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“The Times Square of the South Bronx” is an apt moniker for a place more commonly known as “the Hub”. Situated at the crossing of subway lines, bus routes, and major thoroughfares, the Hub is one of the busiest commercial districts in New York City. The corner of East 149th Street and Third Avenue constitutes the center of this half-mile, spoke-like network of traffic arteries that radiate into the Melrose and Mott Haven neighborhoods. You cannot stand in one place here: Hordes of commuters boarding buses and entering and exiting narrow subway entrances sweep you along. Street vendors occupy much of the sidewalk selling everything from sunglasses to sodas. Salsa music blares from curbside radios and the heavy smell of food being fried at street stands wafts through the air. On a weekday afternoon in June, virtually all passersby were Hispanic or African American, and a great many were wearing jeans and sneakers. No hipsters were apparent, and no one was wearing a suit.
Throughout this bustling area there are still stately old masonry theaters from the era when the magician Harry Houdini and actors such as Lionel Barrymore performed here. Today, many of these historic buildings are bedecked in a riot of awnings and signs advertising beauty parlors, pawnshops, and electronics stores. In some cases, billboards and posters—such as a long brown one advertising Envy Nails—cover entire rows of second story windows. Alongside the faded Beaux-Arts buildings are more recent arrivals—Lego-like cinderblock structures with plate glass windows. You can see unfulfilled potential in the dusty upper story windows of 149th Street‘s sturdy old loft buildings decorated with faded “Offices for Rent” signs that might be appropriate for tenants such as tech startups or design studios.
In many ways the Hub is still recovering from the dark days of the 1970s, when the South Bronx became the most notorious symbol of urban blight in the country. Community District 1, which includes the Hub, lost 43 percent of its population during that decade. Fires and abandonment destroyed up to 97 percent of the building stock in some census tracts. Take a turn off East 149th Street, one of the Hub’s main drags, and north on Bergen Avenue and you will find trash-strewn sidewalks and fenced-off, weed-covered lots abandoned for so long that small trees have taken root. Back when the Bronx was burning, many property owners stopped paying taxes, and the city used foreclosures and eminent domain to acquire a vast inventory of such properties. However, the area as a whole has improved recently, thanks in part to better policing, say local residents such as Tanjy Davis, a former restaurant owner out for a walk with her daughter. “Brook Avenue has changed so much,” she said. “They used to have prostitution over there and young kids were shooting guns.”
There are signs that the South Bronx as a whole is reviving. In 2013, the Opera House Hotel, the Bronx’s first luxury boutique hotel opened for business in a renovated 1913 theater on 149th Street. And in the past year there has been a tremendous amount of real estate speculation in the Bronx. According to the New York Daily News, multifamily sales rose 67 percent and sales of development sites were up by 85 percent. However in the area around the Hub virtually all the new residential buildings have been built as affordable housing, and they owe their existence to generous government subsidy programs that generally include the sale of city owned land to private developers for nominal sums of money. A case in point is Via Verde, the award-winning affordable housing development completed in 2012 at the corner of 156th Street, just beyond the empty lots on Brook Avenue. Via Verde received a slew of subsidies from the New York City Council, NYC Housing Development Corporation, The New York State Affordable Housing Corporation, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and other government agencies.
Much of the new City-subsidized development in and around the Hub is targeted toward alleviating poverty. The 88,000-square-foot Triangle Plaza Hub is currently under construction on the site of a former municipal parking lot at 149th Street. The $40 million development will provide the South Bronx with essential goods and services that most Manhattan neighborhoods take for granted, including a primary care medical center for the federally designated medically underserved community. Triangle Plaza Hub will also house a Fine Fare Supermarket, which will benefit from tax incentives under the City’s FRESH program for grocery stores selling nutritious, affordable produce and meats in underserved communities.
The potential capstone to the Hub’s redevelopment is a proposed $345 million project called La Central, slated for the last large assemblage of vacant city-owned land in the South Bronx. A draft proposal for the project calls for a mixed-income affordable housing development of five buildings with 992 rental apartments, 2.2 acres of publicly accessible open space, and a host of new ground-level retail spaces. The project, which spans three existing blocks including a superblock created years ago by the de-mapping of a city street, will fill in the gaping hole between the residential developments along Brook Avenue, such as Via Verde, and the commercially-oriented areas around the Hub.
With so many government approvals and so many government subsidies required for such a large project to move forward, community support is critical. The draft proposal was presented at Bronx Community Board 1’s land use committee in June by a development team that packed the hearing room. There were representatives from La Central’s lead developer, the Hudson Companies, as well as the non-profit development partners for the project, which include Common Ground and the YMCA. In addition, there were representatives from a large design team that included FXFOWLE, MHG Architects, and Future Green Studio.
Aaron Koffman, a principal at the Hudson Companies, told the community board that La Central’s facilities and amenities were intended to provide services and recreational opportunities for the entire neighborhood. “It is about community, education, and affordable housing—those are the three pillars,” he said. One such space is a 10,000-square-foot studio and classroom space for BronxNet, a non-profit public access television station devoted to community-based programming and broadcast skills trainings for local residents. BronxNet would be joined by spaces for other non-profits, including music education program Music Has No Enemies, a day care center, and the South Bronx’s first YMCA, home to a diabetes prevention program run by Montefiore Medical Center.
