The legacy of those bold choices, as Maura Ewing chronicles below, is compromised by inattention to two other essential criteria of the ongoing success of any building: construction quality and long-term maintenance. She introduces us to some of the residents who live with the outcomes of the architectural innovation as well as the subsequent neglect, and she exposes the political context of the 1970s that undergirds both.
Her article marks the final installment in our exploration of towers-in-the-park, the first of several outmoded or maligned architectural typologies we are investigating — through documentary photography and investigative, narrative journalism — in our Typecast project. Towers-in-the-park are far from the only building type that demands renewed attention in the face of shifts in demographics, economics, and technology. So stay tuned for a critical reflection on this first phase of the study and for updates on the next steps for this project.
Typecast is the Architectural League’s long-term investigation into architectural typologies, starting with towers-in-the-park. The term refers to complexes of multi-family, high-rise housing, located on a dedicated superblock of open space that is disconnected from the street system. This project seeks to move beyond stereotypes of architectural form by revealing the social and spatial specificities of distinct sites that share physical characteristics and philosophies of design but differ greatly in their lived experience.
Alfie Davis stands at the open walkway on the 23rd floor of the Sea Rise I complex, where she has lived since 1980. “I put some croutons out on my window this morning and the seagulls came to the window to take it. That is so beautiful to me!” Davis, a vivacious 70-year-old and lifelong New Yorker, says to me. The sea breeze slightly rustled her straightened bob, which was under a white crocheted cap. “That’s what I love about it here: the seagulls, the fresh air, the view, the sunrises and the sunsets,” she says.
Davis is the tenant association leader of the building and a youth counselor at a nearby junior high. She is only about a head taller than the concrete guardrail we were leaning on as we looked to the sprawling cityscape in front of us: the Coney Island Creek to the left and the Atlantic in the far distance created a blue frame around the mostly red brick sea of housing that is west Coney Island, with the flashing lights at the top of an amusement park ride cresting above a line of high-rise buildings.
The building where we stand is the product of an ambitious period of New York City housing history: the late 1960s to the early 1970s. By that time, the flawed plans and policies of the preceding era had led to unprecedented displacement of the urban poor, a crisis that city and state legislative leaders built campaigns upon. With early lessons from “towers-in-the-park” pitfalls learned, cutting-edge architects and idealistic legislators combined forces to design what they saw as the future of affordable housing. Innovation and construction expediency were prioritized at the expense of construction quality. Davis and her neighbors feel the effects of those choices every day. As tenant association leader, she has been demanding improvements to the building from management for years, with little success.
Sea Rise, owned by the Starrett Corporation, was designed by Hoberman & Wasserman — an architecture firm that specialized in affordable housing and community planning projects — and completed in 1974. It is a combination high-rise and low-rise with staircase-like terraced sides that make it seem more open than traditional towers. Unlike most large residences on Coney Island, it has a white façade, which struck me as giving the building a seaside feel. The Sea Rise complex — Sea Rise I and Sea Rise II, duplicate neighbors — is comprised of four buildings like this, with 24 floors and duplex apartments designed for families, and four traditional low-rises, six floors each.
Hoberman & Wasserman previously designed a nearly identical complex, Sea Park East, closer to the amusement district. Octavia, one of that complex’s original residents told me, “This was supposed to be the ideal.” Here, the large, new apartments with an abundance of natural light gave her the sense of having found a real home. “We felt good, like we were living like other people. We weren’t ashamed to have people over; the apartments were beautiful.”
Alfie Davis echoes Octavia’s sentiments. Her apartment has five bedrooms, where she raised her three children. The openness of the building, combined with large windows, gives each apartment ample natural light. The higher floors look out at either the water or the Manhattan skyline, offering that most coveted of views in New York City: one that includes a distant horizon.
The view from Davis’s balcony also allows you to map phases in thought on the design of subsidized housing: the high-rise New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects – the anonymous earth-red towers popular in the 1950s and 1960s that are a seemingly ubiquitous architectural strategy to house low-income New Yorkers – scattered throughout, in clusters. A complex of low-rise buildings in the same distinct red brick sits directly across the street from Sea Rise. Rows of attached single-family homes — the Coney Island Townhouse Project — attests to an early 1980s experiment in low-rise social housing that constructed about 400 homes.
