Disrupting the Superblock: Speculative Designs for NYCHA

The city’s largest residential landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, is in crisis.[1] A current exhibition showcases some provocative solutions, crafted by urban design and architecture students following in a long tradition of speculative projects for public housing.

The strains of housing eight percent of the city’s population, mostly in buildings more than half a century old, are showing. The agency is bursting at the seams, hobbled by $17 billion in unmet capital needs — leaky roofs that lead to persistent mold, broken front doors and buzzer systems, vermin infestations, and other problems. The agency is blunt about its finances: “We are broke,” states a fact sheet for residents. To meet this crisis, under the banner of its 2015 NextGeneration NYCHA plan, the Housing Authority intends to transfer employees to other agencies, raise resident parking rates, and lease more ground-floor spaces for retail.

The agency’s primary — and most controversial — effort to shore up its balance sheet is through private, infill housing development on existing NYCHA campuses. The vast majority of NYCHA developments are towers-in-the-park superblocks, where buildings cover less than one-quarter of the site. (The rest is mostly green space and parking lots.) This could be ample space for building, if approached with contextual and sensitive design. Under the NextGen plan, NYCHA will add more than 10,000 units, both affordable and market-rate, at up to 30 campuses.

The Housing Authority’s new building campaign — the agency has built little since its federal funding was severely curtailed in 1973 — has attracted interest from legions of urban designers and architects. Professionals and students alike are eager to offer speculative paths forward to address the physical and social challenges that NYCHA faces. Some of these visions, from architecture students at nine local and international schools, are now on display in the exhibition “Affordable Housing in New York,” at Hunter College. The exhibition, curated by Matthias Altwicker, Matthew Lasner, and Nicholas Bloom, is a companion to a book by the same name released last year.

Affordable Housing in New York on display at Hunter College | Photo by Eduard Hueber/archphoto

Guided by NYCHA’s commitment to preserving and improving its existing housing stock, the students looked for opportunities to improve neighborhoods for residents and neighbors alike. “These student proposals make clear, for instance, that new, usable public spaces and increased residential density on NYCHA grounds are compatible — where good design is brought to bear,” write the curators.

The work appears in a portion of the exhibition labeled “Future Visions.” Common interventions include integrating the isolated campuses into the neighborhood fabric, creating more dynamic public spaces, adding new housing units, and activating the street edge to repair the disconnection of the isolated block housing. By responding to the specific neighborhood conditions, the students demonstrate that “there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the urban design challenges NYCHA campuses present,” writes Columbia Professor James Khamsi.

Two dozen projects are on display, though there’s little to contextualize the ideas. Here, we take a deeper look into six of the proposals.[2]

Site: Jacob Riis Houses

Responding to the frequent flooding on the low-lying Lower East Side — not only inundation from major storm events like Hurricane Sandy, but routine water ponding from normal rain — Nishant Samir Mehta, Ziyang Zeng, and Fei Xiong, graduate students in Columbia’s 5 Boroughs studio, propose cutting water channels through the public space to manage the drainage. This public spine creates new flows for water and pedestrians alike, connecting the neighborhood to the planned Dryline greenbelt along the river (beyond the FDR Drive) and holding filtered rainwater to mitigate waterlogging. “Water as a Catalyst” simultaneously addresses the site’s ecology, reducing stormwater runoff and encouraging new wildlife habitat, and the campus’s organization and appeal as a public space for the entire neighborhood. The plan takes an environmental deficit and not only manages the threat but turns it into an opportunity, a strategy that mirrors NYCHA’s own flood mitigation initiatives.

The proposed landscape mitigates flooding and provides an enhanced public space | Nishant Samir Mehta, Ziyang Zeng, and Fei Xiong (Columbia)
The plaza's design adapts to changing water levels and offers new retail and amenities | Nishant Samir Mehta, Ziyang Zeng, and Fei Xiong (Columbia)

Efforts to remedy the isolation of the towers-in-the-park design are evident in every project, although reconciling the diagonally-oriented buildings with the street grid proves difficult. For its entire length (just ten short blocks) the eastern side of Manhattan’s Avenue D is fronted with brick NYCHA towers and gated green spaces, creating an uninviting street edge. In “NYCHA as a Food Campus,” Columbia graduate students Yan-Shun Lee, Grace Mills, and Mahima Pandya propose an infill strategy to reclaim the street edge and further integrate the campus within the East Village — physically, socio-culturally, and economically — through a “food economy” that includes a farmers’ market, gardens, incubator spaces, and retail storefronts. These activities would principally occupy new square footage added onto the existing buildings, altering the current cruciform plan and placing public-facing activities on the ground floors and new residential units above. The enlivened streetscape and new retail is intended to mirror the more dynamic western side of the street.

