Tribeca has always been a historic area of New York City, its home to the Broadway-Chambers Building, a brick office tower completed in 1900, and the Woolworth Building, a Gothic Revival tower that was once the tallest building in the world (until 1930, when 40 Wall Street was built, then, the Chrysler Building).
These types of old buildings in Tribeca are historically preserved. One realtor saw the potential of this protected neighborhood and came up with a grand idea: to create a sort of gallery district. Jonathan Travis, a partner with Redwood Property Group in New York, convinced a handful of art gallerists (yes, it is a word) in 2016 to come check out ground-level storefronts, which are landmarked buildings that are protected under regulations that don’t allow developments (or in some cases, renovations).
Initially, it was like pulling teeth. Now, he gets a call from dealers quite frequently.
Since 2016, Travis has helped 18 art galleries set up in Tribeca’s buildings, many who have been priced out of Chelsea, the city’s former hot gallery district, which changed in recent years.
“After Hurricane Sandy, Chelsea galleries were forced to stop using their basements for storage as insurance premiums skyrocketed,” he says. Gallerists also found more space and historic charm in the retail spaces they rent in Tribeca. Some of the character these buildings have includes exposed brick walls to cast iron pillars and high ceilings. Now, insiders are calling Tribeca’s new gallery district “New York’s hottest destination for art.
Chelsea, the lower western part of Manhattan has traditionally been the go-to place for art galleries in Manhattan. But Chelsea is becoming a district for luxury condos—like The Caledonia. What also sent the real estate prices in Chelsea through the roof was the recent development of the High Line, a former railway track turned into a pedestrian walkway in 2014. Art galleries (the places that sell paintings for thousands of dollars per piece) were hit with huge rent increases, so found it easier to search for properties somewhere else.
Travis was integral to the process, having come up with the idea of turning Tribeca’s heritage-protected buildings into a new gallery district, since Chelsea outpriced all the smaller, independent galleries. It’s one of the rare success stories of a realtor basically designing a neighborhood—and it works on an authentic level. It has brought over 20 galleries since it started and is a bona fide “gallery district” bound to take over Chelsea soon enough.
Travis’s work does more than just bringing culture to lower Manhattan, it provides an example for how to use heritage buildings responsibly, without destroying them. “I started my real estate career at a large corporate firm, and I knew quickly I enjoyed real estate, but hated the environment I was in,” said Travis. “So, I made a decision to leave that company and go out on my own. This was seriously nerve-racking as commercial real estate is one of the most competitive industries, in the most competitive city in the world.”
He initially had a pivotal moment while reading the Wall Street Journal in 2014, reading an article about the quickly transforming neighborhood of Chelsea. “In the article, a dealer named Casey Kaplan was quoted as saying he did not like what was happening in the area, and when his lease expired the following year, he wanted to leave,” said Travis.
He sent a cold email to Kaplan introducing himself as a realtor who read the article and would work his butt off to find him a new space. Kaplan gave him a chance to meet him at the gallery and find a new home for his business. From there, other gallerists followed through word of mouth (an article that ran in the Real Deal didn’t hurt, either). Travis kept up his pattern of cold emailing gallerists and has sent over 10,000 cold emails to gallerists around the world introducing himself as a realtor, mentioning the Kaplan deal and the burgeoning Tribeca gallery district.
He recently worked to bring Nicodim Gallery, who are expanding to New York in a 3,500 square foot ground gallery space, to a cast iron building on Greene Street, right where Tribeca meets Soho. He also helped bring Harper’s Books to a new 4,000 square foot location on West 22nd Street in a new ground floor space.
Designing for a new district is nothing new. Planned communities have been used for years as part of housing developments, like the proximity to shopping malls to suburban sprawls, or multi-use buildings that combine retail space at the foot of an apartment tower. The first planned community was the village of Riverside, IL, built in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same designers behind Central Park in New York City, and today the village is a national landmark. It isn’t a Community Development District, though.
Tribeca’s gallery district is not exactly a Business Improvement Area—there wasn’t much to improve, other than foot traffic. There are no additional fees that galleries pay to be a part of this district. There is a regular event, Tribeca Art+Culture Night, where over 60 galleries stay open late but the floor of art galleries into Walker Street, White Street, and Franklin Street between Baxter Street and West Broadway was completely organic.
“With galleries, it’s not about changing districts, its an addition to Chelsea,” said architect Markus Dochantschi, a former director at Zaha Hadid Architects and the founder of studioMDA, who designed the Andrew Kreps Gallery in Tribeca in 2019, among several others in both Tribeca and Chelsea.
New York’s upscale gallery district began in Soho’s loft and warehouse buildings, but when gallerists were outpriced in the 1980s and 1990s, they moved to Chelsea, which has bigger spaces. “That’s what makes Chelsea, Chelsea,” he adds.
Since the gallery spaces were rezoned during the building of the High Line, a lot of spaces were lost, “classic gallery spaces closed,” said Dochantschi. He cited the resilience of the Chelsea area, as it still has the anchor galleries like Pace and Gagosian or David Zwirner (in other words, the mega, blockbuster galleries). “Chelsea gallery spaces provide multi-level scale you can’t get in Tribeca, and Tribeca can’t compete with. Tribeca doesn’t have 100 foot wide lots with column-free spaces and skylights,” he explained.
Even Markus recognizes what Tribeca does have, however: affordable rent. The historically preserved buildings of the area do make for good small-scale galleries, as well. “The outside of each building is landmarked,” Dochantschi explains. “The facade of all these buildings in Tribeca have a lot of glass because they were run by merchants selling products, but they also have really tall doors because they had to get their materials into the building. All these elements were preserved at these Tribeca buildings.”
Whether or not Tribeca will become “the new Chelsea” the effect of the designation of the neighborhood as an art district has changed the area for the foreseeable future. And it all happened thanks to one broker who decided to reach out to a disgruntled tenant. This story is not exactly repeatable, not every area can be an art district or any other kind of district for that matter. But it does show the power of a real estate professional with a vision and enough ambition to put it on display.