FXFOWLE partner Dan Kaplan described how the project was designed to enhance the Hub with substantial open space within the development and a public plaza on an adjacent lot. Its street walls with ground-level retail seek to connect the buildings to the existing neighborhood fabric, and a pedestrian thoroughfare will reestablish a neighborhood connection lost when a section of East 152nd Street was de-mapped years ago. The massing ranges from a 25-story tower on the northern part of the site to 12-story buildings with two-story attached maisonettes. Articulated facades with recessed sections and bands of different colored bricks are intended to break down the scale of the development into smaller elements so as not to overwhelm immediate neighbors, among them low-lying warehouses along Bergen Avenue.
Because HPD is in charge of selling the land, the critical subsidy for such developments, it is able to exact a great many concessions in return. For La Central, HPD is mandating that the developers meet special green design standards established for affordable housing, setting the terms on the affordability of the units, and even requirements that the units be larger than those currently required by the city’s building code. The city‘s various stipulations might appear to be a difficult proposition for a private developer, except for the fact that the taxpayer will undoubtedly be picking up the tab for many of the features and amenities described in the draft development proposal. If the La Central deal goes through, the Hudson Companies and its non-profit partners will be able to buy the land for their development for a dollar per tax lot and potentially benefit from a number of subsidies that could include various government loans, tax-exempt bonds, and tax abatement programs that can last for up to 40 years.
Building state-of-the-art affordable housing can be quite profitable for private developers according to housing advocates. “The Hudson Company is certainly going to make money off of this and off of anything that is city sponsored,” said Moses Gates, Director of Planning & Community Development for the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development, “If you have all of these great design elements, it is not the developer paying for them,” said Gates. “It is the public paying for them that is how it works, the developer has their return in mind and if they want to do all of this cool fancy stuff, they find funding for it and that funding is various subsidy programs.”
The proposed rents for La Central are designed to be affordable for households from a wide range of the income scale: between 30 percent and 100 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), or equivalent to an annual income of $18,150 to $60,500 for an individual or $23,350 to $77,700 for a family of three. The housing units awarded through government run lotteries that generally attract a tremendous number of applicants. In 2014, the tenant lottery for 2,500 subsidized apartments in New York City drew 1.5 million applications—a 600 applicant to unit ratio. To help preserve the neighborhood, the city is requiring the developers to fill 50 percent of the units at La Central with local residents from Community District 1.
However, despite being given preference on 50 percent of the units, for many Community District 1 residents, the rents will be unaffordable. According to data from New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in 2013 Community District 1 had a 16 percent unemployment rate and half of household incomes were under $21,600. Further, close to a third of households in Community District 1 are “severely rent burdened”—which means that their rent equals at least 50 percent of their monthly pretax income.
Although his organization is focused on helping the poorest New Yorkers find housing, Anthony Winn, Chief Operating Officer of the influential local housing advocacy organization Nos Quedamos (We Stay), said that it is critical to have developments that can accommodate a variety of income ranges. “Often times you get an overemphasis on housing for the poor, which is important,” said Winn. “But when you are trying to grow and develop a community, you want to keep a balance between making sure that those with the most need are served while also making sure that you are not creating a concentration of poverty.”
For La Central to move forward, the land that it is slated to occupy must be rezoned from its current manufacturing designation to allow a residential use. And because the project involves a rezoning, the sale of city owned land and other government actions, the plan must pass through the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a lengthy process that requires approvals from various agencies and public hearings before the New York City Council and the local community board. At the CB1 hearing on La Central, residents expressed concern about the building slated to be solely owned by the non-profits Common Ground and Communal Life, which would provide 96 studios at 30 percent AMI, 60 percent of which would be set aside for veterans with mental illness and low-income elderly people with HIV/ AIDS from throughout the city. Several board members said that the proposed supportive housing should address the needs of local elderly residents rather than accommodate populations with serious problems from across the city. Hudson’s Koffman responded that government financing was not available for an alternative supportive housing program and that his company was addressing guidelines set by the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD): “We are doing nothing different from what they [HPD] are doing all over the city.” However, many at the hearing said that their community already bears too much of that burden. “There is and there has been a concern with an oversaturation of particular populations that cause major quality of life issues,” said Bronx Community Board 1 Land Use Chair Arlene Parks, “and the burden on a police department, the 40th Precinct, who already is so overburdened that they cannot respond to all of things we have going on here.”
Although the supportive housing component of the proposed La Central project remains contentious, the overall program wins praise from community members. “We are looking to have a diverse population in the district and for different persons of different incomes to be able to afford to live here,” said Cedric Loftin, District Manger of Community Board 1. “Those portions are going to have to be discussed, but we feel that the project will meet those needs.”
“It looks like a very exciting project in terms of what it is going to do for the community dynamic,” said Winn from Nos Quedamos, although he noted that his organization has not yet taken a formal position on the project. “There is diversity in what the structures are going to look like,” added Winn. “They are bringing in a diversity of formats in terms of the housing units, and it is looking at community use and community resources that go beyond the residents of the building—that YMCA, for example, is going to serve the greater Bronx community.”
