What should New York City do with its public housing? Demolish it, as public housing authorities in cities like Newark, Chicago and Detroit have done? Sell it, as private-market advocates propose? Or watch it continue to deteriorate as the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) struggles with deficits brought by cutbacks in state and federal support?

These are critical questions for the city because with nearly 180,000 apartments spread over five boroughs, NYCHA is New York’s largest landlord. And in a city where housing for low- and moderate-income people is so desperately needed, public housing provides a vital service. Even if the buildings are getting old. Even if the elevators don’t always work. Even if the vast superblocks typical of most housing projects are banal in design, barren of amenity and often empty and intimidating at night.

This year, an international team of graduate students from the University of Michigan Master of Urban Design Program spent a semester exploring the redevelopment potential of public housing projects on the Lower East Side, one of the greatest concentrations of such projects in the country.

They proposed that the projects’ open spaces (more than 80 percent of their land area) be used for development that 1) retains all public housing in the area; 2) provides new revenue streams for NYCHA that can be used to maintain and enhance its housing stock; 3) creates the kind of economically integrated communities preferred by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in its public-housing demolition and replacement program, HOPE VI; and 4) uses development to increase project residents’ social and economic opportunities.

As the Michigan team discovered, there’s room in Lower East Side projects for between 4,400 and 8,000 new apartments (both fair-market and “affordable”); a range of 1.6 million to 5 million square feet of commercial development; and from 600,000 to 3 million square feet of institutional space (for libraries, community centers, schools and colleges). Adding other uses, there’s the potential of between 13.7 million and 22 million square feet of new buildings. That’s a lot of development. And if multiplied over NYCHA’s many sites, the approach could help transform not just public housing but whole neighborhoods for the better – and the city itself.

Location, location, location

The Michigan team selected Lower East Side housing projects for a reason. They stretch two miles along the East River between the Brooklyn Bridge and 14th Street, cover 120 acres and contain 11,300 apartments for 26,000 people-a size such that redevelopment will carry substantial benefits not only for residents of the projects, but also for their surroundings and NYCHA as a whole.

With ground coverage averaging only 16 percent, they provide plentiful open space for new development. And along the edges of NYCHA’s properties, the Lower East Side has experienced widespread gentrification over the past decade, making the LES projects desirable for redevelopment.

The Michigan team generated redevelopment concepts for the area defined by the Brooklyn Bridge, 14th Street, the bulkhead of East River Park, and the north-south streets of Avenue D, the Bowery and Madison Street. These boundaries usually coincide with public-housing borders but also include city blocks between projects. Also within the area are housing projects originally erected by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, including the Amalgamated Dwellings and Hillman and Seward Park Houses. Built between the 1930s and 1960s as limited-dividend, owner-occupied dwellings, several of these buildings now sell apartments on the open market following the demise of their public subsidies. Clustered south of the Williamsburg Bridge, they divide public housing developments to the north and south and contain approximately 4,500 apartments. They were included in the design concepts to make redevelopment contiguous and to provide them with new income streams for their upkeep and repair.

With the goal of retaining all of the Lower East Side’s public housing (and ILGWU projects), the Michigan team generated three design concepts to demonstrate the site area’s rich potential for redevelopment. But the concepts have even bigger intent: to illustrate options for NYCHA’s capitalization on its greatest dormant asset, its underutilized land, to counteract deficit-driven cutbacks in building maintenance and social services that threaten public housing’s very survival. In 2008 that deficit was $195 million. Unless NYCHA gets new sources of revenue, the city’s public housing could disappear.

Among the Michigan concepts’ major features are an extension of the financial district to the edge of the Smith Houses, where new office towers would enjoy views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. They also envision a college-oriented neighborhood extending from the Rutgers and La Guardia Houses to nearby East River piers that are renovated to become a community college, with the housing projects reshaped as learning/living quadrangles for residents, faculty and students. And they call for a cluster of luxury hotels and condominiums bordering the ILGWU projects at Corlears Hook with views up and down Manhattan and over the low-rise Vladeck Houses.

