Bronx Lower Concourse Housing

In 2009, the New York City Council adopted a proposal to rezone a 30-block area at the lower end of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Historically, the Lower Concourse has been an industrial neighborhood but, over the past decade, manufacturing activity in the area has declined and demand for housing has increased. Zoning regulations restricted residential development on many of the available sites, resulting in housing shortages and underutilized industrial property. That, combined with good transit access and the potential for waterfront public space improvements, led the Department of City Planning to propose a rezoning of the area to increase housing availability, through both new developments and the reuse of existing vacant industrial land, while retaining the light industry that is still active in the district.

Advanced Design Studio II, the second in a series of six studios in the Master of Architecture program at Parsons the New School for Design, asks students to address architecture’s role in constructing contemporary social relationships by reconsidering one of our most familiar architectural spaces — the residential dwelling. Architects Bronwyn Breitner and James Slade, the instructors of Design Studio II, saw the mix of uses along the Lower Concourse and the strong character of the surrounding neighborhoods and landmarks as the perfect context for an exploration of the contemporary dwelling and the influence of culture, technology, history and policy on the places we call home. Here, Breitner and Slade discuss the studio and the site, and share some of their students’ work. –V.S

A historical photograph of the north side of the studio site, a former lumber yard. Many of the identifying landmarks still exist. The primary change was the introduction of the elevated Major Deegan Expressway along the waterfront which hugs the site to the west.
A historical photograph of the north side of the studio site, a former lumber yard. Many of the identifying landmarks still exist. The primary change was the introduction of the elevated Major Deegan Expressway along the waterfront which hugs the site to the west.

Advanced Design Studio II, the second in a series of six studios in the Parsons Master of Architecture degree, traditionally focuses on a housing program. This year, we broke down the spring 2011 semester into three parts: we began with an analysis of housing precedents both in New York City (to understand the local evolution of housing projects) and globally (to understand past and current housing solutions); next, we conducted an extensive site analysis of our selected studio site; and finally, the students worked in pairs to develop and represent their own housing proposal.

NYC DCP revised zoning map

NYC DCP revised zoning map

We selected a site within the Lower Concourse in the South Bronx. This 30-block pocket in the southwest corner of the Bronx was rezoned in 2009 by the Department of City Planning (DCP) to maintain the existing manufacturing zoning and add permitted residential use. In recent years, much of the local industry has relocated and the occupancy has decreased by 30%, leaving a neighborhood characterized by underutilized multi-story lofts, single-story automotive buildings and industrial sites, all with valuable real estate development potential. The DCP identified the neighborhood as ideal for much-needed new housing development because of its easy access to public transportation, its proximity to the ever-desirable Harlem River waterfront and its fantastic views to Manhattan.

A Google satellite image of the Lower Concourse district showing the studio site.
A Google satellite image of the Lower Concourse district showing the studio site.
Looking back from the 149th Street bridge towards the site. The newly adopted zoning plan permits 400 ft tall mixed-use towers along a new waterfront greenway.
Looking back from the 149th Street bridge towards the site. The newly adopted zoning plan permits 400 ft tall mixed-use towers along a new waterfront greenway.

Within this 30-block parcel we assigned one specific site to the students: a full city block with four very different characters at each of its boundaries. The site is bounded on the west by the elevated Major Deegan Expressway; on the east by Gerard Avenue, directly across the street from Gauchos Gym, a neighborhood icon and community hub; on the north by 149th Street, the only currently commercial street in the neighborhood; and on the south by 146th Street, a small and relatively quiet two-block road. The diverse nature of the site, its 15’ change in section east to west across the site, its location within this newly rezoned district and its proximity to the historic Grand Concourse to the north provided a challenging and rich opportunity for the students to envision a new character for the neighborhood within which to situate their own housing proposals.

In the site analysis phase, we reached out to individuals knowledgeable about the district and invited them to meet with the students to share their perspectives. We met with developer Andrea Kretchmer of The Kretchmer Companies, who is working on a proposal for an affordable housing development across the street from our site and is also actively involved with Gauchos Gym. We also met with Paul Philips and Vineeta Mathur from the DCP who were instrumental in drafting the recent Lower Concourse rezoning. These meetings, together with the students’ site analysis work and a very detailed analysis of the zoning regulations, led to the students’ preliminary massing proposals.