Community-based organizations in Melrose, especially Nos Quedamos, have a formidable track record when it comes to influencing development outcomes. In the early 1990s, city officials made plans to raze the remains of a 30-block swath of Melrose and replace it with massive new developments. Neighborhood leaders found out about the City’s tabula rasa plan and formed Nos Quedamos to preserve what was left of their neighborhood. The New York City firm Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP) worked pro bono with the group to produce the alternative Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan in 1993. The plan, which included local residents in the design process and prioritized their housing needs, was adopted by the city the following year. “The vision was for a mixed-income neighborhood,” said Magnus Magnusson, Principal of MAP. “And although it was very hard to envision middle income there originally, we felt that it was very important to make the buildings look like middle income.”
The South Bronx is still one of the five poorest congressional districts in the country. But some of the government subsidized housing built in Melrose Commons over the past decade undoubtedly would attract a long line of prospective affluent tenants were they located in one of the city’s pricier precincts. One such development is the MAP-designed Aurora, an eight-story, 91-unit condominium building located on a tree-lined block of Washington Avenue. The boxy, brick-faced building is a good neighbor—it features setbacks to break up the massing and a supermarket and restaurant featuring Mexican food made from family recipes at ground level. The Aurora, which received subsidies from the Affordable Housing Corporation and the Bronx Borough president’s office, has every amenity on a checklist for middle income housing: bamboo floors, ceramic bathroom fixtures, and a gracious landscaped terrace for residents with play equipment for children.
According to the architects and developers who designed the recently completed Melrose Commons, because city-subsidized affordable apartments are built to guidelines imposed by HPD and are generally larger, they are also often are of better quality than market-rate units under construction in wealthier neighborhoods. And as opposed to the tower-in-the-park typology prevalent in other urban renewal areas, the affordable housing developed in Melrose typically relates to the street, with ground-level retail along the avenues and lower-scale townhouse buildings along side streets.
Although the South Bronx has not yet managed to attract much market-rate housing, the population moving into its affordable housing has become increasingly income diverse. “For many years the top income level at the typical new building in the South Bronx was 60 percent of AMI,” said Ted Weinstein, HPD’s Bronx director. In the case of La Central, the development proposal calls for half of the units to be between 80 percent and 100 percent AMI.
The city’s development policies in the South Bronx have also won support from affordable housing advocates. “On the whole it has been an unqualified success,” said Moses Gates from ANHD. “However, the availability of City-owned land has been critical to subsidizing that success,” explained Gates. “When you have land that is government-owned, you can go from the ground up and say how do we make it happen, rather than everybody throwing out bids and just taking the highest one.”
Over the past decade, in addition to shepherding the construction of thousands of units of rent stabilized affordable housing in the South Bronx, HPD has promoted the use of environmentally friendly designs and materials by awarding competitive points for green features in requests for proposals and by instituting minimum green building standards. “In the old days it was how many units and how cheap,” said Les Bluestone, a developer who in 2009 completed the Eltona in Melrose Commons, the first LEED Platinum affordable rental building in New York State. Bluestone credits the city for raising the bar: “The Bloomberg administration started looking at quality issues that weren’t studied so much in the past, and that is continuing under the present [de Blasio] administration.” Melrose Commons became the first neighborhood in the city to join the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Program (LEED-ND) in 2010.
Sustainable design certainly provides a host of benefits for people from any socio-economic group. But in the South Bronx, green features can be critical to the physical and economic health of low- and moderate-income residents. “In affordable housing, when it is a family of three and every dollar counts, the fact that utility bills could be knocked down by a significant percentage makes a difference,” said Kaplan, the architect from FXFowle. The development, which is aiming to achieve a LEED Silver rating, also includes a plethora of green features, such as solar panels to power a co-generation plant, which will reduce reliance on the city’s electric grid by 50 percent. A rooftop variable refrigerant flow system will eliminate the need for wall air conditioning units, allowing for tighter sealing throughout the building.
One of the primary ways La Central will reduce energy loads is through traditional block and plank construction, which utilizes precast concrete planks for the floor system and concrete cinderblocks for bearing walls, in contrast to the steel-beamed, market-rate buildings with glass facades being built in other parts of the city. “With market-rate housing you are trying to maximize the amount of glass that you have within the confines of the energy code and that generally means 45 percent glass,” said Kaplan. “La Central and other affordable housing projects we are designing are probably within 20 to 25 percent range for glass,” he said, noting that despite advances in glazing, glass generally is the biggest source of heat transfer in residential buildings.
The green features at new developments like La Central also have the potential to reduce the South Bronx’s high rates of asthma, linked in part to substandard building conditions like mold infestations. At The Eltona, developer Les Bluestone prohibited smoking and installed continuous background ventilation to reduce the impact of formaldehyde off gassing from residents’ furniture. In addition, non-toxic pest control systems such as non-cellulose wall structures and steel mesh termite barriers prevent the infestations like the recent ones that have been linked to repertory problems in New York City public housing projects. According to a recent Mount Sinai study, The Eltona’s features appear to have substantially reduced asthma attacks among residents. “It was absolutely amazing,” said Bluestone. ”People who were being hospitalized multiple times a month all of a sudden weren’t going to the hospital.”
