Chelsea Chic Manhattan's Happening Neighborhood

Chelsea Chic

"When my building at 15th Street and Seventh Avenue was built in 1980," says Jarvis Irving, a Chelsea resident for the past 23 years, "it was marketed as ‘Greenwich Village North.’ Nowadays, people wouldn’t miss the opportunity of saying their apartment is in Chelsea. Chelsea is a hot neighborhood."

Irving, a CPA who specializes in handling co-ops and condos at his firm, Jarvis Irving & Company LLP, also conducts his business out of a Chelsea location. "We’re looking for new office space," he says, "but the people I work with just don’t want to leave the neighborhood. Transportation is really good–everything is close to the subways and the shopping is great. This is a good spot."

Chelsea was never really a bad spot, but was a highly industrial, sparsely residential neighborhood. Boundaries are fuzzy; the southern border of 14th Street is undisputed; whether the area goes as far east as Fifth Avenue, or as far north as West 30th Street depends upon who one talks to. The western boundary, at the Hudson River is a lock–although this western section is most recently becoming developed and is getting to be extremely trendy, especially with the conversion of the Starrett-Lehigh Building, which spans West 26th to West 27th Streets and Eleventh to Twelfth Avenues. This 19-story building, originally a factory-warehouse on the site of the former Lehigh Valley Railroad freight terminal, is now home to Martha Stewart’s Omnimedia Corporation and other similarly "au courant" enterprises.

Prime Chelsea and Chelsea Heights

Veronica Raehse, sales manager of Bellmarc Realty’s Gramercy/Chelsea office, breaks Chelsea into two distinct areas: "Prime Chelsea," which runs from 14th to 23rd Street, and "Secondary Chelsea," a name she reluctantly describes as the northern section of the neighborhood–an area which her client, Stephen Quandt, calls by possibly the more appropriate name of "Chelsea Heights."

Quandt bought an 1,850-square-foot co-op loft from Raehse on West 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in 1992. The nine-story building was originally a fur factory and it now houses 16 co-ops. Raehse sold Quandt the apartment for $260,000; today it’s value is more than $800,000. "There are people who bought into the building for $20,000!" says Quandt.

"The biggest change in Chelsea has been above 23rd Street," says Raehse. "Prime Chelsea has always had more to offer in the way of services." Not anymore. The West 20’s especially between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues are home to many art galleries, which have relocated north from SoHo. About ten years ago, when prices for downtown real estate became too expensive, art galleries began migrating to the warehouses and taxi garages located near the Hudson River in the West 20’s.

A look at any New York City listings guides shows far more galleries and exhibitions in Chelsea than in SoHo, TriBeCa, the 57th Street area or uptown Madison Avenue, the traditional venues for galleries and art patrons. The Dia Center for the Arts located in its four-story renovated warehouse building at 548 West 22nd Street and in a recently renovated space at 545 West 22nd Street, is, according to the Center’s Web site, "principally dedicated to large-scale, single-artist projects, produced on a substantial scale and with a commitment to site specificity. Exhibitions are long-term, usually with a duration of one year to allow for repeated visits and the opportunity to view the work over an extended period of time."

Restaurants abound. And not just any restaurants, but well-touted bistros like The Red Cat (237 Tenth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets), which features Mediterranean-American fare, or Bongo (299 Tenth Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets), an eatery serving oysters, lobster rolls, champagne-by-the-glass and smoked fish.

Barbara Fox, president of residential real estate brokerage firm Fox Residential Group has watched the development of Chelsea as a prime destination, both for real estate and for leisure civilities. "Chelsea’s become what SoHo started out to be," Fox says. "It’s the foremost artist’s district. The sky’s the limit–there’s plenty of room, space and buildings to develop."

The Neighorhood’s Roots

Chelsea from 19th Street to 28th Street, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson, was originally a farm named Chelsea by its owner, Thomas Clarke, a retired British army captain. The land was purchased in 1750 by Clarke and was eventually passed to his grandson, C.C. Moore, who is most notably remembered for writing the poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…). Moore oversaw the development of Chelsea by subdividing the family’s property and selling to buyers who had to build according to specifications cited by Moore. Many of these single-family townhouses still exist in Chelsea.

In 1851, the Hudson River Railroad constructed tracks along what is now Eleventh Avenue. In 1871, the Ninth Avenue elevated railroad, the "El," was built. This infiltration to Chelsea, along with the building of piers along the Hudson in the late 19th century, caused the western portions of Chelsea to deteriorate residentially. Warehouses and freight dominated the neighborhood and manufacturing became a source of revenue for other portions of Chelsea. Although the railroad tracks and the El no longer exist, their presence led to a section of New York City that, while it had a good inventory of quality houses, was dominated by industry.

