NEW YORK – One hundred years after the introduction of the Oreo, an expansion plan at the iconic cookie's New York City birthplace has left a bitter taste in the mouths of its neighbors.
Community activists say the two new towers that developer Jamestown Properties wants to affix to the historic factory known as Chelsea Market would be eyesores and would increase traffic and congestion.
But the company that bought a majority stake in Chelsea Market in 2003 says the block-long complex — home to the Food Network, Google and a tourist-friendly ground-floor food mall — must grow if it is to thrive.
Jamestown's plan to mount a new 250-foot box-like structure atop Chelsea Market's western section and a similar 150-foot structure on the eastern side is going through an approval process that will likely end with a City Council vote later this year.
Foodies outside New York may know Chelsea Market from shows like "Chopped" and "Food Network Stars" that are shot there. Its soup-to-nuts retail shops sell live lobsters, imported pasta and high-end cupcakes.
"This is the American epicenter of food culture," said Michael Phillips, chief operating officer for Jamestown.
The market draws an average of 15,000 daily visitors, many of them tourists aiming cellphone cameras at architectural details like massive pipes and corrugated metal that recall the building's industrial past.
"I always like old buildings that have been refurbished," said Paul Hofer, visiting Monday from Horsham, Pa. "I find these places intriguing."
Chelsea Market's walls are decked out with artifacts from its heyday as the home of Nabisco, formerly the National Biscuit Co. A March 8, 1912, letter documents the sale of a shipment of the Oreo "variety" of biscuits to one S.C. Thusen of Hoboken, N.J.
Tourists don't see the 915,000 square feet of office space above. In addition to Google and the Food Network, tenants include all-news TV station New York 1 and Major League Baseball's website mlb.com.
In an interview in Jamestown's offices five floors above a kitchen-supply store, Phillips suggested that by expanding Chelsea Market the developer can attract more of the high-tech companies that exemplify Bloomberg's vision of New York as Silicon Alley, challenging California for geek supremacy.
"This is a perfect neighbor for people in this neighborhood," Phillips said. "This is a clean industry, it's people who bike to work and use public transportation and work at varying hours so you have less of a rush-hour dynamic."
Preservationists disagree. "The complex which is an icon of adaptive reuse is wonderful and successful as it is," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. "Plopping an office tower or a hotel on top of it will only take away from what makes it so successful and attractive to New Yorkers and tourists alike."
A March 6 editorial in a neighborhood newspaper called the expansion plan "aesthetically ridiculous and with serious and negative effects on this mostly residential community."
A few dozen foes attended a May 31 committee meeting of the local community board devoted to Chelsea Market, waving signs and cheering when board members criticized the proposal.
"I don't think it will be aesthetically pleasing," said retired teacher Carol Demech. "It's just not a benefit for the neighborhood."
Details of the proposal are in flux. A hotel slated for Chelsea Market's eastern side may morph into offices after opponents said the neighborhood already has a surfeit of trendy hotels.
Plans submitted earlier this year to the community board show 240,000 square feet of office space in a glass-and-steel box perched atop the existing structure's western side.
At the committee meeting, board member Joe Restuccia called that addition "a goddamn spaceship that didn't land." But Jamestown officials presented a new version at the meeting, with the glass and steel replaced by a terra cotta facade that looks more similar to the existing structure's red brick.
The full community board voted June 6 to deny the zoning changes that the project would require unless a laundry list of conditions are met, including the construction of affordable housing elsewhere in the neighborhood.
The vote is advisory, and the project will now go to the Manhattan borough president, the Planning Commission and the City Council.
Asked about the likelihood that Jamestown would build affordable housing as a condition of a commercial expansion, spokesman Lee Silberstein said, "As the project moves forward, the specific recommendations will be reviewed and answered."