La Central will not be the most high-tech or environmentally sustainable building in the area around the Hub. Across Brook Avenue from the fenced off vacant lots where La Central is slated for construction is the aforementioned Via Verde, designed by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects. Via Verde is the most state-of-the art affordable housing development in New York City. With its colorful prefabricated aluminum, cement and wood panel facade, and rooftop farm, it can hold its own against the new iconic buildings along the High Line in Manhattan. Further, although it features ground-level retail and a community health center, Via Verde is a relatively self-contained development—a gated courtyard, although originally intended for public use, is generally open only to residents. And with 222-mixed income residential units, Via Verde is much smaller than the La Central development, which with its commercial spaces, public thoroughfare, and large public greensward promises to redefine the neighborhood. “One of the reasons that we like La Central from a design point of view is that it is bigger than a single building,” said Kaplan, “and we had an opportunity to create a neighborhood.”
With close to half of its units slated for renters making above 80 percent AMI and 11 percent slated for renters making up to 100 percent AMI, La Central promises to alter the demographics of this poverty stricken community. However, there is no way that the proposed development with its low- and moderate-income guidelines and its supportive housing component can be construed as being an agent for the kind of gentrification that is sweeping other New York City neighborhoods. “Somebody like me, who doesn’t make that much money, still makes too much money for buildings like these,” said Winn from Nos Quedamos. “If you make halfway decent money, you cannot get in because you make too much for the rental requirements and the number [of units] available at 100 percent AMI usually is just a fraction of the building, and then there is competition for those units.”
The developers hope to complete the ULURP process by April 2016 and purchase the property from the city the following month. Much about the project’s design could change as a result of the various reviews required under the city’s land review process. However, neighborhood leaders say that things are off to a good start. “Community-based organizations are aware of what will be happening on the site and I am sure that there will be interactions short-term and long-term,” said Loftin from Community Board 1. “People are going to be looking at bringing educational engagement to the process and also seeing involvement long term, once the project is developed—so we are very excited.”
On April 9 and 10, the Institute for Public Architecture and Pratt Institute School of Architecture held “An Inventory of What’s Possible,” a symposium organized to discern what can be done to implement Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units in the next ten years. The event consisted of visits to a variety of different public and supportive housing projects from various eras throughout the city, in addition to talks by professors, students, city officials, community activists, and the president of a residents’ association. They discussed new ideas, historic projects, problems, possible solutions, and opportunities that the current affordable housing crisis presents.
On April 9, participants toured housing ranging in time from Strivers Row by James Brown Lord, Bruce Price, and Stanford White (1893) to Via Verde by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw (2012) and in space from Roland Wank’s Grand Street housing in Lower Manhattan to Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Twin Parks in the north Bronx. Richard Meier; Prentice, Chan & Olhausen; and Giovanni Pasanella all have buildings at Twin Parks. The tour drove home the point that New York City’s legacy is remarkable for its range, quality, and continuing success. It also showed that there are lessons to be learned—both positive and negative—from what has been built in the past.
After welcomes by Pratt Dean Thomas Hanrahan, and professor and AN editor-in-chief William Menking, panel discussions furthered historical perspectives, provided views of neighborhood activists, and presented new ideas about ways to attack the affordable housing crisis.
Jonathan Kirschenfeld, the founder of the Institute for Public Architecture, who had designed some of the housing visited the day before, noted, “We have 50 years of research on the public realm at Pratt in the institute founded by Ron Shiffman (Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, or PICCED) and now directed by Adam Freeman. Housing—and the way we think about the public realm and the interior realm—defines our humanity as a city. New York is the quintessential innovator in thinking about housing in a dense place, willing to take chances and create new types of housing.”
Karen Kubey, who directs the Institute for Public Architecture, mentioned "Total Reset" an Institute Fellows residency program on public and below-market housing that took place last summer, noting that Michael Kimmelman had covered it enthusiastically in “Trading Parking Lots for Affordable Housing,” in The New York Times on September 14.
Later in the day, when Institute Fellows presented the findings from their work, Miriam Peterson, Nathan Rich, and Sagi Golan described the “9 x 18” plan that Kimmelman had praised. They proposed a new parking policy, especially in areas near pubic transportation, an attempt to create streets that promote an active lifestyle.
“There is much more parking on NYCHA sites than on other urban blocks. The idea is to replace parking lots with parking structures that house community facilities,” said Golan.
“A lot of the residents were willing to trade parking space for other amenities.” Another Institute Fellow, Kaja Kuhl, a Columbia GSAPP professor who goes to five neighborhoods every year with the 5 Borough Studio, talked about the importance of starting a conversation with each community. She uses “Postcards from Home” to learn how the residents view “home” and found that they see it as “neighborhood and community,” “privacy,” and even “food.” She said, “We heard that housing should be affordable,” and she showed some of the student projects that were inspired by these conversations. At the Forest Houses in the Bronx, students looked at the schools that surround the NYCHA development as a place to share school facilities like a library, a gymnasium, and computer labs with each other and with NYCHA residents by putting them on the housing authority campus.
Frederick Biehle, a Pratt professor and principal of VIA Architecture, had also considered restoring streets and reshaping the urban fabric in his studio that focused on the Ingersoll and Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He suggested “delineating public, semipublic, and private spaces” to counter the “sameness and banality” of the existing buildings. The studio proposed a new two-story base connecting two existing towers with semi-private space for residents and an interior courtyard with new institutional programs—a skating rink, a school, stores. “Each individual building gets to determine its own block. The metastasized scheme doubles the number of units, but the buildings’ lower floors become more porous. Townhouses face the street.” He described a number of possibilities and noted, “It’s amazing that so many successful, doable projects were proposed.”
