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11.16.2011
Breaking Blocks
Brooklyn public housing minus the superblock.
New retail space along the street.
Courtesy Gorlin Architects

Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions made a presentation at the Municipal Arts Society Summit in October that recast the troubled Brownsville public housing in Brooklyn as a major public asset. Rethinking the housing block, Haggerty proposed a surgical approach that preserves original buildings and emphasizes breaking up the superblock with through-traffic streets, integrated urban agriculture, ground floor retail, and the incorporation of social services—all without displacing a single resident.

In 1990 Haggerty founded the not-for-profit Common Ground, with a stated mission of ending homelessness in New York City. Two of the group’s better-known projects, the Times Square and the Prince George hotels, provided housing for the homeless while integrating social services in turn-of-the-century hotels that were about to face the wrecking ball. With the buildings saved, gilded age lobbies became 21st century community centers.

 
proposal includes urban agriculture on the rooftops (left) and around the building grounds (right).
 

Common Ground began work in Brownsville five years ago in an effort to prevent homelessness before it happens. The organization stopped 300 evictions, which in turn became the impetus for launching Community Solutions, a new spin-off of Common Ground that strives to apply the same principles used at the hotels to the public housing superblock.

“How do you create a healthy, sustainable, and vibrant community in the superblock that can be preserved instead of resorting to the Chicago and St. Louis model of demolishing them?” Haggerty posed in an interview. She pointed out that despite a $6 billion deferred maintenance budget, the New York City Housing Authority continues to maintain their vast stock of buildings. “They never got to that point of complete decay where the only alternative was to demolish and replace.”

 
The existing superblocks (left) would be returned to the surrounding street grid (right).
 

Alexander Gorlin Architects conducted a pro bono comprehensive analysis, which included air and development rights. The plan seeks to enhance infrastructure and begins by adding 700 to 1,000 housing units, some through lightweight construction atop existing buildings. Additionally, the proposal calls for street-side retail throughout to activate ground-level circulation.

But street life requires streets. To that end, the plan reconnects the superblock to the grid by inserting through-streets in the place of former cul-de-sacs, inactive plazas, and underutilized parking lots. For this level of intervention, the obstacles are many. But a relevant precedent is the Harlem Children’s Zone, the 2010 project to remap and rezone public housing blocks that became the first proposal to successfully break the superblock in New York.

With an aggressive agenda to intervene early, Haggerty of Community Solutions said, “Go where they’re living and make it easier for them to succeed by pulling the linkages to health and mental health into their homes.”

Tom Stoelker