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General Seminary seeks to sell Tutu Center

General Seminary seeks to sell Tutu Center

<Updated 12:30 pm EST> Chelsea Now reports that General Seminary is in discussion with the Brodsky Organization to sell the Desmond Tutu Center, a conference center owned by the Seminary.


The Brodsky Organization has already purchased several buildings that formerly belonged to the seminary some on the Close itself. These include apartments across 21st Street from the Close, and two buildings on the west side of the quadrangle including one of the first two buildings of the Seminary. Brodsky also owns and developed the condominium project on Ninth Avenue that also houses the Seminary’s library.

All of this is part of General’s “Plan to Choose Life,” which, as Chelsea Now says, is a three-step plan to liquidate real estate in order to eliminate $40 million in debt, rebuild their endowment and balance their budget, all with the goal of strengthening their core mission, “to educate and form leaders for the church in a changing world.”

Update: A letter to the GTS Commnity and Alumni from President Lowrey Lang and Associate Dean Patrick Malloy describes the transaction in detail.

Winnie McCroy reports:

Chelsea residents are saddened, but not surprised, by the recent discovery that the real estate developer and investor Daniel Brodsky and the Brodsky Organization is in negotiations to buy the Desmond Tutu Center, a conference center and hotel owned by the General Theological Seminary (GTS).

“We are still in negotiations, so my hands are tied as far as commenting on that,” said Bruce Parker, the GTS’s associate vice president for external relations in a February 20 phone call. Representatives at the Brodsky Organization also declined to comment on the sale, but public records indicate that, although no deed transfer has been recorded, Brodsky has already obtained an easement and development rights at the site.

But neighbors admitted that the sale did not come as a surprise. The 50,000 square feet center features two large conference rooms and 60 hotel rooms, and is valued at $30 million. And despite a 2005 agreement with the city that the rooms would be open only to those affiliated with the GTS, local residents have complained for years that the Tutu Center has operated as a hotel.

The Desmond Tutu Center is comprised of three adjacent, red-brick, neo-gothic properties at 180 Tenth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets that were joined to created a larger facility. Like other properties in the Seminary’s “Close” (or campus), the Center contains many religious architectural features — including ornate embellishments and stained glass windows.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission protects all of the buildings, but that will likely not hamper Brodsky’s plans. While there is no indication at this time as to what the Brodsky Organization will do with the property, they will likely go the same route as with the other properties recently purchased from GTS. Currently being converted to condos are 422 West 20th Street; The West Building; and 445 West 20th Street, which recently sold for $18.5 million.

The Brodsky Organization is also set to break ground on an eight-story luxury condominium building at the current site of the GTS tennis courts, adjacent to the West Building.

The letter from Lowrey and Malloy details the complexity of the plan. Hoffman Hall, including the refectory and the new conference and breakout rooms will not be part of the sale.

The hotel section will still be available to the Seminary.

Here is what the letter says:

Presuming we close on the final restructuring transaction, the leveraging of the “hotel” part of the Desmond Tutu Center, we can expect that the endowment will grow to be as high as $30 million (including the remuneration we expect to gain from the development of West Building). Moreover, all M&T bank debt will be eliminated and we will have dropped our annual cash loss from as high as $7 million annually to an expected $3 million for next year. With the other cost reductions (including offsetting investments to be made in our mission) our plan calls for a $2 million loss in 2013/14 and a $1 million loss in 2014/15. The good news is that with the planned cost reductions, our new operating reserve should be able to cover approximately three years of operating losses, which should fund enough time to allow GTS to formulate a new vision for the 21st century and to develop a plan to balance the budget.

While we have made progress, we do have one critical final transaction to complete. The last and very important financial component of the Plan to Choose Life is to eliminate debt and rebuild the Seminary’s endowment by leveraging of the “hotel” portion of the Tutu Center. A Letter of Intent has been signed that involves separating the hotel part of the complex from Hoffman Hall—with only the guest rooms and hotel being purchased by outside investors (with GTS retaining a beneficial interest in the ongoing profits of the hotel). Hoffman Hall itself, including the conference and breakout rooms, and the refectory are not being sold and will remain under the sole ownership of General Seminary. Since the buildings that are part of the present Tutu Center share infrastructures, it was far less expensive to divide ownership of the life safety and electro/mechanical systems through the creation of two individual property units. Accordingly, this is a very complex transaction not only needing extensive legal, architectural and engineering work but needing Attorney General approval. God willing, we expect a closing with the new hotel operator this summer.

It is very important to note that this arrangement will allow ongoing use of the hotel and conference center in substantially the same, if not improved, manner as GTS has used it in the past—improved because instead of being driven by the need for profits, Hoffman can now be used as a center for Seminary programs and continuing education. Income from our endowment will support the Seminary’s mission instead of relying on the ups and downs of hotel profitability. We will still be able to use Hoffman for events and meetings in conjunction with the hotel which will continue to generate revenue streams but we will not be beholden to this usage as in the past.

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Murdoch Matthew

I know little about the affairs of General Theological Seminary, but a couple of things about current developments make me wince.