Other ideas include a live-work district serving as an incubator for tech industries and the related arts to either side of the Williamsburg Bridge and located on ILGWU-project parking lots and under-utilized public-housing land; new residential streets through the Baruch, Wald and Riis Houses from Delancey Street to 14th Street, lined with a variety of dwelling types and encircling community centers, schools, libraries, playgrounds and community gardens; a redeveloped Avenue D and Madison Street bordered by retail and neighborhood services at ground level and professional offices, apartments and lofts above; and, most dramatically, an FDR Drive featuring some of the most desirable offices, hotels and apartments in the city with direct access to new recreation grounds, landscape features, and public amenities along a re-designed East River Park.

To tie these features together and integrate them with the larger city, the concepts propose new light rail, bus and ferry routes that unlock housing projects from their current isolation at the river’s edge and make them part of a destination and crossing for Manhattan.

Getting it done

Although the Michigan concepts vary in program and features, they are supported by a series of urban-design principles providing a flexible framework for redevelopment: extending streets through project superblocks (aligning them with approaching east-west streets wherever possible); lining new and old streets with buildings; coordinating the height and massing of new buildings with housing projects to assure light and view for both; transferring development rights from parts of NYCHA projects to others to encourage sensible densities and scales of development; and applying sustainable-design and LEED standards to new and renovated buildings.

The Michigan concepts recognize that to redevelop the Lower East Side’s housing projects will be a lengthy task and foresee a build-out taking as long as 25 years – a long wait, but also one that will enable developers to adjust to changing demands and markets.

The concepts also consider funding. They suggest federal dollars be applied to East River Drive, transportation and waterfront improvements. They also propose that the sale or lease of NYCHA and ILGWU project land underwrite improvements to existing apartments while maintaining their affordability and contribute to the maintenance and construction of affordable housing at other NYCHA projects and in other sites around the city.

Additional affordable housing can be provided through incentives such as the New York “80/20” program that permits larger buildings if 20 percent of their units are offered at below-market rents. And tax credits and/or building bonuses can be extended to developers erecting public amenities and services on a turnkey basis (e.g. schools, libraries and community centers). Although new to NYCHA, such programs have ample precedent in New York City.

The price tag would be considerable. But so would the benefits.

One of the nation’s largest concentrations of public housing would be preserved, providing affordable housing to low-income people, a model that can be applied to public housing across the city.

From the sale or lease of a portion of its property, the New York City Housing Authority can create a fund or income stream to preserve and improve public housing projects on both the site and elsewhere. New York City, expecting an increase of one million residents over the next 20 years, would identify a new and very desirable location for thousands of housing units at a variety of price points. The city would also earn higher property tax revenues.

And the site area’s residents will enjoy more vibrant neighborhoods as well as improved transportation that will give them access to services, jobs and educational opportunities in the Lower East Side and elsewhere in Manhattan and the city, especially important to people living in public housing.

A new opportunity for New York

Of course, it can be expected that embarking on such an ambitious redevelopment effort would elicit reactions from existing public-housing tenants. Rightfully, they will be concerned about the effort’s effects on both their housing’s affordability and their community’s quality of life. A response can be to make them part of the “deal” by assuring them the continuance of affordable housing through new subsidies brought by development, giving them priority for new and/or improved apartments, or offering them equity stakes in the development.

With the current national economic downturn, now is an opportune time to plan the future of all of New York City’s public housing – as so much of its original planning was done in the 1930s during the Great Depression. With the growing attractiveness of neighborhoods where public housing is located (including Chelsea, the Upper West Side, Harlem, Fort Greene, Red Hook, and Long Island City), versions of the Michigan concepts for the Lower East Side can be developed for NYCHA projects across the city, each tailored to the needs and market conditions of their communities.

With its vast inventory, NYCHA has the opportunity to create a model for city life: mixed-income, mixed-use communities where the stock of low-income, affordable housing is preserved and balances “gentrification.”

Here is NYCHA’s opportunity to transform its projects – and the neighborhoods and skyline of New York.

Roy Strickland is Director of the Master of Urban Design Program of the University of Michigan. He led the Michigan design team consisting of Komal Anand, Daren Crabill, Emek Erdolu, Yingying Guan, Seung-Hyun Kim, Rachana Ky, Jun-Yi Lin, Obiamaka Ofodile, Kwangseok Oh, Danna Reyes, Amal Shaaban and Xuan Zheng.

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