Chelsea Community Pans Plan to Salvage Seminary by Leasing to School with Ties to Problematic Donor

GTS President Markham, standing, began the April 14 meeting with a 30-minute presentation. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | With piqued curiosity and pointed questions in tow, some 150+ Chelsea residents responded to an invitation to attend an April 14 presentation from The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) and, locally, President of The General Theological Seminary (GTS).

Upon arrival at the 440 West 21st St. entrance to what’s been referred to in both earnest and jest as “Chelsea’s first gated community,” it was up some stairs, down a path, and into Seabury Auditorium. There, the standing-room-only crowd gathered to hear, as the invitation put it, “about the Seminary’s immediate future.” President Markham made good on that promise—occasionally taking his audience ahead some 99 years while never quite breaking free from the moorings of deeds done, or neglected, in days and decades past.

Making the most of several simple slide projections, an indoor voice calibrated to reach the back row while retaining its contemplative tone, and a self-professed commitment to provide “a sense of what’s happening, what’s true,” President Markham’s 30-minute upfront presentation was prefaced by his “huge thanks to [NYC] Council Member [Erik] Bottcher [and other electeds] for suggesting this.”

A Jan. 30, 2024 letter from Bottcher, NYS Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and NYS Assemblymember Tony Simone made an “urgent request” for a meeting, while expressing to President Markham and the Board of Directors it’s “essential that any new long-term lease or partnership aligns with the values of social justice, inclusivity, compassion, and diversity that the General Theological Seminary has long espoused – values that are deeply cherished by the residents of Chelsea.” (Bottcher, Nadler, Simone, and reps for Hoylman-Sigal attended the April 14 presentation.)

President Markham’s due credit to Bottcher and his colleagues was the afternoon’s first acknowledgement that this gathering was less the product of bedrock community engagement and more a matter of the command performance one gives to avoid languishing in the doghouse once the cat’s out of the bag. Which brings us to the elephant in the room…

“This institution’s run out of money,” said President Markham, owning the motive behind a controversial strategy floated by GTS to maintain some semblance of the Close (aka the 206-year-old Seminary grounds, W. 20th to 21st Sts., Ninth to 10th Aves.). Proving divisive within the Episcopal Church and firmly lodged on the low end of public opinion is a plan whereby GTS would, noted their November 9, 2023 press release, “lease the Close to a [Christian] nonprofit partner to support its education mission.”

Support was certainly needed—and plenty of it—to address GTS’ “cashflow challenges.” In fiscal year 2023, read the release, “operating expenses were $7.8 million, against an annual income of $4.3 million.” Despite having sold several buildings to the Brodsky Organization in 2012 for a reported 18.5 Million, the Seminary found itself with “no funding source for any emergency capital expenditure, or deferred maintenance, which is estimated to be in excess of $32 million.”

Hence, the need to make a quick deal—but surely not with the devil, or in defiance of one’s still small voice. Those scenarios may read as dramatic, even downright biblical, until one considers the revelations of March 22, 2024, when a New York Daily News article identified the “Christian nonprofit” as the School of Sacred Music (SSM). Already a presence within the Close (providing music for weekly Vespers services at the Chapel), the nonprofit bucking for a 99-year lease, noted Daily News reporter Téa Kvetenadze, is connected “to Abdiel Capital, a New York-based investment fund founded by Colin Moran, who also serves as managing partner. Moran is also chairman of the board of directors of First Things, a conservative journal whose contributors have written pieces critical of gay marriagetrans people and abortion.”

Thus the events of April 14 found President Markham repeatedly attempting to disassociate the SSM scenario from money man Moran, with the presentation’s very first slide noting, “President Markham is deeply committed to LGBTQIA+ inclusion – VTS is probably 60% plus LGBTQIA+.” Another slide detailed “Six Safeguards” built into the agreement—among them, a “guarantee that the Close is LGBTQIA+ friendly – at the level of faculty, staff, and students.”