Coney Island, a peninsula jutting precariously into the ocean waters at the southernmost end of Brooklyn that is best known for its iconic amusement park, has not always been a tightly packed area. In 1976, 75% of the neighborhood’s dwellings had been built since 1960. The wave of construction associated with urban renewal — a program of legislation and government-backed development intended to rid the city of the effects of concentrated urban poverty that were characterized at the time in terms like “slums” and “urban blight” — started early in Coney Island. During the 1950s, the first mammoth NYCHA housing projects were erected in the area, beginning with the Gravesend Houses, a 634-unit development completed in 1954. As subsequent towering public housing complexes were built, according to Robert A.M. Stern, et al.’s New York 1960, each new complex “cast a fortress-like pall over the area.” As early as 1961, the City Planning Commission declared that the neighborhood was in need of preservation and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, throughout the 1960s, urban renewal was uprooting many poor New Yorkers in neighborhoods across the city, replacing housing with large urban infrastructure projects such as new highways. One of the drivers of Coney Island’s development in the ‘60s was the need to house people displaced from other neighborhoods. In a familiar sequence of urban change, middle-class flight followed the influx of low-income residents. The construction of Sea Rise followed an early 1970s Coney Island neighborhood development plan, which then community board chair Hy Schwartz described as “the last chance to rebuild our community by bringing back middle-income families.”
The Urban Development Corporation
One of the most active developers on Coney Island at the time that Sea Rise and Sea Park East were constructed — and the developer of both complexes — was the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a state agency created in 1968 to spur urban renewal, which was moving slowly. The spirit that animated the UDC explains why Sea Rise and Sea Park East’s design doesn’t fit into the mold of imposing, monolithic low-income housing developments that preceded them. The UDC was committed to experimenting with new, innovative forms of subsidized housing that would benefit quality of life both for its residents and the neighborhood as a whole. And, importantly, it would cut through bureaucratic hurdles to ensure quick construction. A 1969 Architectural Forum article notes, “Since it takes on the average 13 years to complete an urban renewal project in New York City and eight years upstate, it would take New York at its present pace about 350 years to eliminate its slums.”
A major problem with previous renewal plans, according to then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was the red tape that developers had to get through to build housing. The UDC would be a special corporation that could rebuild sections of the city without local authorization or regard to local zoning laws: “a new state corporation that embodied the fantasies of every renewal administrator in the U.S.,” according to the 1969 Architectural Forum article. A hybrid public-private venture, the corporation had a $5 million operating budget to start, $35 million in “first instance” appropriations for planning and project costs before permanent financing, and was authorized to issue at least $1 billion in state bonds, by which it hoped to attract at least $5 billion in private money.
The two major political powers in New York at the time, Governor Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay, had similar political visions — in some respects. Lindsay, often called “the Republican Kennedy” early in his mayoral career (though he later hopped party lines to Independent and then Democrat), was described in a 1966 New Republic profile as “forever tilting with a lethargic bureaucracy, trying to impart to it some of his own dash and sense of urgency.” Both mayor and governor agreed that the housing conditions of low-income New Yorkers needed to be addressed, quickly. When it came to financing this project, however, their visions parted. Lindsay sought to cover budget increases with tax measures (including a 50% rise in the stock-transfer tax applied to shares traded in the New York Stock Exchange) whereas Rockefeller wanted to fund his housing plan through private market investors.
When Governor Rockefeller first proposed the UDC, the plan had more critics than supporters in legislature, including Lindsay, who was leery about the amount of power a state agency, removed from the city’s local communities, would have on city development. “Our cities cannot be renewed by state-operated bulldozers which move into local communities without their consent and without knowledge and concern about the increasing need for supportive service connected with all development,” he told the Daily News in 1968.
On April 8, 1968, four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Governor Rockefeller sent a message to legislators urging them to pass the measures as a tribute to King. With that and other flexes of political persuasion — promises of patronage and passage of pet bills — Rockefeller’s package was approved 86 to 45, nearly reversing the numbers in less than a week.
The new corporation elicited great excitement among the urban planning community. It was headed by a fiery administrator, possibly the most renowned urban planner of the time, Edward Logue, made famous by renewal projects in Boston and New Haven under his command. In a 1966 Harper’s profile, a former staffer described Logue: “He has been known to dramatize his anger by ripping apart a report he considers ‘inadequate’ … [and] to hit hard at public officials … who lack the sense of urgency and commitment which he regards as indispensable to public service.”
The UDC was not just development muscle, but a design shop and urban planning think tank, pushing new ideas forward. “Ed Logue at this point in his career was very positive about the potential of architecture,” urban historian Nicholas Bloom told me. “The emphasis was placed on architectural innovation. [This] new kind of mass project … was like an architectural darling. There were a whole bunch of firms that [would] go on to be big players.”
