Site 1 was in the South Bronx, in Community District 1, which includes the neighborhoods of Melrose, Mott Haven, and Port Morris. Site 1 stretched through the block from 143rd to 144th Streets, between Willis and Brook Avenues. The site measured 33′ x 200′ and was zoned R6. In 1985, 33% of the land in the district was classified as vacant land. Despite the large population losses in the district between the late 1960s and 1980s, newly constructed housing was needed to supplement what could be provided by renovating existing buildings.
Many Vacant Lots participants chose to address the social needs of particular underserved or marginalized communities in their designs, ranging from single parent families to elderly individuals to people recovering from addiction. The pursuit of architecture as social activism is perhaps best illustrated in Gustavo Bonevardi and Lee Ledbetter‘s proposal, “Homes for People with AIDS.” At a time when, damningly, the President of the United States had only recently said the word “AIDS” in public for the first time, Bonevardi and Ledbetter’s attention to the challenges of providing affordable and supportive housing to this ostracized and fast-growing population demonstrates architecture’s potential to provide not just shelter, but dignity, health, and security to those who need it most. Bonevardi and Ledbetter’s original project statement, as published in the 1989 book documenting the Vacant Lots study, follows:
Gustavo Bonevardi and Lee Ledbetter, designers; Linda Baldwin, planner; Morgan Hare, consultant; James Lay, clinical psychologist
Homes for People with AIDS Inefficiencies in the housing market have resulted in thousands of homeless in our city. Added to this large group is the ever-growing number of people with AIDS. Medicare costs continue to grow as hundreds of persons with AIDS languish in hospitals throughout the city. Many of these individuals are often healthy enough to leave the hospital, yet they have no place to go. This situation requires new and creative approaches to their housing needs.
The small vacant lots requiring infill construction are ideally suited for the kind of housing these people need. Other low-income housing developments, such as the large public housing projects spread throughout the city’s poorer neighborhoods, have found economies of scale to be essential in determining their success. The type of housing which would be required to house the homeless persons with AIDS cannot, however, be based on the premise of economies of scale. Instead, smaller projects are essential in order to minimize the effects on the neighborhoods where this housing would be built.
The higher costs inherent in this type of construction-which requires handicap accessibility as well as private bathrooms to protect the health of the residents-must be compared to the costs associated with using our hospitals for long-term living arrangements. All residents would be eligible for government assistance (rent supplements, disability payments, Medicaid, etc.) and, because many are already being provided with social and medical services on an outpatient basis, these costs would not increase.
Our project addresses the viability of small, low cost housing developments for homeless people with AIDS. However, the proposed design is not limited in its use to this population alone. The provision of offices for professional services and the communal dining facility make this building suitable for other homeless sub-populations with special needs, such as the mentally and physically disabled, who are not able to live unsupervised in traditional housing arrangements.
The City sold the properties in 1987 and 1989. Today, a six-story residential building has been built on 144th Street, while the site on 143rd Street is utilized only to park cars. Vacant land in Community District 1 fell from 33% in 1985 to 3.8% in 2011.
In 1987, the League collaborated with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to launch a design study examining the potential of small-scale infill housing to contribute to the city’s affordable housing portfolio. “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.