Chelsea Revitalized

During the 1950s and 1960s, some public housing and urban renewal projects were built, and the 1980s saw gentrification within the side streets, which Bellmarc Realty owner Neil Binder says are "beautiful." He continues, "The quality of Chelsea’s side streets are just outstanding–every one of them."

Binder credits the building of the sports facility at Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex, between 17th Street and 23rd Street, as being one of the factors of neighborhood revival. "When Chelsea Piers was built during the 1990s, it was a tremendous draw to Chelsea," Binder recalls. "It’s the best facility in the city." Chelsea Piers features roller rinks, ice skating, field hockey, batting cages, a golf center, a fitness center, restaurants and television studios. Peter Belmonte, a real estate broker with The Corcoran Group, who both sells apartments and lives in Chelsea, says, "Many of the people he knows in the neighborhood belong to Chelsea Piers."

The neighborhood boasts a number of other gyms and exercise centers. A horseback riding stable with 40 horses and 20 instructors is located at 23rd Street and Twelfth Avenue. Called the Manhattan Riding Academy, this is a draw for equestriennes in a city where there are few options to ride horses.

The extent to which Chelsea has changed is described by Stephen Varone, director of operations for Rand Engineering, which is located at 159 West 25th Street. "The changes are phenomenal," says Varone, who has been working from Chelsea since 1987. "When we first moved into our building, most of the offices were vacant. There was absolutely nothing here and at night, the streets were totally deserted." Varone now describes a Chelsea filled with stores on all of the avenues, constant street traffic and a plethora of gourmet food stores. Another change Varone has seen is with his business, which specializes in capital improvement projects for residential and commercial buildings. "When we started doing working in Prime Chelsea," Varone recalls, "owners wanted minimal work done to the exterior of the buildings, just to make them safe. These days, the buildings are top-end co-ops and condos and the boards want major renovations to the façades. There’s a different structure to the ownership and care about the buildings–owners want their buildings to look nice and that’s a big change."

Marilyn Sygrove, principal of Sygrove Associates, Inc., a designer of cooperative and condominium public spaces, has also seen great change in the amount of buildings she’s working on in Chelsea. Sygrove has just finished upgrading the lobbies of the buildings at 23rd Streets London Terrace, a complex of apartment houses surrounding a private garden. The 1,670-unit building was built in 1930 and Sygrove is creating "by-gone era interiors" and also upgrading the doorman stations "for the new technology" put in by the resident boards. "We’re now working on a new rental building on West 23rd Street," says Sygrove, "doing all of the public spaces including lobbies, hallways, elevator cabs and building entry facades."

Mind-boggling is the word that can describe the amount of residential construction going on in Chelsea. Twenty-two new buildings are being developed in the area, bringing the inventory of apartments to a zenith. At 148 West 24th Street, the 354-unit Chelsea Mercantile, a condominium, has been described as a destination purchase for buyers. Built between 1904 and 1914, the building was constructed in pieces and has been in the process of renovation and conversion since 1998. Brown Harris Stevens broker Michael Garr has sold more than 60 apartments in the building and is a tenant himself. "I knew I wanted to buy an apartment," he says, "and I had no idea I’d fall in love with this building." Prices in the Chelsea Mercantile range from $800,000 to $8 million for a penthouse space. Residents can enjoy a gym and a roof terrace with a view of the city and a peek at the Statue of Liberty. Garr says that buyers range from families to retired couples to singles–both gay and straight, which all leads to the quality of life in Chelsea.

Chelsea Lifestyles

Living in the 28th Street loft, Quandt finds life extremely safe and pleasant, but what strikes him most deeply about Chelsea is that "there do not appear to be any barriers–except possibly economic ones–between the people who live here. There’s a mix here, the neighborhood’s a mix of straight and gay and all racial groups. It just seems to work."

Fox thinks that Chelsea will continue to grow and transition for the next five to ten years. "I think the neighborhood will continue to crawl uptown, she says. "We listed a townhouse in an off-beat area of Chelsea recently and it sold immediately–over the asking price. Whatever can get bought, does get bought," Fox states. Chelsea is more convenient than TriBeCa and SoHo–and just as chic. Anything you buy in Chelsea will be a good investment."

Ms. Wagner is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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