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Guide to New York City, 1988 edition, describes the UDC as having “changed the rules of public housing and urban design,” and, it goes on, “Coney Island was picked as one of the three crucibles of experimentation” alongside Twin Parks in the Bronx and Roosevelt Island.
The architecture was not the only progressive move. UDC developed both Sea Rise and Sea Park East with financing made possible by the Mitchell-Lama program, a joint City-State program launched in 1955. For rental buildings created under the auspices of this program, developers received government-subsidized low-interest mortgages and tax abatements in exchange for keeping the dwellings affordable for at least 20 years, after which landlords were free to leave the program and go market rate or transition to a different subsidy program by paying off the mortgage. (Co-op buildings in the program had a different set of rules.) From the 1950s to the 1970s, about 150,000 Mitchell-Lama apartments for low- and middle-income residents in New York were built.
When Hoberman & Wasserman was working on the designs for Sea Rise and Sea Park East, the firm was not well known but was already making its mark on Coney Island. The firm authored a 1973–1975 study assessing the Coney Island redevelopment plan that describes the neighborhood’s renewal with almost unfettered enthusiasm and pride: “Many in our great City hardly know of the redevelopment activity in Coney Island. For them it is simply another slow renewal project in a deteriorating section of the City. In reality Coney Island can be viewed as a new community — as a ‘new town in town.’”
A 1972 Architectural Forum article profiling the firm’s work with affordable housing described their high-rise/low-rise hybrid approach: “The architects have not wiped the slate clean. They have not pretended that nothing existed before. They have not pressed patents on some ‘final solution.’ They have not even said that the high-rise is inherently immoral or, as recent studies indicate, inherently criminal.” Unlike the more common tower-in-the-park complexes where a gated community effect takes hold, segregating community life within the complexes from the larger neighborhood, both Sea Rise and Sea Park East are integrated with the streetscape that surrounds them. In front of Sea Park East, a semi-public square with rows of picnic tables welcomes both residents and neighbors. An open green lawn in front of Sea Rise meets the street; it is the center of a horseshoe of buildings. In both complexes, the surrounding neighborhood or the interior communal outdoor areas — depending on which side of the building you’re walking — is constantly visible from the exterior hallways that wind throughout (originally they were both open-air corridors; Sea Park East’s are now enclosed, but with expansive windows). “Besides being approachable, despite its bigness, it evokes the kind of spirit, activity and interdependence so essential to keeping a project alive and well. How well remains to be seen, of course,” notes the Architectural Forum profile.
Coney Island was honored to have these buildings, according to the AIA Guide to New York City, 1998 edition. “The best of the Coney Island UDC. In its successful fulfillment of a first-rate architectural school design, it seemed too good to be true. But here is the miracle of architectural glory.”
Built to Last?
A less theoretical, and less immediate, aspect of housing development that the UDC seems to have treated as an afterthought is the quality of construction. Though architects and planners at the time were generally enthusiastic about the UDC, the agency had a “terrible reputation for construction,” said Bloom. “A lot of stuff in the UDC portfolio was built as fast as possible, and then the other problem was a lot of stuff was approved in ’71–‘72 and then, more or less, the federal funds went away. The developers who were brought into it couldn’t meet the cost requirements and essentially had to cut corners.” This can be seen today in Sea Rise’s crumbling façade.
The life of the UDC as an affordable housing developer was short lived, ending in 1975. Its funding depended on municipal bonds, and it defaulted on its debt obligations, namely bond payments, during the city’s financial crisis. In 1975, New York City had $14 billion in outstanding debt, nearly $6 billion short term. Among government agencies, the UDC was one of the hardest hit, and it could no longer finance housing projects. “All of the costs went out the window. In terms of costs, I also mean what it costs to run these buildings. Energy costs spiral up, as do labor costs to maintain them, and in many cases also the finance charges. Many of them had multiple owners, the owners had to figure out some way to make money from them,” says Bloom. Today the UDC — which changed title to the Empire State Development Corporation in 1995 — is primarily focused on assisting private business growth.
Prior to Sea Rise, Davis, the tenant association leader, had been living in a brownstone duplex in downtown Brooklyn. She was going through a divorce and wanted to move. “The building appeared to be a nice family community with all of the amenities. It wasn’t such a drastic lifestyle change for us,” she said. Also, her daughter was interested in veterinary medicine and a nearby high school offered a pre-vet course track.
