NYCHA’s new guidelines for rehabilitation of public housing push for sustainability and preservation
Who knew the launch of a document about putting new rooftops on old buildings, raising boilers above flood levels, and updating kitchens and bathrooms in municipal housing would be the East Coast elite’s hottest ticket in town? The release of New York City Public Housing Authority’s Design Guidelines for Rehabilitation of Residential Buildings had to turn away dozens of attendees to its January 12th panel packing three stories at the AIA’s Center for Architecture.
Part of the reason for the overflow crowd may be the sheer number of partners, collaborators, and offices involved. Led by the agency’s Office of Design, the Design Guidelines implicated its Capital Projects and Energy & Sustainability divisions, affordable housing developer Enterprise Community Partners (ECP), the AIA’s Design for Aging and Housing Committees, participants in NYCHA’s Design Excellence program, including Andrew Bernheimer, Domingo Gonzalez, and Claire Weisz, and dozens of maintenance staff members and residents.
Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow Jae Shin served as embedded coordinator of many of these conversations within the agency and co-edited the guidelines. “She really helped facilitate a lot of the internal discussions that we had with our various groups at NYCHA as well as external partners,” said Bruce Eisenberg, deputy director of NYCHA’s Office of Design, who spearheaded the project. “We really wanted to make it a very interactive process.”
Produced in collaboration with ECP and supported by a $100,000 grant from Deutsche Bank, the Design Guidelines belong to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NextGeneration NYCHA, a 10-year agenda to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of America’s largest and most successful public housing agency.
“This will impact all of our capital projects,” Eisenberg said. “We have a five-year plan of scheduled projects, and so we really wanted to raise the bar of design in how we execute them. This is a roadmap to enable us to do that.” It has implications for a vast and practically unending scope of work. If fully funded, renovation of NYCHA projects, which comprise 2,500 acres in 328 complexes containing 125,000 units and serving more than 400,000 residents, would require $17 billion in current capital costs. Allocations over the next three years amount to $784.4 million from the city’s budget.
In some parts, the Design Guidelines formalize the standards employed in recent capital projects, such as the exterior lighting installed at Castle Hill and Butler Houses in the Bronx, which replaces the dim yellow light of old with nearly 1,000 bright and energy-efficient LED fixtures to improve public safety. In other outdoor areas, the guidelines aim to reduce metal fencing around grass and add amenities to create more active and healthy spaces. They take cues from the guidelines set forth by the Center For Active Design, while encouraging visual sight lines. In-progress projects like KPF and Olin’s landscapes for Red Hook Houses—funded as part of the post-Sandy $3 billion FEMA recovery grant—indicate a High Line–like attention to detail.
“We’re starting to be more aspirational in that area,” Eisenberg said. “We’re looking to make our open spaces more attractive and useful to our residents and the community at large.”
NYCHA’s push toward environmental sustainability nudges projects to install subsurface infiltration systems, sidewalk bioswales, and porous pavers rather than asphalt to limit stormwater overflow and heat sinks. Pilot projects in Bronx River Houses, Hope Gardens, and Seth Low Houses will slow stormwater, while the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx will contain the city’s largest green infrastructure installation. For other areas vulnerable to stormwater rise, the guidelines recommend concrete retaining walls to double as seating, like the floodwalls as wood-clad benches by Nelligan White Architects in Baruch Houses below the Williamsburg Bridge.
At Sotomayor Houses, NYCHA will begin installing the new standards for kitchens and bathrooms later this year, expanding cabinet space and adding accessible grab bars and sinks. That is, after the roofing is done: Mayor de Blasio has dedicated $100 million annually to roofs alone for the next two years, recently supplemented by another $1 billion over 10 years. Upgrading the troublesome low- or no-slope roofs of its modern-era buildings is NYCHA’s biggest capital projects burden.
The Design Guidelines’ release landed on the same day as nomination hearings for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, adding a collective spirit of defiance to talk of preserving the country’s largest public housing agency. The De Blasio administration vows to press on, regardless of the new administration’s priorities, which appear to involve gutting all federal agencies the President’s cronies cannot use for profiteering.
“We have a 10-year strategic plan NextGeneration NYCHA that’s not a kitchen sink plan; it’s very specific, and we’re moving forward,” said Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, director of NYCHA’s Office for Public/Private Partnerships and president of newly formed Fund for Public Housing nonprofit, which coordinated privatesector grants for the guidelines. “We don’t know what the policy priorities will be, but we know what New Yorkers’ priorities are, so we are moving forward with that plan, because it’s the best investment in public housing in New York City.”