In a morning session on “Stabilizing Neighborhoods,” the moderator was Daniel Hernandez, the Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and a Pratt professor. He noted the importance of early engagement in identifying issues and then implementing them, since “it’s a moment when there is a lot of cultural change going on in the agencies.”
NYIT Professor Nicholas Bloom described the promise of subsidized coops and said, “The word ownership comes up often in the mayor’s document.” He talked about the success of earlier subsidized coops, such as Village View in Manhattan and the Luna Park Co-op in Coney Island, which encouraged residents to take care of their neighborhoods. He proposed that NYCHA create a subsidiary to build some of these on their land on a nonprofit model, similar to what is done in Singapore. They might be built with FEMA funds in some areas, would “put more eyes on the street,” and might be step-up housing for some NYCHA families. “There has to be a less strident conversation about underused land in NYCHA communities,” he said.
Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, a principal of Buscada who teaches at the New School for Public Engagement, discussed the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). She described it as “a big mess but one that is interesting.” In 1967, families were driven out but told that they could return when new housing was built. However, not enough was built for many families to return. She emphasized the importance of perpetuity in communities.
Benjamin Dulchin, who is a community organizer, not an architect, represents the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Developmentan, an umbrella organization for 101 community development groups. He is trying to help neighborhoods set agendas and develop policies by studying what has worked and what conditions made success possible. He said that while it is important to build permanently affordable housing, it is also necessary to focus on crime, economic development, and institutions to sustain a community.
Paula Segal, the executive director of 596 Acres, an organization that advocates for community gardens spoke, unsurprisingly, in favor of their preservation and of ownership of land by communities. She is particularly opposed to giving gardens to for-profit developers.
In a discussion period after their talks, Ron Shiffman said, “Displacement and speculation on land has become palpable in every neighborhood of New York. A lot of good planning came from neighborhood-based organizations. Let’s start integrating some of the wealthiest communities.”
Pratt faculty member Meredith TenHoor chaired a panel on Enabling Quality Design. She noted that in the 1970s, when cities were seen as failing, it was often the design of housing that was blamed.
Suzanne Schindler, who teaches at Columbia, discussed another historic example—Twin Parks in the Bronx (1967–75), which participants had visited the day before. She described the interesting variety of buildings, built by a group of 15 churches and synagogues with help from the state and federal governments and designed by well-known architects. The 2,300 apartments ranging from studios to five bedrooms “were created to stabilize the neighborhood but gang warfare happened right there.” She asked, “What can we learn?” and answered, “It all depends, not just on design but on how a project is managed,” showing a single loaded corridor completely blocked, plazas fenced in, she added, “You need to think about design along with management, security, and other factors.”
Pratt professor David Burney commissioned innovative community centers from celebrated, mostly young architects when he was in charge of architecture at NYCHA in the 1990s and then headed the city’s Department of Design and Construction during the Bloomberg Administration. “When I got to NYCHA, I found that there was still some money left for buildings but it was hard to spend. You couldn’t build unless you could provide free land and use the low income tax credit. The Reagan Administration insisted on private developers, and the early attempts had been disastrous,” he said. They found a community garden on West 84th Street and hired Castro-Blanco Piscioneri Architects to build 35 permanently affordable units. With Becker + Becker, they built two- and three-bedroom apartments in a contextual walkup building on 8th Street; at 189 Stanton Street they built supportive housing for families with AIDS designed by James McCullar. “There are ways of doing things that are different. All these projects are completely integrated into their neighborhoods,” he pointed out.
TenHoor then asked the speakers, “How do we get quality? Who defines those standards?” Menking said, “At Sunnyside, the architects were deeply committed to quality and social scientists were part of it.” He also noted the role that philanthropy had played in the past, citing Phipps Houses, The Robin Hood Foundation, and Common Ground. Burney suggested, “Reverse the notion that design costs money, that design is only for the wealthy.” He also said, “As every architect knows, when you get to the end of the project, it’s the landscaping that gets cut.” He noted the importance of “health and the built environment. We are not number one in many things, but we are number one in obesity.” TenHoor mentioned the role of the private sector, noting that Mayor Lindsay advocated it and that it attracted architects of the caliber who designed Twin Parks. Schindler mentioned “long term issues and short term issues. If someone is going to maintain it, they may build it differently.”
Toward the end of the day, the president of the residents association at the five-story walkup First Houses (1936), Brendaliz Santiago, presented the tenants’ point of view. “NYCHA doesn’t communicate with tenants,” she said, “but we want community residents involved in planning.” Since New Years Eve 2014, though, she has been working closely with NYCHA. “With unity there is power.”
Karina Totah, Senior Advisor to the Chair of the New York City Housing Authority, explained, “The mayor gave the chair two directions: Reset your relationship with key stakeholders and create a plan for how you are going to make NYCHA survive.”She said, “Safe, clean, and connected is the goal,” and that engaging residents like Santiago to get resident input is a priority as well as dealing with short term financial problems, rehabilitating, and harnessing the real estate NYCHA already owns, and operating 138,000 units. “We are the largest landlord in New York City,” she added.
The two-day event brought together architects, professors, students, community organizers, residents, and managers of housing projects. The conversation necessary to jumpstart Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious housing plan has begun.