Since then, Davis and her neighbors have learned that the buildings — however appealing they were — were not necessarily built to last. “The buildings are designed beautifully. Large rooms and beautiful views,” Davis said. “But the materials that the building is built with and the repairs and the leaks and the other problems take away from any sense of comfort and quality. The grounds are ill kept. The walkways are cracked and broken. And that’s before Sandy. Sandy did not cause these problems. These problems have been chronic and historic.” The development’s yard, designed for community recreation and socialization, looks as though it was struck by a recent hurricane rather than still recovering from a 2012 storm: the basketball court has no hoops and the concrete court is torn up, as is the area around it. During my visits to the building I saw only a few residents sitting in the courtyard — generally alone — a stark contrast to the often lively use of common space in many towers-in-the-park.
The building Davis lives in has 36 open violations according to the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 32 of which are classified as serious. One of Davis’s neighbors, a middle-aged woman who chose to withhold her name, remarked that when she comes home on the F train she sees NYCHA towers getting façade makeovers. Meanwhile, Sea Rise remains in perpetual disrepair: a corridor of green scaffolding surrounds the exterior of the building, which Davis and several of her neighbors tell me has been there for over ten years. “If the bricking of the building poses a threat to tenants they’re allowed to put up scaffolding to make the repair,” Davis told me. “But they didn’t ever make the repair.”
Sea Park East was sold in 2004 and underwent an $8.5 million renovation that included brick replacement, new windows, new aluminum roofing, and significant work to the grounds. The buyer, the Arker Companies, agreed to keep the units affordable for 40 years. To do so, the owners used tax-exempt bond financing, Low Income Tax Credits, grants for improvements such as weatherization, and other subsidies.
The renovation of Sea Park East seems to have been successful. One Sea Park resident, Kenny Morales Jr. compares Sea Park East to Sea Rise as a before and after: “Sea Rise is how this place used to be before 2004.” But the hodgepodge of grants and subsidies is a difficult model to replicate at a large scale.
Sea Rise I and Sea Rise II were approved for $3.5 million in state funds for repairs over a year ago. The tenants I spoke to were unaware of any pending repairs. Peter Gray, Senior Vice President at Starrett Corporation, the company that owns the property and oversees management, claims that they’re working on getting the funds and starting the improvements. But he’s unsure when that will happen.
Sea Rise has 30 vacancies according to the most recent report that Davis has seen. She expects that the number will only continue to rise. She is planning to stay, for now, because of the proximity to her job in Midwood and her connection to the community.
Reflections of the UDC era can be easily transposed onto New York City’s housing situation today: a crisis of affordable options, ambitious politicians promising solutions, and communities of residents and housing advocates eager to see change. Of the 200,000 units promised in Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, 80,000 would be newly constructed. The remaining 120,000 are currently affordable units — such as those at Sea Rise — that the mayoral administration plans to preserve as affordable by countering the increasing pressures and incentives to release such units to the open market. But maintaining the affordability of our existing housing stock is part of the equation; that affordability is less valuable if a community suffers from crumbling infrastructure that breeds vacancy. The story of Sea Rise reminds us that in our attempts to meet the city’s urgent crisis of affordability, the ambition to develop and deliver housing options must be matched by a commitment to quality construction and diligent maintenance. Housing should last longer than any mayor or governor’s tenure. So while the challenge to create more affordable housing is immediate, the generations to come will ultimately test, and live with, a solution’s legacy.
Maura Ewing is a Brooklyn-based journalist. She writes about housing and criminal justice. Follow her @mauraewing.
David Lang grew up in a military family. He has lived in 7 states, 18 homes and traveled to 25 countries, all the while meeting new people, seeing old friends and learning exactly what it is that smells so good being cooked on the street carts in foreign cities. (It’s mostly meat with a bit of awesome on the side. Except when it’s a donut, then it’s just a donut.) David also takes pictures. You can see them at www.DavidLang.com.
Photographs by David Lang. All rights reserved.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.
 The Starrett Corporation owns many multi-family buildings across the city, including Ocean Gate and Surf 21 in Coney Island. For a full list of holdings, visit the Starrett Corporation website. Through its property management arm Grenadier Realty Corporation, Starrett also manages over 40 properties with 22,000 units.
 In a 2005 panel at the CUNY Graduate Center on the UDC’s emphasis on design quality and livability, panelist Suzanne Stephens, deputy editor of Architectural Record, discussed the poor construction quality of some UDC projects.