Long known as Manhattan's gallery district-home to the highest concentration of art galleries in the country, if not the world-Chelsea has been the preferred corner of the city for the creative and somewhat offbeat for nearly a century. Though not underdeveloped, the area showed considerably more resistance to development than the city's denser areas. In light of recent happenings, though-including new zoning laws and a popular new park by name of the High Line-Chelsea, and specifically West Chelsea, is seeing some changes. And though these developments are pushing it into a more commercial direction, the area has still managed to stay connected to its roots, maintaining the edgy vibe that's long separated it from other Manhattan neighborhoods.
Stretching from 16th Street north to 30th Street on Manhattan's West Side and roughly bound between 10th and 11th Avenues, West Chelsea saw its beginnings as farmland in the early 1800s. Like many other areas of New York's developing metropolis, its rural charm faded as the neighborhood evolved.
But there is where many similarities end.
An influx of population provided the workforce, and the area's natural amenities-including, most notably, its proximity to the Hudson-wrote the rest of the story. By the beginning of the 20th century, Chelsea had become an industrial hub-a neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and piers - and a center for silent films, marking the beginning of Chelsea's affair with the artistic crowd.
The combination of these influences essentially laid the groundwork for the neighborhood's personality. Factories and warehouses have since become art galleries and off-Broadway theaters, and, more recently, a certain rundown railway line has undergone a reported $85 million renovation into the city's first elevated park.
Originally constructed in the 1930s, the High Line's purpose was to remove dangerous freight traffic from the streets of what was then Manhattan's largest industrial district. The 30-feet-high tracks span from Gansevoort Street north to West 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. Saved by the Friends of the High Line organization in 1999 and transformed into a model of innovative landscaping and modern design, the park's first section opened last June between Gansevoort and 20th Streets, in the Meatpacking District, though most of the line is located in Chelsea.
In many ways the High Line is reflective of the neighborhood itself, evolving from industrial center to an offbeat modern marketplace of culture that's been attracting a lot of attention lately. "I think the High Line has opened up the door to Chelsea," says Karen Gastiaburo, senior vice president and Tribeca sales manager for Warburg Realty Partnership. "People are focusing in on those parts of town [by the High Line] and doing things to make it more liveable and pleasurable."
Take the renewed interest in the area spurred by the High Line, combine with a city-ordered rezoning of the West Chelsea neighborhood in 2005 meant to "encourage and guide the development of West Chelsea as a dynamic mixed use neighborhood," and you've got the two-part catalyst that's steered the area into more commercial waters than ever before. A flood of lively ethnic restaurants and trendy clothing boutiques have earned this area's recent prestige as an alternative shopping destination. And in the past five to 10 years, Chelsea has seen a building boom, especially in the form of high-rise luxury buildings. Many of these new developments artfully echo the area's industrial past through their architecture and aesthetics.
"The High Line has gentrified the area without changing its flavor," says Alan Sands, senior vice president and associate broker for Corcoran Group Real Estate and a member of Friends of the High Line,. "About five years ago there was a boom of developments, which has brought more people, shops, and restaurants, but it still has that industrial, gallery feel to the district. The architecture and look hasn't totally changed."
One example is the property at 456 West 19th Street, an 11-story boutique condo building developed by architect Cary Tamarkin. The structure houses 22 duplex residences, each with double-height living areas, ranging in size from 1130 to 3000 square feet. Among those are four penthouses, located on the building's top four floors, each featuring six-foot-wide fireplaces and large private terraces (1100-1800 square feet), which "mirror the waves of the neighboring Hudson River." Prices for the residences start at $1.5 million, with penthouses priced from $6 million. About half of the units have High Line views, and most have views of the river as well.
"I think the type of person that's attracted to West Chelsea is one who appreciates the fundamental beauty of the neighborhood," says Millie Perry, director of sales for the building under Stribling Marketing Associates. "The feedback I've gotten from buyers is that they're drawn by the exterior beauty of the building. They love the way it blends in with the industrial elements of the neighborhood, but it's also a classic brick building with these stunning windows."
A bit north lies the six-story property at 525 West 22nd Street, developed as the first condo building in the area in 1997 and renovated in 2008. According to Sands, who represents the building for Corcoran, the structure is a rare find in that the layouts of each residence are different. "The developer only did the kitchens and bathrooms, then people did their own thing with the rest of the apartment once they moved in," Sands explains, adding, "There's a lot of warmth in the building that's not being recreated in today's world."
What's more, the eastern wall of the building actually fronts the second section of the High Line (in fact, a third floor apartment was once a loading dock), which means many of the residences will have stunning views of the park when the second section opens this year.
But the gem of the property is Penthouse A, with 3600 square feet of space and 1100 square feet of private rooftop terrace, which is currently listed at a cool $8.495 million.
"In 1997 it wasn't an art district, but the unit itself has a gallery feel," Sands says. "It has the original cement floors and exposed brick interiors, 12-foot-high ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling columns. It fits in well with the Chelsea area."
In terms of real estate, pricing has been very strong in the neighborhood, Gastiaburo says. Many of the new luxury developments have high price points, from $1500-$1700 per square foot, which is above the average city neighborhood, she says.
With more properties in development over the next five years or so and the addition of the two northern sections of the High Line, Chelsea is on track to become one of the city's more lively residential neighborhoods. But as it evolves, its roots will likely stay intact.
"The area has changed, but the flavor has been maintained," Sands says. "It's certainly a destination, and the High Line has opened it up even more to New Yorkers who weren't aware before of the beauty and uniqueness of the area."