Piece by piece, Watch as New York City's first micro-unit housing complex by nArchitects takes shape
“Is Landmarking Out of Control?” That was the question posed by Crain’s New York at a forum it hosted in mid-May. To answer that noticeably leading question, Crain’s invited some of the biggest names in the city’s preservation and development worlds to hash it over coffee and pastries at the New York Athletic Club in Midtown.
The debate played out along familiar lines: The pro-development side—Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) President Steven Spinola, Columbia University professor Kenneth Jackson, and Nikolai Fedak of the blog NY YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard)—said that landmarking has its place, but New York should focus more on its potential for growth than its picturesque past. Jackson made that case in more explicit terms, saying that “history is for losers,” “no one comes to New York to look at buildings,” and “if you’re more comfortable with fish, trees, and aging houses, move to Vermont.”
On the other side of the debate were Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and Ronda Wist, the vice president of preservation at the Municipal Art Society (MAS), who explained how historic districts create a vibrant, livable city that creates jobs, attracts tourists, and increases property values.
This type of preservationist versus developer back-and-forth is not new—these battles have been waged over the streets of New York for years. But, now, as Mayor de Blasio sets out to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, the issue of landmarking—specifically, the designation of historic districts—has become a flashpoint in the debate over the city’s affordability crisis.
So, when exactly, did the landmarking process supposedly get “out of control?” A quick look at the numbers shows it happened under Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, as glass towers were rising and megaprojects were being approved, “pro-development” Bloomberg was designating more historic districts than any mayor since the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was founded in 1965. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg added or extended 41 historic districts—topping Giuliani’s designations by 23 and Koch’s by 14. More than half of those designations were in outer boroughs.
AN / NYC.GOV
Near the end of Bloomberg’s three terms, REBNY started issuing studies on the impact of all this landmarking. In July, the Board found that nearly 28 percent of Manhattan properties were landmarked; a subsequent press release declared: “Excessive Landmarking of Manhattan Properties Stifling Economic Growth.” To arrive at that figure, REBNY counted both historic districts and specific landmarked buildings in its calculation. Four months earlier, the Journal reported that historic districts, by themselves, only encompassed 10 percent of the island and two percent of the city overall. REBNY now puts that latter figure closer to four percent.
In September, REBNY was out with another study; this time it claimed that no affordable units had been created on landmarked properties in the borough since 2008. “Landmarking Curtails Affordable Housing Development in Manhattan,” read the press release.
And then in June—with a new mayor in town—the same argument. The latest study, which encompassed the entire city, found that only 0.29 percent of new affordable units built from 2003 to 2012 were on landmarked properties.
This finding was immediately dismissed—and mocked—by the Historic Districts Council. “[REBNY] is at it again,” said the Council in a statement. “The crisis in affordable housing… is not a landmarking issue; this is a deeper indictment of the real estate market to provide for the needs of New Yorkers and the subtle failure of government to guide market forces to help meet that need.”
A spokesperson for the LPC told AN, “the Commission is currently reviewing the findings in the REBNY Report.”
When asked about landmarking’s impact on affordability, preservationists tend to reject the notion outright. Since landmarked properties represent such a small percentage of the city overall, they say historic designation has little—if anything—to do with the city’s housing crisis, and question REBNY’s seriousness about wanting to create affordable housing. Laurie Beckelman, the chair of the LPC under Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani, said REBNY’s claims on this issue are a “cheap shot” and “total rubbish.”
Fifteen of the city’s top developers did not respond to AN’s request for comment for this story, but REBNY spokesperson Jamie McShane, said, “we are working with the de Blasio administration and other stakeholders on how to address the need for more housing, particularly affordable units. Responsible landmarking is one issue of many in addressing that need.”
As this debate plays-out, the Board is quick to tout its support for Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. “Mayor de Blasio deserves a lot of credit for putting forward an honest plan that attemptsto deal with the housing needs for all New Yorkers. [The plan] identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said REBNY president Steven Spinola. “[The Board] thanks the mayor for his commitment to this issue and we will continue our work with the administration to implement these critical objectives.”
The plan, however, does not touch the issue of landmarking. In 115 pages, the word “landmark” only tangentially comes up in a footnote and in the glossary. And that is partially because the mayor is not targeting the West Village’s brownstones or Soho’s cobblestones to build his 80,000 new units of affordable housing. And the industrial and under-used areas he is eyeing to rezone for residential use are not being considered for historic designation.
To achieve his ambitious goal within 10 years, de Blasio is launching a multipronged approach that also includes mandatory inclusionary zoning, raising taxes on vacant lots to encourage development, and reevaluating Bloomberg’s land lease plan to build on New York City Housing Authority property. The mayor has also been packing more affordable units into Bloomberg-era developments like the Domino Sugar Factory and Atlantic Yards.
But even with these new, permanently affordable units—and the many more market-rate apartments slated to rise alongside them—New York City will still be a very expensive place to live in a decade’s time. The city cannot, and will not, stop building; most everyone agrees that freezing construction would only make matters worse. But there is plenty of debate about how much the city should build, where it should do so, and if supply can ever meet demand.
The bigger question, then, is: Can New York City build its way out of the affordability crisis?
“It is impossible,” said Jaron Benjamin, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a housing advocacy group based in New York. “We do not have billions and billions of dollars to throw at this problem. We have to think creatively.” Benjamin supports new development, but wants the city and state to focus on ways to preserve the apartments that are currently affordable.
