Reimagining Towers-in-the-Park

“Towers-in-the-park” sounds like what they are: high-rise residential buildings sited on large lots of open space. This particular type of building configuration — popular in postwar American urban renewal schemes, often used in public housing as well as in limited equity cooperative housing societies — is visible all over New York City. In urban design and architecture circles these days, this building typology is more often maligned that celebrated. Here on Urban Omnibus, we’ve presented some alternative views: we’ve walked among the housing projects of Avenue D with a sociologist who grew up there and we’ve looked at how some of the elements that urbanists tend to criticize about these towers actually make them uniquely suited to serve the interests of some of the city’s senior citizens. Both of these perspectives dealt more directly with the tower than with the park. Today, in the second of our series of reports on student projects in architecture and design schools, we hear from a designer and educator about an urban design studio project at the University of Michigan that sought to reimagine towers-in-the-park, and their potential for reintegration with the rest of the city, by keeping the tower and reworking the park.

The Michigan students’ ambitious scheme reflects the growing support among New York City officials to reconsider the development potential of underutilized open space on city-owned land. In December 2006, the city put out bids for 600 new housing units on the sites of public housing projects. Speaking to the New York Sun in April of 2007, Department of Housing Preservation and Development spokesperson Neill Coleman said that the inventory of vacant land for affordable housing “is pretty much exhausted, so we’re looking for new sources of land.” Since then, the Department of City Planning has been working with the New York City Housing Authority to do just that: to modify height and setback requirements and to reduce the amount of required parking in order to facilitate new construction. The new construction envisioned in the studio project described below is not exclusively concerned with making more housing units, it also imagines a new way of weaving towers-in-the-park into their surrounding, and rapidly changing, neighborhoods. Read more below.–C.S.

Michigan in New York

As part of its sequence of studio courses with sites across the United States and the world, the Master of Urban Design Program at the University of Michigan recently re-envisioned Manhattan’s Lower East Side housing projects. The housing projects, located between the Brooklyn Bridge and 14th Street, comprise one of the country’s largest concentrations of towers-in-the-park, the high-rise buildings set on superblocks that New York and other American cities erected as part of urban renewal schemes in the aftermath of World War II.

Borders of the Lower East Side’s towers-in-the-park. (Includes Stuyvesant Town above 14th Street that was not part of studio project described in this text.) Source: Sanborn/Digital Globe.
Photo by Flickr user ShiftOperations.

The Manhattan housing projects were selected for study for three reasons: 1) After a studio that designed a new city in Turkey outside of Istanbul, we wanted MUD students to shift their attention from the tabula rasa to an existing urban context; 2) For an international student cohort consisting of people from the United States, China, Egypt, India, Korea and Nigeria, the towers-in-the-park typology is universally familiar and the lessons learned from designing for it are applicable to cities worldwide; 3) The Lower East Side housing projects’ particular conditions – abutting rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and owned by a cash-strapped New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) that is looking for opportunities to increase its revenue stream – made the topic timely.

The outcomes of the studio benefited from the students’ range of professional and academic backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. Over the course of a single semester, the 12 students in the studio visited New York twice, documenting and analyzing the site. Thereafter, three teams of four students each developed three detailed concepts, complete with comprehensive programs of use, design guidelines and implementation strategies.

A figure-ground diagram illustrates the amount of open space available for development among the towers-in-the-park of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Towers-in-the-Park: Open Space as Opportunity

The studio combined urban development with urban preservation: all project dwelling units were to be conserved in the interest of maintaining one of Manhattan’s important supplies of low-income housing. It proposed capitalizing on the projects’ extensive open grounds – approximately 84% of the site area – for new housing, work spaces, institutions and community facilities that would help generate new revenue streams for NYCHA while integrating the projects with adjacent neighborhoods, improving their connection with East River Park, and enhancing the quality of life for existing residents and newcomers.

By looking at the housing projects’ open spaces as a development opportunity, the studio questioned one of the major principles in post-World War II American urban renewal, which was to reduce the amount of ground each housing project covers. Based on nearly a century of housing reform attempts to open low-income neighborhoods to light and air and reduce their population densities, the need for open space was often cited by architects and public housing authorities as justification for building ever-taller housing projects. From the 50% ground coverage of mid-19th-century “model” tenements to the 16% ground coverage of mid-20th-century Lower East Side public housing, the provision of open space helped drive the design of urban housing for low-income people.

But open space did little to integrate these towers with their surrounding neighborhoods, and many post-World War II public-housing residents — whose high-rise homes were built in undesirable or outlying parts of the city where land was cheap enough for city, state and federal agencies to buy — felt isolated from the rest of the city. The land use planning practices prevalent at the time segregated residential from commercial uses. Almost from the start, post-war towers-in-the-park were criticized by social observers and project residents. The decision to demolish the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and, more recently, Cabrini-Green in Chicago, serve as reminders of the perceived inflexibility of the towers-in-the-park housing typology. Part of the premise of this studio was to find a way to intervene in this typology without destroying the existing housing units.

Today, the revitalization of neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens adjacent to housing projects has added pressure to reconsider superblock open space, where community renewal stops at the housing projects’ edges. For the Michigan studio, the questions became: Can the under-utilized open space within tower-in-the-park superblocks be repurposed to accommodate neighborhood redevelopment trends, to serve housing project residents better and to help preserve public housing by leveraging NYCHA’s existing assets?

Analysis reveals the Lower East Side’s potential connections to rest of Manhattan.

