Saturday, June 20, 2009

Strange Letter from General Theological Seminary, er, "Brodsky's Chelsea Enclave Condominiums"

An open letter from Dean Ward Ewing arrived in the mail, dated June 11th. It is not yet up on the seminary's website, and I don't have time to type the whole thing so here's a summary:

GTS, which is in New York City, has leased out its land to a company called the Brodsky Organization. Brodsky has a 99 year lease, for which it paid a lump sum of around $33,000,000 (29 million, plus 4 million more added to offset inflation).

While GTS will continue to operate, the campus on Chelsea Square will be turned into Brodsky's Chelsea Enclave, which contains 53 luxury condominiums for sale to the public.

Dean Ewing is upset because The Chronicle of Higher Education's June 12th issue lists the $33,000,000 as a liability on the seminary's books because, as the Dean explains, "we cannot count the full amount as income; rather we only count what we would receive each year in rent..."

Because the seminary books show this big liability, the Chronicle lists GTS as one of "114 private, nonprofit degree-granting colleges that are in such fragile financial condition...that they failed the Department [of Education]'s financial-responsibility test." (online access to the Chronicle issue requires a paid subscription).

Dean Ewing publishes his open letter to say that this is all a misread of the accounting. "In light of other seminaries' decline, this article will encourage rumors that General Seminary may close. I write to assure you that the event that put us on this list is actually part of the reason we are financially healthier today than we were two years ago."

Fair enough, but let's not overlook the distress that has led General to lease out its historic property for commercial use.
  • - Last July, the Dean wrote "Our property was our greatest financial asset--which we would need to leverage to improve our fiscal situation--but it was also our greatest liability in that we faced a rapidly deteriorating plant with over $100 million in deferred maintenance." GTS has ceased to be its own financial master, and has had to lease its campus to commercial interests to make repairs and keep the doors open.
  • - In April this year, the Dean sent another letter explaining that "the Seminary successfully refinanced its current indebtedness and closed on a $22 million with M&T Bank. The loan will pay off existing debt, construction cost overruns, and provide working capital for the next two years."

GTS won't "close," but it is operating on borrowed money and the surrender of its property to commercial interests. Yes, accounting can be confusing and misleading, but so can the claim that the seminary is healthy when its resources are so heavily encumbered by non-church interests.

The GTS situation is a reflection of the overall decline of denominational churches generally and the Episcopal Church (TEC) in particular. It is telling that TEC, whose General Convention uniquely chartered the seminary in 1817, has to let the school fend for itself.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Sad to see a once healthy institution (in the 1920s) become what it is now, but why should we expect God's blessings on an institution that has set aside the truth of the gospel?

clericus absconditus said...

Yes, indeed, Alice!

Did you also know that the money GTS got IS ALREADY SPENT?

I have this from a long-time faculty member.

The Tutu Center was supposed to draw faithful and inquisitive layfolk from far and wide, to pay $250 a night for a bunk in order to then pay for a course called "Uncommon Worship: Strategies of Liturgical Justice in a Post-Modern Worldchurch" or some such flapdoodle.

The faithful--all the loyal lumpenproletariat in the pews--were supposed to walk with outstretched arms and shining eyes towards Ninth Avenue, money in hand, clamoring for a place at the awesomest of all tables.

For--you see--the Seminary is no longer about forming priests, but "moving towards a sense of" continuing lay education. Hmmm-hmmm.

Of course the Center had to be "green," involving sinking geothermal wells a quarter-mile into Manhattan Schist. (They couldn't just double-glaze.)

The price of the survey alone (can't poke into a subway tunnel!) was astronmical, let alone the cost of drilling per foot.

The Center has yet to turn a dime, but has largely bankrupted the seminary.

Alice, there is a scripture that exactly applies to this problem. Not simply an issue of setting aside the Gospel (though they have), GTS shows the truth of "Pride Goeth Before a Fall."

And mighty was the ruin thereof!

TLF+ said...

clericus absconditus: If you get any documentary evidence of these points, please pass them on.

I'm sensing that what you point out about the mission of GTS is true... that they are no longer about forming priests for Episcopal/Anglican ministry but about vague spiritual exploration.

I had not heard any of this about the Tutu Center. What a mess.

clericus absconditus said...

Dear TLF+

Documentation will be tough, I'm afraid, but if I do get some I'll definitely forward it.

I affirm in all candor that I learned this from a long-time faculty member at GTS.

The Tutu Center cost a king's ransom, and if you look at their calendar of events, there is nothing scheduled till OCTOBER 12. That's an all-day affair, no overnight fees accruing.

What's the center used for the rest of the time, as a low-end hotel or something?

I appreciate your kind response, and I'm glad you can see that the seminary has at least made a feint at repositioning itself towards a lay smorgasbord.

At the same time, the laity are told to be quiet, pay up, and let the Brilliant Clergy Do Their Wonderful Thing. It's hard to get energized activism to flourish that soporific soil.

In the pews, I sense much long-view patience, and not a little rolling of eyes. Also, a growing disinclination to "help out" when the clergy fall on their face.

Hence, the spotless emptiness of the Tutu Center.

The clergy may, er, fib or embellish; but the free market seldom lies.

clericus absconditus said...

I apologize. I forgot to add a point.

GTS got $33M ($33,000,000) for a 99-year lease. That's $333,333 a year. $27,777.75 a month. Public information.

Now, in that part of Manhattan a two-bedroom apartment costs at least $3000 a month in rent. Believe it or not. On the seminary close, apartments rent for $9,000 and up to the world at large.

In one year, therefore, a middle-class renter can expect to pay $36,000 in rent; a wealthier one on the close, $108,000.

So the lessee is getting that land for the price of 9.25 middle-class two-bedroom apartments per year, with never a cost of living adjustment.

We're still talking apartments with a tiny kitchen, and a hot live steam pipe running thru the john giving heat. Fancy apartments--about three per year, plus a closet.

I don't know all the building details, but I'm thinking that the new apartments will have to be more than 9.25 in total number; and generate seven figures a month for the landlords. From this, the seminary gets chump change.

And it's already spent.

Did one of the church's most majestic personages get taken for a ride, do you think?

helen said...

I am a resident of the Chelsea community in Manhattan. I read your piece with interest - the community is very alarmed about many aspects of the way in which The General Theological Seminary is behaving, especially in terms of running an illegal hotel at what is supposed to be the Tutu Conference Center. As you will see in the piece below, which appeared in our local newspaper, Chelsea Now, the Tutu center, illegally operated as a hotel since 2007, is not legally zoned for this purpose, and is in conflict with a Restrictive Declaration, signed by Dean Ewing in 2005. Even more alarmingly, GTS continues to be dishonest with the Community, the Community Board, and with elected officials, even in the face of exposure.

TLF+ said...

helen, thank you for contributing this insight.

GTS and Chelsea were special places in my life - what is going on is really sad to behold.

And the one blurb on the Brodsky site about the condos being among signs of "a bygone era" - ouch.