — Even as they fight for fiscal survival, leaders of a debt-ridden Episcopal seminary are tackling a second battle — soothing years of tensions with their Chelsea neighbors.
For over 150 years, the General Theological Seminary (GTS), the world's oldest Anglican institution of its kind, has maintained a quiet, grass-covered enclave within the borders of Ninth and Tenth avenues and 20th and 21st streets. But last week, debts totaling $41 million forced the sale of several properties inside the campus and across the street to luxury residential developer the Brodsky Organization.
"The pain of selling assets for our trustees is as painful as it gets," interim president Reverend Lang Lowrey said as he presented GTS' financial "Plan to Choose Life" at a crowded community meeting Tuesday night.
"Churches don't always run great businesses. … We're trying to build a better business," Lowrey added.
The sale is sparking concerns because it includes landmarked properties and a building where apartments are rented to members of the public, who now fear possible eviction.
But Lowrey, a Georgia transplant brought on just four months ago to help bring the Seminary back to solvency, is also confronting a history of strained neighborhood relations. These stem from a controversial 2007 plan to erect a 17-story tower on campus, and the status of the Desmond Tutu Conference Center, which some Chelsea residents believe is operated more like a hotel than as a resource for non-profits.
Lowrey asserted that the Tutu Center, operated by Aramark, is a conference center for events concerned with peace and justice.
"We market only to non-profit activities," Lowrey said.
However, some audience members disagreed and responded with a chorus of "that's not true." Sandy Rosin, a 22nd Street resident, pointed out that the Tutu Center's top Google search result points to a listing at Booking.com.
GTS staff responded that while they do welcome friends and family of the Episcopal Church for overnight stays, the site also hosted 30 conferences in 2010 for groups including the Michael J. Fox Foundation and American Cancer Society.
"It's important to recognize that there continues to linger this deep distrust between people in the neighborhood and the Seminary," Community Board 4 member Corey Johnson said following the Tutu Center outburst. "Hopefully that will change."
Area residents also repeatedly asked about what plans the Brodsky Organization has to alter the buildings in the deal, which include Chelsea Square Nos. 2, 3 and 4, 422 West 20th St. and the campus' historic West Building.
Landmark status should prevent developer Daniel Brodsky from substantially altering the exteriors, Lowrey said. However, he pointed out that the West Building requires an interior gutting to avoid falling into total disrepair. He also repeatedly expressed support for Brodsky's character and a belief that he will maintain the sacred nature of the properties, but acknowledged that ultimately developers will act according to their own financial interests.
Community members repeatedly asserted that Brodsky should engage in dialogue with the public.
Lowrey pledged to continue community outreach over the course of the year it will take to bring the real estate turnover to completion, beginning with meetings with residents at 422 W. 20th Street. He reminded attendees that the seminary's actions are a last resort against crippling debts and a precipitous drop in the endowment from $45 million in 2000 to just $13 million today.
"The world is changing. It used to be that you kind of did borrow from God," Lowrey said, drawing on Biblical analogies such as the Israelites time in the desert following their escape from Egypt. "We [have] put all hands on deck to save this place."
But not everyone left the meeting satisfied, indicating that community relations may be an ongoing challenge over the next year.
Lesley Doyel, president of neighborhood advocacy group Save Chelsea, said she found GTS representatives "very evasive" in their answers about topics including the Tutu Center.
The most important next step, she said, will be for Brodsky to participate in a public meeting.
Patricia Henrich, an 18-year resident of GTS' W. 20th Street block, echoed Doyel's concerns, explaining that a deep love for the area motivated her.
"What concerns us most is that the seminary is not going to turn over to all high end development," Heinrich said. "All of Manhattan used to be like this, and it's not anymore. We're just trying to hang on."