President Markham called LGBTQIA+ inclusion “a priority and a fundamental part of my identity,” while calling Thomas Wilson, Founding President and Master of Chapel Music for the School of Sacred Music, “an affirming guy” who conducts, so to speak, himself and his programming with none of the negativity often ascribed to Colin Moran. Later, in the afternoon’s Q&A session, President Markham had this Methodist poised to consult Google when he assessed Moran as, “a Pope Benedict, rather than a Pope Francis.” Dry wit trumped such studied observations, when President Markham admitted of Moran, “True, the guy’s a Republican.” (Hey, the last time we let that one slide, Bloomberg helped himself to a third term!)

Answering Council Member Bottcher’s inquiry as to the “relationships behind the [Sacred Music] Choral School,” President Markham’s response was succinct and sober: “I have no interest in putting a right-wing organization that’s homophobic in the heart of Chelsea,” he said, referencing the LGBTQIA+-affirming Safeguards and vowing, “There will be consequences” for the slightest of violations.

Elsewhere in his presentation, President Markham detailed the give/get particulars of casting their lot with SSM, while repeatedly asserting the time is now—or, as President Markham put it in an April 18 email sent to Chelsea Community News, “Ideally, yesterday would have been great. We do need a resolution in the next few months.” 

As President Markham and his accompanying slides noted, a May 2023 Board meeting saw “the report that GTS did not have operating funds to sustain campus operations beyond the fall of 2024.” In addition to the $32 Million (and growing) in deferred maintenance, campus costs add another $5 Million annually. GTS’ Affiliation Agreement with VTS, while having created “a strong hybrid degree program” forbids the transfer of funds. (Even if a gift from VTS were possible, notes GTS, “the scale of the problem is so vast that even $20 million would not resolve the situation.”

Seabury Hall, location of April 14’s meeting. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

But SSM’s offer would provide “a substantial rent” in addition to their commitment to “start a school, share the campus with GTS, renovate all the buildings, and pick up the campus running costs.” GTS would provide “priestly leadership of congregations,” with SSM supplying “musical leadership of congregations.” The buildings and land would still be owned by GTS, and there is a “guarantee that the campus will function as a school for at least 20 years… In the eventuality that there is a sublease, GTS has the first right to buy the lease back.”

“So this is our predicament,” said President Marham, “the train we’re on… My goal is that it [GTS] remain a school—what it has been for the past 206 years.” But how, he pondered rhetorically, “are we gonna pull this off?”

Stark differences of opinion on that Big Question would occupy most of the post-presentation Question and Answer session, with some dozen-plus audience members offering alternate funding scenarios that came without a major donor beset with homophobic, anti-abortion baggage.

“Was this your only plan,” asked one man, of the SSM deal, with NYS Assemblymember Tony Simone wondering, “Is this the only one [candidate] that met your requirements?

Incredulous looks, a few gasps and what sounded like at least one very testy exhale greeted President Markham’s response—which was, essentially and respectively, “No” and “Yes.”

“We looked at a range of options,” said President Markham, noting upon his YEAR arrival at GTS, “I thought I had two years” to vet proposals and solidify plans—a timeline denied by the aforementioned May 2023 Board meeting that predicted End Game come this fall, without the sort of intervention an SSM deal would provide.

The invitation to April 14’s presentation. | Image courtesy of GTS

One resident, who noted he and his wife have resided on West 22 Street for over 50 years, had high praise for the Seminary’s seminal years, recalling, “none of these [populated, thriving] blocks around here would have been built up” without the arrival of GTS. “It’s like the anchor tenant, for [other] people to move here,” he said, adding, “We should try to help the GTS save itself.” Still, the ardent supporter countered, “Fair to say one of the problems, over the years, is financial mismanagement.” An endowment campaign was suggested, as was the notion that, “You have a campus [as an asset]. Schools are being built all over the city. How about [aligning yourself with] one of them?”

