Vacant Lots: Then and Now

VL Header alt25 years ago, New York City was a very different place. In 1987, a 40-year trend of population decline was only just starting to reverse itself, and the legacy of disinvestment was still evident in challenged neighborhoods in each of the boroughs. Little more than a decade had passed since the nadir of the city’s economic collapse, during which the crisis of abandonment coupled with a series of policy decisions forced the City of New York into the uncomfortable position of owning and operating thousands of properties, including abandoned buildings, occupied or semi-occupied buildings, and vacant lots.

Such a large inventory of City-owned properties led to necessary creativity on the part of policymakers about how best to meet widespread housing need. But official efforts focused, understandably, on those properties that would either yield the most units or be the least costly to bring to market. Therefore, small, scattered parcels in low- or medium-rise neighborhoods received less attention, their development prospects for affordable housing initially considered to be economically unfeasible. In 1987, to investigate the potential of this complex area of the City’s property portfolio, the Architectural League and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) partnered on a landmark design study. Vacant Lots invited architects to propose prototypical designs for such lots, thus helping to make the case for the viability of small-scale infill housing as a strategy to develop affordable homes across the city.

Six of the sites chosen for the Vacant Lots study in 1987. | Photos by Elizabeth Feeley

The project began with the design study and culminated in an influential exhibition and book. The essays and designs that emerged from this project certainly mark a particular moment in a series of overlapping histories: of New York City, of architecture in the public interest, of collaboration between cultural organizations and government agencies, of the relationship between design and public policy. And a lot has changed since that moment in each of those registers. But the work that emerged from Vacant Lots resonates with our contemporary moment in powerful ways. To recognize that resonance, in addition to releasing selections from the original project on, Urban Omnibus revisits the original study sites in the pages that follow, to see what happened to those lots and in those neighborhoods over the past 25 years. Next week, we will conclude the 25th anniversary of this project with reflections from some of the original participants, many of whom have gone on to explore issues of urban housing environments in wide-ranging careers in architecture, finance, and scholarship.

Flexibility is not invoked often enough as an architectural principle.The study identified ten sites owned by the City — three each in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, and one in Manhattan — that “could be developed by small-scale contractors or community-based development groups [and] could be the basis of a new strategy for reweaving the fabric of neighborhoods.” The selection of these particular sites reflected opportunities for “inventive solutions in apartment design, in the combination of apartment types, and in the relationship of the building to the site and adjoining buildings.” Calling out that relationship to the street, the block and the neighborhood – that potential for “reweaving the fabric” torn up by disinvestment if not malign neglect – foregrounded the study’s rootedness in context, in existing conditions, in the specificity of New York’s built environment and diversity of its housing stock. But the context to which the study sought to respond was not exclusively physical. The social composition of these neighborhoods suggested a fresh look at the program requirements for the types of households in need of housing support. Changing demographics, emerging challenges in public health, and a shifting labor market meant that the types of housing traditionally supplied or subsidized by government programs were not necessarily the most appropriate types to meet the demands of the day. Therefore, architects participating in the study designed housing units for singles and single-parent households, temporary residences organized around communal or shared services, live / work complexes, supportive environments for the homeless and individuals living with HIV / AIDS. Each of the proposals demonstrates both a deep familiarity with the City’s guidelines for affordable housing as well as a willingness to reconsider building standards. More expansively, according to the analysis of Deborah Gans, “each project carries in its form the expression of its architect’s imagined city,” reflecting the design principles that inform, for each participating architect, bespoke and site-specific approaches while simultaneously hinting at normative philosophies of urbanism.

Details of six of the design proposals submitted to Vacant Lots.

On the pages that follow, we see what was built instead: for the most part, attached or detached two-family dwellings, a couple standard, multi-family apartment buildings (including one low-income housing development), and even a lot that remains vacant to this day. In most cases, the new buildings built since 1987 suggest — in their appearance, materials, and site orientation — an expediency of design and construction that contrasts with the older brownstones, tenements, or housing projects adjacent to them.

But, in revisiting these sites, we also see another story of change, told in the vastly reduced percentage of vacant land in each site’s surrounding neighborhood. Over the past 25 years, New York City’s population growth has greatly intensified the development pressure on sites of all kinds: neighborhoods where a market for a cheap, single-family home was once unthinkable are now having trouble meeting demand for multi-family apartment buildings. The City has disposed of most of the properties seized in-rem. The crisis of abandonment in a depressed real estate market has given way to a crisis of foreclosure following an inflated real estate market. Throughout, providing homes affordable to all New Yorkers has remained a consistent challenge. And the housing needs of those New Yorkers have continued to evolve.

Over the past two years, the League collaborated on a new design study initiated by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), that deals explicitly with the mismatch between those evolving needs and a static regulatory framework for housing in New York City. That mismatch constricts the ability of designers and developers to introduce innovative housing types – those more suited to contemporary household demographics – into the real estate market. For Making Room, the new study, CHPC and the League invited teams of designers to design prototypical housing models for New Yorkers whose needs are not currently being met due, in part, to outdated and prohibitive codes and regulations: single adults who want to live alone, joint and multi-generational families who want to live together, and groups of unrelated single adults who want to live alongside each other, sharing resources and maintaining privacy where possible. Some of the designs proposed in this design study will be presented at an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that opens on January 24th.

Making Room, according to CHPC executive director Jerliyn Perine, began in response to the projection of a million more people living in New York by 2030. The focus on codes and standards emerged from a desire to learn “how a million more people would fit into our housing stock.” And certainly, some of the answer will require smaller units, provided they are safe and located in neighborhoods where the infrastructure can accommodate higher densities. Official recognition of this strategy of increasing the supply of available units has come in the form of the adaptNYC initiative, for which HPD has opened a design and development competition for the design of “micro-units” in a City-owned building in east Midtown Manhattan. This initiative is part of a wave of such developments in dense cities like Tokyo, San Francisco, and even Seattle, which are changing zoning codes to increase housing supply (and population density) without necessarily increasing the size or height of buildings.

But shrinking the minimum amount of space legal for a dwelling unit is not the only policy change needed to address the challenge of affordable housing in New York City. In her illuminating essay “New York Housing” for Vacant Lots (the 1989 book that catalogues the design study), historian Deborah Gardner traces the origins of the types of housing that surround each of the design study lots: row houses, tenements, and one or two-family frame houses. She explains how “the notion that low-income housing could only be improved by expanding the size of the basic land unit [caught] on as the [housing] reform movement gathered its forces.” And she also argues for forms of housing that offer “the most flexibility and the best chance of rebuilding communities and neighborhoods.” Flexibility is not invoked often enough as an architectural principle. But it lies at the heart of how to answer questions embedded within projects like Vacant Lots, Making Room or adaptNYC: how do we get more capacity out of what we already have? First, look closely at past; then, look closely at how people are making do with what already exists; and finally, think big about how to turn those two orders of observation and analysis into design proposals for a future that expects — that welcomes — the fact that households, neighborhoods, populations, and cities all change over time.



Click the images below to see each of the ten Vacant Lots sites as they were in 1987, through the eyes of some of the participating architects, and as they are today in 2013.

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“Vacant Lots: Then and Now” is part two of a three-part Architectural League feature that recalls the Vacant Lots study and explores the persistent challenges of creating safe and quality affordable housing in New York City.

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