Using the insights from the site research, each team had to formulate a unique and comprehensive program for the site that included housing as well as a complimentary “Program X.” Program X was intended to respond to the needs of a changing neighborhood, potentially provide a catalyst for the future development of the area and integrate with the required housing program. Proposals ranged from the introduction of an artist-in-residence sponsored community art center to a public fitness circuit woven into the lower floors of the building to a supermarket. This independent program development required that the students think beyond the physical boundaries of our site by envisioning and influencing the Lower Concourse’s shift from district to neighborhood.

Students worked with physical and digital tools to convert their conceptual responses to this complex site into architectural solutions. The results of the 15 week study were diverse. Many of the projects developed a perimeter street wall with a central courtyard, though the program and nature of the courtyards were varied. Other projects broke the boundary of the block entirely and introduced perimeter parks and plazas that engaged the street. Circulation was often introduced through and across the site as a shortcut accessing Program X and/or the proposed public waterfront park, reflecting a general interest in incorporating public programs for the community.

The fitness circuit team allowed the public program to influence the unit development by designing flexible units around the athletic terms “Pivot” and “Slide.” A courtyard project utilized a series of solar studies to carve away at the extruded site, resulting in a sun-filled central public courtyard and a perforated metal façade system which responded to the location of the sun, controlling solar gain in each unit. In the most successful projects, the housing unit itself retained the required level of privacy but — when combined with shared private amenities, a public program and circulation —also allowed a typically introspective program to introduce character and identity to a developing neighborhood. Ultimately, the projects were nuanced and engaged concepts, from the neighborhood scale down to the scale of the unit, that created a unique vision of housing in New York City.


Students: Olga Anaya and Tamara Yurovsky

A building proposal on the south side of the lot stacks the comforts of the suburban house vertically, providing affordable housing units for families of different sizes. Each unit has a private and semi-private terrace, and access to the common vertical “street” with shared amenities.

Students: Rahul Shah and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda

Site analysis revealing the current flooding of the NYC sewer system during a storm surge prompted this team to propose a model building with constructed wetlands at the ground level. Coupled with a collection chamber and contained primary treatment stage, the wetlands treat the sewage from the building and collected rainwater. A series of elevated walkways provide public space above the wetlands and weave beneath the elevated highway for safe and easy access to the waterfront park.

Students: Michael Goetz and Cristina Lorie

Census data indicates that the South Bronx has a very high obesity rate. This team responded by introducing both a traditional gym facility and a public fitness circuit within the residential building. The required 60’ setback provided an opportunity for an 1/8 mile public running track around the building and swimming lanes. The residential building has a separate, private circulation route. The residential units themselves referenced fitness, each falling into either a “Pivot” or a “Slide” category.

Student: Josh Stone

A sophisticated circulation system stitches a path from Gauchos Gym across Gerard Avenue through the proposed building to a new basketball court and locker room facilities. Another route allows direct access between a much-needed market at the northwest corner of the site and the historical Bronx Terminal Market. Residential units above are broken into three main buildings, angled in plan and section to permit sunlight into the central courtyard.

Bronwyn Breitner received her MArch with Distinction at Parsons the New School for Design, and her BA at Duke University in Anthropology and Photography. Prior to co-founding 590BC, Breitner worked at Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects on a wide range of projects including dense urban residential developments and medium scale commercial offices. Breitner has taught both undergraduate and graduate level design studios at Parsons the New School for Design and at the Pratt Institute. Breitner’s work has been exhibited at The Center for Architecture in NYC and at the University of Alicante in Alicante, Spain.

James Slade has a Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University and a Masters of Architecture from Columbia University where he was awarded an Honor Award for Excellence in Design upon graduation. In 2002, he co-founded Slade Architecture. Slade was also recognized by the Architectural League of New York in the Young Architects Program early in his career and selected by them again in 2010 for their Emerging Voices program. He is a licensed architect in New York, Florida, Missouri, and Pennsylvania as well as a LEED-AP. In addition to his work at Slade Architecture, Slade currently teaches a graduate level architecture studio at Parsons School of Design and has taught in the past at Barnard/Columbia University, Pratt Institute, Florida International University and Philadelphia University. Before Slade Architecture, he was a partner in Cho Slade Architecture.

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.