“We’ll look at every suggestion we receive,” said President Markham. “That’s a guarantee.” Still, the sense of urgency repeatedly brought the curtain down on a myriad of alternate plans. (“You’ve got 150 people here,” noted one women of the savvy (and monied, and connected) Chelsea crowd. “You should not leave this room without getting the people you need—a team of people who are willing to get together and act now.”

“We can fund you. We want to help you,” said one exasperated attendee, suggesting the formation of a “community group to consult on a monthly basis” would yield more secure options than “a 99-year lease, which is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

One viable source of funding that would hover over the remaining proceedings appeared nowhere in the presentation. It was an audience member who compelled President Markham him to acknowledge an offer was on the table from The Brodsky Organization, whose website notes it “owns and manages thousands of luxury rentals, condos, and commercial spaces in Manhattan and Brooklyn.” The GTS President would, several times, invoke such a candidate as a harbinger of condos (and not likely to match the SSM promise of a school on the Close for a least 20 years).

GTS’ avoidance of discussing a monied and well-tested option such as the Brodsky Organization struck attendee Joshua David as odd. Speaking with Chelsea Community News over the phone on Thursday, April 18, David—a co-founder of the High Line no longer working with or speaking for that organization—said, “I’d like to see what the Brodsky Organization or another real estate entity would propose. There are a lot of examples of real estate organizations partnering with a nonprofit to create a common facility or a nonprofit hub within the space they’re developing. They [Brodsky] were presented [by GTS] as a nightmare scenario. It’s [GTS] a landmarked site. I’d imagine any development would be very constrained.”

David, who noted he came to the April presentation “without a lot of deep background” information, said GTS “didn’t give a lot of reason for confidence that this [the SSM plan] was going to resolve their issues. The underlying finances of the deal on the table were very sketchily presented.” What’s more, President Markham’s failure to acknowledge the troubling aspects of Colin Moran’s association with SSM are squarely out of step with the times. “His [Markham’s] tendency to dismiss people’s objections to the values and history of the donor involved—based on Safeguards he’s set up—is,” asserted David, “both irrelevant and naïve, given evolving attitudes toward donor values in nonprofit institutions. The values of donors are entirely relevant.”

Also reached for comment this week, Sally Greenspan—president of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, weighed in on behalf of that formidable collective. “I don’t think he ever anticipated the passionate and well-informed group of people that would provide possible options for lease partners that were more aligned with the community and more financially qualified than SSM,” said Greenspan, adding, “He appears to be far outside his comfort zone when it comes to the challenges of shepherding a major Manhattan property through a crisis, especially one that comes with a legacy of fiscal mismanagement that seems to have instilled in him a desire to act quickly, but perhaps not wisely.”

Sandra Jacobus, President of the W400 Block Association 21, 22 and 23rd Streets, said in a post-presentation email that her BA hopes GTS will align themselves with “a non for profit or religious organization that embodies the values of inclusion and diversity, hallmarks of our neighborhood culture… We do not believe that the proposed lease with the Sacred Music School ensures either of this goal.” (“We are actively working to produce other alternatives,” Council Member Bottcher told Chelsea Community News, just prior to this article’s publication.)

“The financial mismanagement of GTS as described at the meeting (and as I’ve come to learn from other sources) is breathtaking,” said Chelsea resident Eric Marcus, in the April 16, 2024 edition of his Neighborhood News electronic newsletter (to subscribe, email a request to eric@ericmarcus.com). “It seems clear to me,” added Marcus, “that GTS’ primary interest is GTS and its educational program, not the preservation of the campus they’re now trying to lease for 99 years.”

Last word—at least this time around—goes to the man who stood alone as GTS’ presenter. “We are committed to regular updates and considering the different ideas put forward by the community,” said President Markham via email, following the April 14 gathering. “We value the relationship with the neighborhood and are committed to keeping the neighborhood involved,” he added, also noting, “We do need to find a resolution in the next few months.”

—END—

Note: President Markham can be contacted via email, at president@gts.edu.

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One Response to "Chelsea Community Pans Plan to Salvage Seminary by Leasing to School with Ties to Problematic Donor"

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