Not so long ago, Chelsea was the “ugly stepsister of the Village,” says Gil Neary of DG Neary Realty (whose motto is “A Castle for Every Queen”). With the exception of a few places like London Terrace—now nicknamed the “fashion projects”—it was rarely a first-choice real-estate destination. But then Eighth Avenue became Main Street U.S.A. for the buffest segment of the region’s gay population. After it was tamed by stridently cute little cafés, Chelsea quickly grew to become one of the tightest markets in Manhattan, one that is increasingly not-so-gay anymore. And with thousands of new apartments in 22 new buildings going up on the parking lots and gas stations that used to dot the area, a great deal of money is betting that it’s going to stay that way.
CREATURE COMFORTS: With more than 150 galleries, ranging from Gagosian’s huge space to art-market mini-malls, Chelsea’s western fringe has been transformed from a wasteland of taxi garages and warehouses into one of the city’s unlikeliest Town Car destinations. In addition to the Chelsea Piers, restaurants, and clubs, suburban-culture outposts like Starbucks and Banana Republic have arrived during the past half-decade, along with ever-more-monstrous supermarkets. A huge Food Emporium has replaced the Associated on 26th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues that used to cater to the housing projects on Ninth Avenue. The Whole Foods in Chelsea Mercantile and the D’Agostino’s on 17th Street are also new.
TIPPING POINT: The opening of the Chelsea Piers complex in 1995—which seemed like folly at the time—shifted the focus of the neighborhood west. It also made the area’s already well-established obsession with fitness seem more wholesome and family-oriented. Meanwhile, the drive for groovier, cheaper office space turned nearby industrial spaces into commercial ones.
WHAT’S NEW: Thanks to a 1999 zoning change, parking lots, mostly on Sixth and Seventh Avenues, were redeveloped by a march of brick rental towers, crowding out the flea market. High-end warehouse- loft conversions like the Eagle and the Spears followed the galleries from SoHo. “The fringes to the west and the north, which were once not considered Chelsea at all, are now the most dynamic areas,” says Edward Ferris of William B. May.
PROGNOSIS: What’s done is done: “The area has really become sanitized,” says Tom Jenkinson, an architect who is moving out after living in the neighborhood for twelve years. “When I moved to Chelsea, there was a certain vibrancy that is no longer there. The mix has gone from gay and Hispanic to primarily straight.” There are still parking lots to be built on, and it abuts the next unused parcel of Manhattan in the West Thirties, where the mayor wants to build a stadium. Still, many wonder if, in the event of a recession, there’s a need for another brick rental on 23rd and Tenth.