Studio Outcomes

For the Lower East Side’s towers-in-the-park — including the cooperatives built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and other subsidized housing projects clustered around the Williamsburg Bridge — the Michigan design teams identified space for between 4,400 and 8,000 new apartments (both market-rate and “affordable”); a range of 1.6 million to 5 million square feet of commercial development; and from 600,000 to 3 million square feet of institutional spaces (for libraries, community centers, schools and colleges). The potential exists for between 13.7 million and 22 million square feet of new buildings in and around the towers. And because Michigan students arranged these additions between existing buildings along new streets and pathways cut through superblocks, the scheme conserves all NYCHA apartments.

The results: a boulevard-like FDR Drive, where some of Manhattan’s most desirable apartments can be located; lively streets connecting East River Park to inland neighborhoods; mixed-uses along Avenue D and Madison Street serving residents and visitors (offering business and employment opportunities, too); and at key points, where space, views and new land and water transportation connections encourage them, residential, office and hotel towers that will embellish the lower Manhattan skyline. The studio found that all of these uses can be accommodated by new buildings that cover between 30 and 40% of the lot size. This amount of ground coverage is higher than the study area’s current average but lower than blocks in the most desirable parts of Manhattan, including the Upper East and Upper West Sides. Therefore, the proposal will not obstruct existing housing units’ light and views.

Top: View of new buildings among towers-in-the-park. Bottom: View of new library near Manhattan Bridge. Public buildings reinforce the East River as a public amenity. They are erected by developers whose projects are rewarded increased floor areas.

At ground level, the Michigan studio proposed changing the form and use of open space. The landscapes of tower-in-the-park open spaces are typically passive and homogeneous. The studio’s strategy was to integrate intimate open spaces with a variety of new buildings, including schools (from pre-schools to colleges), live/work lofts, market structures, places of business and community centers. Rejecting the reductive planning philosophies of the 1950s that segregated housing on superblocks, the design teams programmed both buildings and spaces to promote active use throughout the site and to support residents’ ability to participate in community life and a dynamic local economy.

To implement their concepts, the Michigan teams proposed the creation of a public development agency similar to the New York State Empire Development Corporation or Battery Park City Authority whose structure would support both substantial community representation and a clearly-articulated process for larger community input. Indeed, given the complexity of the project and its likely impact on tens of thousands of people, the teams advocated an additional year upfront for creating the agency and its processes of decision-making and communication.

Project funding was also considered. Design teams suggested that federal dollars be applied to East River Drive, transportation and waterfront improvements. They also proposed that the sale or lease of NYCHA-held land underwrite improvements to existing apartments while maintaining their affordability and contribute to the maintenance and construction of affordable housing at other NYCHA projects and in other sites around the city. (Sales and leases include the transfer of air rights from empty or under-developed parts of the site area to locations where high density is desirable.) Additional affordable housing was proposed through incentives such as the New York “80/20” program that permits larger buildings if 20% of their units are provided at below-market rents. And tax credits and/or building bonuses could be offered to developers erecting public amenities and services on a turnkey basis (e.g. schools, libraries and community centers). Although new to NYCHA, such programs have ample precedent in New York City.

Concept view. Buildings in light blue are inserted among towers-in-the-park. Concept includes improvements to East River Park and water and land transportation systems.


The Michigan studio learned the following lessons:

  • It is possible to redevelop tower-in-the-park public housing without demolition or displacement.
  • Tower-in-the-park open spaces are readily adaptable to a variety of physical and programmatic interventions, leading to inventive urban design.
  • Forms of development financing that have evolved since post-World War II urban renewal can help support tower-in-the-park redevelopment, including public/private partnerships, incentive zoning, development rights transfers, etc.
  • Tower-in-the-park housing, familiar to cities around the world, can be part of urban revitalization strategies that are socially and environmentally more sustainable than demolition schemes that dislocate communities and waste their physical materials.

For New York, the Michigan studio identified the development potential of one corner of NYCHA’s 2,500 acres of property. As the city’s largest landlord, NYCHA, more than any other owner, is positioned to reshape New York’s skyline — while it improves the quality of life for its residents. At a time when financial difficulties encourage the authority to explore alternative methods of retaining and improving its housing stock, the opportunity that this studio investigated is rich with possibilities for both a large public landowner like NYCHA and for the city and citizens it serves.

Unless otherwise noted, all images produced and provided by the University of Michigan MUD Studio.

Roy Strickland is Director of the Master of Urban Design Program at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan and, with Platt Byard Dovell White Architects, is the designer of the new Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in Manhattan. He led the MUD studio consisting of Komal Anand, Daren Crabill, Emek Erdolu, Yingying Guan, Seun-Hyun Kim, Rachan Ky, Jun-Yi Lin, Obiamaka Ofodile, Kwanseok Oh, Danna Reyes, Amal Shaaban and Xuan Zheng.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Studio Reports

Student research and propositions from design studios with real-world implications.


Ken Firestone August 26, 2010

Is it possible to see/get the full studio report?

Roy Strickland September 15, 2010

Thanks for the note, Ken Firestone.

There is no formal studio report, although a more extensive article may be prepared for future publication.

Pearl Barkley July 22, 2015

The “open” spaces that this article is speaking about refers to parking lots, playgrounds etc. I know that we who live here in NYCHA have been labeled as the dregs of society, but let me tell, WE ARE WORKING CLASS INDIVIDUALS who need low income housing. I guess we are not good enough to deserve a space to sit outside and enjoy the air and sun. One thing that is certain, the failure of public housing in this country has nothing to do with the residents. It is a lack of will for economic equality and social equality to become a reality. If affordable housing is so needed, like my brother has said, there is plenty of space in the Hamptons!!!!