Reimagining NYCHA's Towers in the Park

Infill project at the Astoria Houses in Queens by Studio V.
Courtesy Studio V

Near the end of his final term as mayor, Michael Bloomberg unveiled a proposal to shore up the finances of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) by allowing developers to build mostly market-rate apartment towers at eight public housing campuses in Manhattan. While the plan would supposedly generate $50 million-a-year for the cash-strapped agency, it was met with swift and stinging criticism, and a lawsuit from the New York City Council and a coalition of NYCHA residents. Bloomberg’s land lease proposal was further derailed by the politics surrounding it: A billionaire mayor letting developers bulldoze grassy plots and basketball fields at public housing developments for expensive new apartments. One of the most vocal critics of the proposal was Bill de Blasio, the progressive public advocate gunning for Bloomberg’s job. But about a year-and-a-half after becoming New York City’s chief executive, de Blasio has revived the proposal, albeit with some significant changes.

De Blasio’s Infill Vision

For starters, Bloomberg’s 80/20 model (80 percent market-rate, 20 percent affordable) has been switched for 50/50 and 100 percent affordable schemes for new infill buildings. In total, de Blasio said NYCHA infill will create 10,000 new units of affordable housing. These will count toward his larger goal of building 80,000 new units of affordable housing in a decade.

Before and after site plans at Astoria Houses.
Courtesy Studio V
 

The infill scheme is part of a larger “NextGeneration NYCHA” plan that aims to stabilize and strengthen the agency, which is saddled with $17 billion in unmet capital needs. For NYCHA’s some 400,000 residents, this means living with leaks, mold, broken elevators and lights, and long wait times on repairs. (To take some financial burdens off NYCHA’s hands, the de Blasio administration is also cancelling a tax payment the agency has owed the city since 1949, taking over its call center, and trying to secure some federal funds for the agency. Meanwhile, NYCHA is boosting its parking rates and launching some other modernization measures.)

In early July, the infill process officially got underway with NYCHA releasing an RFP for 100-percent-affordable buildings that are geared toward families and seniors making up to 60 percent of area median income. The buildings, which will comprise about 500 units, are planned for three NYCHA campuses: the Ingersoll Houses and Van Dyke Houses in Brooklyn, and the Mill Brook Houses in the Bronx. At Ingersoll and Mill Brook, new developments will rise on grassy, fenced-in lots; at Van Dyke, new buildings will replace parking lots. NYCHA said it will negotiate with developers over how much revenue these new buildings will generate for the agency. Current NYCHA residents will also get preference for a quarter of these apartments. In August, NYCHA is expected to release an RFP for 50/50 buildings in more expensive markets that would generate between $300 million and $500 million in revenue over 10 years.

“There are a lot of NYCHA developments that are towers in the park and have a lot of empty space and FAR that is available” said Andrew Bernheimer, principal of Bernheimer Architecture. Bernheimer is doing pro bono site testing and documentation for NextGeneration NYCHA through his studio at Parsons. “They have an asset in a city where land is valuable so it certainly seems like a reasonable opportunity to build new things, especially in a place where we need new housing.”

The RFP for the first three sites comes out of “Community Vision Plans” that NYCHA created in coordination with its residents in an attempt to gauge their housing needs and desires for future development. This type of community outreach was notably absent in Bloomberg’s proposal.

Despite the push to engage with public housing residents and create new affordable housing, the very idea of building new towers on NYCHA land remains contentious. “I am not crazy about infill,” said Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst for the Community Service Society of New York. “I think a lot of residents may resist the idea, but right now, I think it is NYCHA’s only hope for generating the revenue it needs to survive into the next generation.” His organization’s official stance on the proposal is “neutral.”

NYCHA’s first round of infill development. Left to right: Mill Brook in the Bronx; Ingersoll in Brooklyn; Van Dyke in Brooklyn.
Courtesy NYCHA
 

But as Bach, and a host of other stakeholders note, if done correctly, infill at NYCHA sites has the potential to deliver more than revenue and affordable apartments—it could lead to new public amenities, better retail, improved streetscapes, and the reknitting of public housing campuses into the larger New York City fabric.

The Design Opportunities of Infill

Last fall, NYCHA tapped Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), which worked alongside ARUP and OLIN, to find ways to achieve these goals while boosting the agency’s sustainability and resiliency measures. Jill Lerner, a principal at KPF, said she was surprised to learn that well over half of the so-called “open space” on NYCHA’s campuses is actually fenced-off or used for parking. “There is a real opportunity to take these big sites that have tremendous amounts of beautiful open space and find a way to organize and improve it for the residents and surrounding communities,” she said. This could include incorporating new landscaping, reorienting pathways, and constructing new buildings on the edges of NYCHA campuses to create dynamic streetwalls with amenities like retail and supermarkets.

These are the types of strategies that STUDIO V is incorporating into an upcoming NYCHA infill project at the Astoria Houses in Queens. The firm has designed two buildings that are both 100 percent affordable and will include ground-floor retail or community spaces that face 27th Avenue. This project was approved under the Bloomberg administration as part of the Durst Organization’s Hallets Point mega-development that will transform an adjacent, industrial stretch of waterfront into a mixed-use community and park. As part of the rezoning, a school will also rise on NYCHA property. The STUDIO V-designed affordable towers are slated to break ground this fall, along with the first phase of the larger development.

Proposal for infill at the Fulton Houses in Chelsea.
Courtesy Friends of the Fulton Houses
 

Jay Valgora, founder of STUDIO V, said the infill project comes with other design interventions to integrate the Astoria Houses into the surrounding community, as well as the future James Corner Field Operations-designed park and esplanade along the water. New pathways are cut through the NYCHA complex that lead toward the river, and Astoria Boulevard is extended through the development creating a continuous connection between the upcoming public space and eastern Queens. “This was really about looking at combining different interests,” said Valgora. “It was about improving the neighborhood, restoring streets because there was not sufficient access through the whole peninsula, providing more affordable housing, and space for schools, and other amenities.”

This community-based ethos is imbued in a hypothetical—and highly ambitious—infill strategy proposed for NYCHA’s Robert Fulton Houses in Chelsea by the non-profit Friends of Fulton Houses. The project includes some expected infill moves like street-facing housing towers with ground-floor commercial space, but also presents ideas far beyond what is currently being discussed by developers and planners.

The non-profit envisions a three-story structure that snakes through the development and is topped with a continuous public park system complete with grassy lawns and sports fields. “The entire neighborhood is being upgraded, but the Fulton Houses is essentially the same as it was when it was created 55 years ago,” said Galia Solomonoff, an architect and founding member of the group who is known for her work on Dia:Beacon. “When we started thinking about how to upgrade it, we realized there was a lot of potential to increase the amenities, density, and to create more housing.”

Fulfilling the Vision

For now, NYCHA has a less ambitious architectural vision, only making some fairly broad design suggestions in its RFP like “architectural design should blend, complement, or sensitively contrast with the existing structures and/or salient neighborhood features.” The agency is also encouraging the incorporation of Active Design elements to promote healthy lifestyles at NYCHA campuses.

To Bernheimer, pulling this whole thing off will take more than thoughtful architecture. He said that new buildings should not be “dropped like gold teeth into the jaws of NYCHA.” Instead, he explained, successful infill will require input from a range of stakeholders, and planning that considers the day-to-day experiences and needs of NYCHA residents.

After all, it was a lack of comprehensive community planning that helped tank Bloomberg’s plan. Now, Mayor de Blasio and NYCHA leadership are pushing forward with their own proposal that is very much shaped by the lessons of the past.

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