And that is exactly what the mayor’s plan does. Because while de Blasio’s pledge to build new affordable units, and increase the city’s overall housing stock, has received the most attention, it gets him less than halfway to his goal of 200,000 units. The bigger piece of the plan is focused on preserving affordable units, about 120,000 of them. The details on how, exactly, he plans to do this are less clear, but the mayor’s office has said that city agencies will “use every tool at their disposal” to protect rent-stabilized units from being deregulated.
This is where the LPC believes it can aid in de Blasio’s efforts. “Since historic districts are also home to affordable housing units, the LPC will work with the Department of Housing Preservation & Development to align efforts to preserve both affordability and architectural character in these areas,” said a spokesperson for the Commission. “The LPC also understands that the city must continue to grow while maintaining a judicious approach to designation of historic properties.”
Andrew Berman—the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and one of REBNY’s most vocal critics—readily admits that landmarking is not the way, or even a way, to build new affordable units. But he believes that landmarking can be a tool to preserve rent-stabilized units that still exist in some of the most coveted zip codes in the world. “[Landmarking] can slow down the pushing out of long-term tenants and the disappearance of existing affordable housing because of anti-demolition protections,” said Berman.
He also pushed back on the “strong correlation” that REBNY drew between high incomes, limited racial diversity, and Manhattan’s historic districts in its July study. “We are talking about parts of the city that are, for the most part, some of the most distinctive, historic, and architecturally interesting,” he said. “They are naturally going to be places that are likely to have become more expensive, not because they are landmarked, but because they have these qualities that people find increasingly desirable.”
Unleashing development in, or around, historic districts, he said, would not necessarily lead to more affordable units; it could build a foundation for luxury condos that lift prices higher. He points to the glass towers lining the Hudson River, just outside of the Greenwich Village historic district, as glossy examples.
But in the debate over the future of landmarking, something resembling common ground starts to appear in terms of the process itself. The LPC’s approval procedures for new projects in historic districts—and renovations on landmarked properties—has been criticized by many for being too slow and overly expensive for property owners.
Peg Breen made clear to AN that the landmarking process is not broken, but that it could be improved. And to do that, she said, the LPC’s budget should be increased. “[The Commission] is woefully understaffed and overworked,” she said. “It needs an adequate staff to handle the load, and they do not have that now.”
Whether that will happen is entirely unknown—as are most aspects of landmarking under Mayor de Blasio. The big question hanging high above any concerns about process or funding is what’s next? On preservation, will de Blasio be another Bloomberg?
Six months into the mayor’s term, that remains a question neither side can answer. And de Blasio’s selection of Meenakshi Srinivasan to head the LPC provides few clues about the future of landmarks in New York City. The choice of the then-chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals surprised most onlookers when it was announced in May.
While landmarking is not expected to have an extensive impact in the affordable housing plan, in the coming months and years, the LPC could have a direct role in shaping New York City’s skyline. If the controversial Midtown East Rezoning plan is adopted, and taller towers head for the sky, the Commission will help decide the fate of the area’s older stock.
It could also adopt a proposal from a group called “Iconplans,” which would upend the selling of air rights. As the Journal reported, the group’s plan allows non-profits, universities, and religious institutions to sell air rights above their landmarked properties to developers who could use them elsewhere in the city—likely places where they can build taller. Currently, those air rights can only be transferred to adjacent sites. The LPC told AN it would consider this type of proposal. “As the administration continues to develop its housing and economic development policies, the expanded sale of air rights will be a relevant part of the discussion, which will occur across agencies,” said the LPC spokesperson.
Now, with the mayor’s housing plan in effect and the Commissioner in her new role, preservationists and developers are eagerly waiting for the Commission to answer that same question posed by Crain’s back in May: “Is Landmarking Out of Control?”
Its response could transform the city.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade was a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. From the outset, de Blasio set a specific target – and now the city finally knows how he plans to hit it.
In the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn—where glossy apartment towers are rising at a remarkable clip—the mayor unveiled his $41.1 billion strategy to fight back against New York’s affordability crisis. The city is heralding the plan as “the most expansive and ambitious affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history.”
The city will provide $8.2 billion for the plan, and hopes to secure $30 billion more from private funds. The rest of the cost will ideally come out of state and federal coffers.
“This plan thinks big--because it has to,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement. “The changes we are setting in motion today will reach a half-million New Yorkers, in every community, and from every walk of life. They will make our families and our city stronger.”
As expected, one of the central pieces of de Blasio’s plan is “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” which will require developers to include below market-rate units at rezoned sites. Under Bloomberg, developers were incentivized—but not required—to make 20 percent of new projects affordable. While inclusionary zoning is a focal point of this plan, it is easy to overstate its impact. According to The New York Times, inclusionary zoning under Bloomberg—albeit voluntary—only created 2,800 affordable units since 2005.
Still, mandatory inclusionary zoning will likely have a significant impact on the size and scale of future development. This part of the plan was foreshadowed in March as the city was hammering out the final details of the Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment. Before granting approval to the project, the mayor demanded that it include more affordable housing. The developer, Two Trees, obliged, and in return taller towers were approved. De Blasio’s New York will likely be a denser New York.
And a denser New York means a happier development community. Not surprisingly, the Real Estate Board of New York is applauding the mayor’s plan. “It identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said Steven Spinola, the board’s president, in a statement.