The idea of the seminary being involved in “luxury condominium building” seems wrong. All the NYC housing development I’ve seen in the past decade has been Luxury Housing in Manhattan and Long Island City. The main middle-class housing in Manhattan, Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, was recently sold to a developer who promptly tried to make luxury renovations and raise rents, trying to rid itself of long-time residents. Fortunately, the developer bought the project on credit and went broke. (I don’t know the current status.) Point: the Powers-that-Be seem to envision a city composed of only the rich — no provision for the artists, workers, teachers, public employees who make the city run. The church should be critiquing this, not buying into it.

Second, the seminary’s attitude that it doesn’t answer in any way to the community around it. General has always seemed a pseudo-monastic block in the middle of the neighborhood, but they’re making their separation from the world official. This echos developments in the Anglican Communion, with its current campaign to put Primates in charge, and in the national church, where reorganization is being treated as a top-down affair. Stonewalling got a good name in Greenwich Village where it was a revolt; Anglican authorities at many levels are reminding us of its less appealing meaning, top-down power refusing to respond to those who support them.

If General doesn’t want to deal with the community, maybe it should move to somewhere in the country. (If primates and metropolitans don’t want to work with the national churches and their people, maybe the latter should consider not funding them.)

Gary Paul Gilbert

I got my facts wrong on who appoints members of Manhattan Community Board 4. The Borough President of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, appoints them. The City Council Members within the district of CB4 choose no more than half the nominees to be considered by the Borough President. Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the City Council, is one of the Council Members within CB4. Members of the community who are known by community leaders and neighborhood elected officials to work for the betterment of the neighborhood have a good chance at being appointed. If they believe they are not being adequately represented by the current members of CB4, residents of General ought to consider contacting their city council members, assemblymember, and state senator to let them know why they should be considered for membership.

Gary Paul Gilbert

The bylaws of Community Board 4 say:

1. Members

Manhattan Community Board 4 shall consist of not more than fifty members appointed by the Manhattan Borough President, one half of whom shall be appointed from nominees of City Council members elected from council districts which include any part of Manhattan Community District 4 No more than twenty-five percent of the Members shall be city employees. No person who does not have a residence or a business, professional, or other significant interest in the District shall be appointed to as or shall remain a member of the Board.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Thank you, Ann! I knew gay priests who were treated badly by their fellow seminarians when they went to General. That was in the eighties. Integrity USA had to fight to change things. The institution was unable to provide financial aid to a gay seminarian, who had to work around the seminary doing gardening. On paper the seminary was relatively liberal but they had no money to back up their liberalism. Under Dean Ewing, things changed very much for the better, I hear. As for the housing policy, Integrity and other LGBT activists had to lobby hard to get that policy changed for same-sex couples. That General had to be lobbied to liberalize its housing policies, whereas it finds itself in Chelsea, which traditionally has lots of LGBTs and progressives is disappointing.

Community Board Four is made up of people appointed by the local elected officials, who are all very progressive and fair. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Senator Tom Duane, both of whom are gay, are great elected officials. Christine Quinn is the first lesbian to to serve as Speaker of the City Council. Tom Duane was a sponsor of the marriage equality bill, as was Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, before being pro-LGBT was fashionable. My point is that the local elected officials are not lacking in virtue and I would tend to respect whomever they appointed to Community Board 4.

I think that an institution should work better with the elected officials to maintain the quality of life in a neighborhood. Working with developers is not good public relations.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary Paul Gilbert

Ann Gaillard

Gary, I don’t know if you are missing something or not. But here’s my perspective: I graduated from GTS in 2005 (M.Div.), and what I remember in my three years then and in subsequent years is GTS’s plans being consistently shot down by CB4. Had CB4 been more willing to negotiate and compromise on the 9th avenue building, some of these more recent financial undertakings would not have become so pressing. I remember that CB4’s objection then was that the proposed 9th Ave. building would be out of keeping with the historic flavor of the neighborhood. Fair enough. But I was just in Chelsea a few weeks ago (first time since graduation) and all I can say is that Chelsea has changed so much that such a building would have been right in synch with the neighborhood. More importantly, though, the subsequent sales and renovations of the seminary’s buildings have totally maintained the historic nature of the buildings (at least so far). My point is, you can’t have it both ways.

I love General, and I hate to see it change. But we all know that change is necessary to growth, however you define “growth.”

With regard to Marriage Equality, I admit to ignorance on the public stances on the part of both Union and General. (I myself am a vocal supporter of Marriage Equality, although my diocese [Albany] is certainly not.) Nevertheless, long before the Marriage Equality Act was realistically in the picture, General allowed same-sex couples in committed relationships to co-habitate on campus grounds, recognizing that they were in a unique situation because the state prohibited them from marrying. Heterosexual couples, on the other hand, were not allowed to cohabitate unless they were married. My same-sex brothers and sisters were fully embraced and supported by the GTS community. As far as I’m concerned, with regard to the support of the GLBT community, GTS’s actions have spoken as loud as, if not louder than, words.

Bob McCloskey

Bruce Parker’s response details the financial successes being experienced by GTS. I think that most alums understand the distinction between the Tutu Center and its adjoining lodging space. However, I think that the definition of what constitutes the Center independently of the lodgings is a real stretch. That part of the Tutu Center in negotiation is alleged to be in process of sale as a boutique hotel in trendy Chelsea.

CB4’s complaints and positions underline what I termed the hostile relationship between GTS and its neighbors, but I was not taking sides on that one.

At the end of the day, my question in my previous posting remains, namely, what type of ministry and program for what kind of church is envisioned or not.

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