Posted by Leonard Steinberg on July 15, 2011

The question arose this week (and many times before) about the future of West Chelsea as an Arts Center: will West Chelsea go the way of Soho? Will Gagosian become the Gap? Will Prada replace Paula Cooper? Chanel replace Cheim & Reid?

“The biggest difference between Soho’s evolution into a high fashion retail environment and West Chelsea to-day is the fact that now most galleries own their space and don’t rent,” says Matt Amico, a West Chelsea resident and a Prudential Douglas Elliman broker. “When I moved into the Caledonia (450 West 17th Street)it was a brand new construction building: Alternatively, had I moved into Soho years ago, I probably would have replaced an artist.”

Soho artists did own many of the lofts that they moved from, mostly because they had bought them for next to nothing years ago: subsequently they have left behind a huge mess with the AIR program and walked away with huge, often retirement-fund-sized profits (well deserved, as they pioneered the area and transformed many derelict buildings into habitable homes and studios). West Chelsea is very different as the focus is not so much artists as it is galleries….and these (often highly profitable) galleries own their space this time: In Soho most were renting their retail/commercial space.

Another huge value to anyone in commerce is the high concentration of an industry: With about 350 art galleries concentrated within just a few blocks, the ability to lure potential art buyers is so much greater than being spread around the city, or worse, outside of the City removed from easy access. “The experience of visiting West Chelsea is now further enhanced by the fact that the recently opened Highline Park extension acts as a connector between West Chelsea’s arts district and the Meatpacking District, a thriving retail environment: so the area combines everything that Soho was 15 years ago with what it is to-day.”

The Highline Park, the new Avenue’s School, new restaurants, amenities and services combined with the Hudson River Park to the West add fuel to West Chelsea’s fire. When the subway stop is added to Eleventh Avenue and 34th Street, the northern end of the Arts District will be connected to Times Square via a 5 minute subway ride. Add to this a substantial volume of construction planned for the Hudson Yards area, diminishes the urgency to vacate current art gallery spaces to convert them or tear them down for residential use. There are still many vacant/commercial, non-art gallery building sites in West Chelsea to satisfy developers for several years. Walking on the Highline Park the other night amongst a very civilized group of calmer, more elegantly dispositioned New Yorkers, you actually saw the realization of this amazing neighborhood transformation: illuminated landscaping bracketed by exceptional new buildings that arch over the park such as the two stainless steel clad HL23 and 245 Tenth Avenue …..and in the distance a host of interesting new building mixed in with the older residential and commercial structures….and one day soon all this will terminate at a brand new Whitney Museum….

So my conclusion is that the unique flavor that has been created in West Chelsea is here to stay, for at least the next 10 years, and possibly much longer. Remember the entire area was re-zoned too to prevent a big mess, so maybe this is one area that will serve as a textbook case study for responsible development?