Along with mandatory inclusionary zoning, the City will also “re-examine parking requirements, zoning envelope constraints, and restrictions on the transferability of development rights.” It is also launching two programs to incentive development on vacant lots. This part of the plan received high praise from the city’s architectural community. “The AIA New York Chapter supports the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and notes, in particular, that the plan calls for ‘unlocking’ potential sites for new housing development by changes in regulatory procedures, including potential changes in zoning,” said Rick Bell, the chapter’s president.
But for all the focus on development, new projects only represent 40 percent of the plan—or 80,000 units. The other, bigger, piece of the pie is directed at preserving the affordable units that currently exist. For starters, the City plans to double the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s capital budget.
To slow the tide of deregulation, the City is proposing a host of incentives for property owners to keep units from leaving rent-regulation. It will also focus on keeping currently affordable, and non-regulated units, from dramatic rent increases in the future.
According to the plan, “such investments will allow current tenants to beneﬁt from improved units, and permit future tenants to be assured that the unit remains affordable, even as the neighborhood’s housing values and rents increase.”
The City also plans to engage in a “respectful conversation” about the potential of development on NYCHA’s underused land. This proposal, which sounds an awful lot like Bloomberg’s “land lease plan,” was heavily criticized by de Blasio back when he was a candidate.
Another key focus of the mayor’s plan is reducing homelessness—ccording to the city, 50,000 New Yorkers currently sleep in shelters every night. To lower those ranks, the city will reallocate some funding from shelters to lower-cost permanent housing for the homeless.
While both housing activists and the development community have lauded the mayor’s strategy, his 115-page plan leaves many questions unanswered. But what is exceptionally clear is the daunting challenge before the mayor. His predecessor claims to have built or preserved 165,000 units of affordable housing in 12 years and now Mayor de Blasio says there is no choice, but to achieve more in less time.
“We didn’t want to take the easy way out,” said the mayor. “We didn’t want to take the slower path. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something that had never been done before because our people need it.”
The difference between Michael Bloomberg’s final State of the City address and Bill de Blasio’s first was so vast it seems impossible the two were speaking about the same city. In the newly opened Barclays Center, then-mayor Bloomberg touted the booming development across New York—from the Atlantic Yards to the Hudson Yards. He referenced job opportunities, sustainability, and, of course, the bike-share program.
One year later, at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Bill de Blasio spoke of “The Tale of Two Cities”—a town racked by inequality. He didn’t talk about any big, splashy developments, but pledged to help “New Yorkers crushed by skyrocketing rents.” There was no mention of transportation, climate change, or infrastructure—all considered bright spots in Bloomberg’s complicated legacy.
But while Mayor de Blasio makes national headlines for his laser-like focus on tackling inequality, he has been appointing highly competent individuals to lead the city’s housing, transportation, environmental, and planning teams. All of these appointments, explained de Blasio, are not separate from the fight against inequality. They are central in waging it.
In early February, de Blasio appointed Carl Weisbrod—a real estate industry veteran with experience in the private and public sector—to chair the city’s planning commission. Weisbrod is perhaps best known for his integral role in cleaning up Times Square in the 1980s and later helping to transform Downtown Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood.
Rick Bell, the executive director of New York’s AIA chapter, said Weisbrod is “an excellent choice” for planning commissioner because he “brings to the table the skillset, the mindset, and the attitude of someone who is going to take the promises made, the expectations of the de Blasio campaign, and realize them.”
As planning commissioner, Weisbrod will be instrumental in accomplishing one of de Blasio’s key legislative goals: to “preserve or construct” 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. He will be joined in that fight by the mayor’s new housing team.
The mayor recently appointed Shola Olatoye—a former executive at an affordable housing non-profit—as chair of the New York City Housing Authority. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s new commissioner is Vicki Been, who was the former director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. And Gary D. Rodney, from the affordable housing developer Omni New York, is the new president to the Housing Development Corporation.
Alicia Glen—the former head of the Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group—is the city’s new deputy mayor of housing and economic development.
Even with a strong team beside him, de Blasio’s affordable housing goal will be exceptionally difficult to achieve. One tool de Blasio will likely use to hit his 200,000 figure will be “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” or requiring developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings. Under Bloomberg, developers were only incentivized to do so.
And since it will not be enough to just “preserve” existing affordable units, the de Blasio years might see significant zoning changes to offer new development opportunities. The benefit of this could be twofold: more development would boost the number of new affordable housing units, and the housing stock overall.
In terms of transportation and the city’s streetscape, the de Blasio administration is poised to build on Janette Sadik-Khan’s impressive legacy of transforming New York City streets. The mayor’s selection of Polly Trottenberg—the former under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation—to lead the city’s DOT has been lauded by those championing safer streets and improved transportation. “The personnel positions, and particularly hiring Polly Trottenberg, look really good from street safety and livable streets perspective,” said Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog.
Trottenberg will be responsible for more than bike lanes and pedestrian plazas; she will work alongside the new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to implement the mayor’s “Vision Zero Action Plan” to reduce pedestrian fatalities.
It has become clear with these appointments that the mayor plans to use every department, and every new official, to address the city’s inequality. Combatting inequality is a daunting, if not impossible, fight to wage from City Hall, but the mayor and his team seem ready to at least throw some punches.