Infill development is organized around a food economy along Avenue D | Yan-Shun Lee, Grace Mills, and Mahima Pandya (Columbia)
The two- to five-story infill includes commercial and incubator space, green terraces, and residential units, reorganizing the existing building plan | Yan-Shun Lee, Grace Mills, and Mahima Pandya (Columbia)

An undergraduate studio at Pratt Institute focused on the Bronx’s Mill Brook Houses, one of the first sites that will see private affordable housing built under NYCHA’s new land-lease program. “Our projects were intentionally aimed at disrupting the superblock,” writes Professor Frederick Biehle, who directed his students to reintegrate the tower campuses back into the surrounding 19th-century urbanism, positioning their work as “additions” to the existing fabric. All the proposals cut new streets into the superblocks, but two student projects illustrate divergent approaches to reconnecting these “architectural islands.”

Carly McQueen and Maryanne Barone fill the site with new buildings to more closely resemble a traditional New York streetscape. Using the lot dimensions of the site’s original 1908 subdivision as a guide for the size and placement of the new buildings, the pair proposes infill of typical urban amenities around the street edges, including a school, pharmacy, and hair salon, with new apartments above. The existing buildings remain largely untouched, except for the ground floors, which are opened up by removing the apartments to create covered, outdoor space. The relationship between the new and old buildings and the definition of the public spaces remains awkward, with the existing buildings primarily confined to the interior.

Site: Mill Brook Houses

Infill development would occur based on historic lot patterns, resulting in significant new density | Carly McQueen and Maryanne Barone (Pratt)
First floor apartments are removed from existing buildings in an attempt to create continuous open space | Carly McQueen and Maryanne Barone (Pratt)

In contrast, Anna Dwyer and Siman Huang defy a standard block structure by cutting several new streets into the superblock, creating nine irregularly shaped blocks. They then propose to add new buildings adjacent to the existing housing — mixing residential, commercial, and institutional programming — with (unconvincing) sky bridges that connect buildings between blocks. The scheme creates physical unity but also further insulates the campus.

New streets are cut into the superblock to create nine irregularly-shaped blocks | Anna Dwyer and Siman Huang (Pratt)
The facade materiality is meant to integrate new and existing development | Anna Dwyer and Siman Huang (Pratt)

Site: Meltzer Tower

In a more strictly architectural exercise, students from Fachhochscule, in Potsdam, Germany, designed new housing on open space at Meltzer Tower senior housing on the Lower East Side. (Currently, the site is a courtyard with benches and a generous tree canopy; under a quashed 2013 proposal, this courtyard would have seen new mixed-use development.) The students focused on the massing and unit plans for a new tower, leaving the existing building largely untouched. “The big challenge was to design micro-units as architecturally ambitious spaces,” writes Professor Karl-Heinz Winkens.

Dominique Szeffner proposes a building with a five-story base and three mid-rise towers, offering a mix of unit types, from a 250-square-foot micro-unit to a three-bedroom triplex. The scheme calls for a unified street wall while still retaining some of the courtyard between the new and existing buildings. “Bright, open buildings will be needed to make landscapes and edges more appealing (a strategy for a community center program David Burney successfully pioneered for NYCHA some years ago) rather than walling in the developments behind them,” write Altwicker and Bloom.

A new building with three mid-rise towers would rise along East 1st Street | Dominique Szeffner (FH Potsdam)
A smaller internal courtyard would remain between the new and existing buildings | Dominique Szeffner (FH Potsdam)

Also sensitive to maintaining the green space, Julia Vetter preserves most of Meltzer’s existing courtyard by suggesting three separate sets of buildings. Two new structures abut the current tower, giving it a new façade and a direct relationship to 1st and 2nd Streets, while a new twin tower rises on the opposite side of the courtyard. The scheme keeps the green space open to the street.

Two new towers would rise on either side of the courtyard | Julia Vetter (FH Potsdam)
Residential infill includes three distinct buildings, retaining most of the existing courtyard open to the street | Julia Vetter (FH Potsdam)

While these projects are wholly speculative, the best of the student work in many ways reflects and advances the design innovations that NYCHA has or is trying to put forward. The students’ proposals are just a bit bolder — and sometimes too bold — in their efforts to protect one of the city’s most important and threatened assets.

[1]

The New York City Housing Authority’s 178,000 apartments are officially home to 403,000 tenants, although the reality is likely closer to 600,000.

[2]

The exhibition includes a few projects from each of the nine participating studios; not all of the projects discussed here are on display.

Emily Schmidt is the manager of housing programs at The Architectural League. Chicago born and bred, she now lives in Brooklyn.