Model Cities Redux

Affordable housing, contextual design, community participation, private investment, socioeconomic opportunity. The elements of proposals for neighborhood improvements in Mott Haven today sound remarkably similar to those that were applied in the area almost half a century ago. As New York City seeks funds from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new Choice Neighborhoods initiative, Urban Omnibus columnist Susanne Schindler, struck by a sense of historical repetition, looks back at the legacy of Model Cities. This federal program meant to rebuild the country’s poorest neighborhoods without the displacement and disenfranchisement of urban renewal lasted only eight years before it was written off as a failure and a footnote in 1974.

In Mott Haven, Model Cities left behind the unknown but “astonishing” Betances, Borinquen, and Beekman Houses, whose innovative planning Schindler revisits below. In the Bronx and beyond, Model Cities is a missing link in our understanding of the history of efforts by government, the private sector, and designers to improve living conditions in cities. This process, creative and community-driven, initiated many aspects of how we design, finance and manage housing in low-income neighborhoods today. Some of these are sound, others stale, still others fell by the wayside and should be picked up again. 50 years after it was passed into law, Model Cities deserves a second look.

Want even more Model Cities? Click here for further takes on the lessons and legacies of this often-overlooked program, from the planners who brought it to life and the scholars uncovering its history. –M.M.

Courtyard of Betances I, the only full-block Betances project, 2016. | Photo by Susanne Schindler

“Private Investment in the Ghetto”

Mott Haven headlines reinforce long-standing clichés. News reports on conditions in the country’s poorest congressional district focus on spectacular drug gang busts, atypically high homicide rates, and the impact on childhood asthma of Fresh Direct trucking. Netflix’s celebration of the area’s contribution to music history in the 1970s in the series The Get Down, and developers’ rebranding of it as a “Piano District” for luxury living forty years later, work the story of the “burning” Bronx in other ways. A recent article in The Guardian makes use of another, more recent cliché of changing neighborhoods in reference to Mott Haven: “Home of hip-hop fights to keep its soul as gentrification creeps in.”

In late June of this year, against the backdrop of this tension between preserving the long-standing affordability of the South Bronx neighborhood and enabling much-needed upgrades, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the city’s Department of Housing Development and Preservation (HPD) jointly released a Request for Proposals (RFP). It was addressed to private developers to build new affordable housing on two vacant sites, part of Betances Houses. The RFP had nothing substantive to say about Betances, a development of over 900 apartments scattered on seven city blocks. It also did not mention the fact that NYCHA is planning to transfer the majority of Betances Houses to private ownership through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, or that five Betances buildings had already been transferred to a private owner under a different program during the Bloomberg Administration. [1] These various forms of privatization are part of NYCHA’s efforts to meet its underfunded capital needs and develop additional housing on its land.

This necessarily requires some rhetorical cushioning. Vicki Been, commissioner of HPD, called the RFP “another example of the City looking for the strongest and most creative proposals to build affordable housing.” NYCHA used the RFP to emphasize the participatory process that produced it: “The framework for the RFP was built on the priorities identified by local residents … as part of the Choice Neighborhoods Initiatives planning process.Choice Neighborhoods (CNI) is the most recent federal program to seek to revitalize so-called distressed governmentally assisted housing. The program stresses improvements to residents’ socioeconomic opportunities in conjunction with physical interventions, so although NYCHA applied for CNI money primarily to fund long overdue capital improvements of Betances, the RFP for new development speaks to broader goals: to “enhance the quality of life of residents from multiple angles, including fortifying housing, creating greater economic opportunity, and beautifying the neighborhood.” [2]

Betances Houses on 146th Street, looking west to Brook Avenue. | Photo by Susanne Schindler

What is so striking about the invocation of “creative solutions” and “the involvement of current residents” is the fact that Betances Houses itself resulted from one of the most creative and community-driven processes that New York City has ever put forward for how to plan, design, and implement housing. Betances is a key example of “vest-pocket housing,” or what today would be called “contextually designed infill housing.” Vest-pocket housing was a central element in New York’s participation in the 1966 federal Model Cities program. Model Cities had virtually the same goals and strategies as Choice Neighborhoods today: concentrated and coordinated investment in the social and physical aspects of residential neighborhoods, in close coordination with the community and non-governmental actors — or what was then called “private investment in the ghetto.” [3] Model Cities was signed into law exactly 50 years ago this November.

NYCHA and HPD’s current efforts to improve Mott Haven and the socioeconomic opportunities of its residents through housing are targeting buildings that resulted from planning efforts to improve the neighborhood and the socioeconomic opportunities of its residents through housing half a century ago.

Model What, Vest Pocket How?

A map of the three New York City designated Model Cities and vest pocket housing areas, in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Central Brooklyn. | From People and Plans: Vest Pocket Housing, The First Step in New York's Model Cities Program, published by the NYC Housing Development Administration, 1967

The Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act, as Model Cities was officially titled, was one of President Lyndon Johnson’s last Great Society programs. Model Cities was proposed as a corrective to the large-scale clearance and displacement caused by urban renewal. Federal subsidy programs since 1949 had largely privileged the physical rebuilding of central business districts to the social and economic detriment of the poor, who were displaced to more peripheral areas. But Model Cities was also seen as a corrective to what was perceived as excessive power sharing with local groups in poor communities and the disempowerment of city halls under the 1964 Community Action Program. Most immediately, Model Cities was a response to the stark racial inequalities brought to light in the unrest that had taken hold of the nation’s cities since 1965. The Act opened with the simple and bold acknowledgment: “Improving the quality of urban life is the most critical domestic problem facing the United States.”

The introduction to the Mott Haven Plan '67 describes its proposal: "Buidling new apartments where land is available and rehabilitating existing apartments in structurally sound buildings," along with "new day care, head start, and health centers, and improvements of park and recreation facilities, streets, sidewalks, street lighting, and planting." | From Mott Haven Plan '67 via New York City Municipal Library

The key conceptual innovation of Model Cities was its emphasis on coordinating physical and social programs by bundling federal funds into single, “non-categorical” grants and concentrating them in clearly defined areas. An area suffering from disinvestment, physical decay, and a lack of services, containing no more than ten percent of a city’s population, could be designated a “model neighborhood.” Federal funds could be used in a variety of ways: for new job training programs administered by local groups, as low-interest loans for business start-ups, as grants for childcare programs, or as gap funding for more capital-intensive projects including housing or infrastructure. Remarkably, the rules did not prescribe how the residents of the model neighborhoods were to participate in setting the priorities for their plans. It was left to each municipality — meaning its mayor — to decide.

Mayor John Lindsay enthusiastically embraced the program for New York City. Model Cities matched his own ambitions of decentralizing city services and bringing decision-making closer to the local level. It also provided a vehicle to improve urban design through housing. While Model Cities was still being debated in Congress, Lindsay committed $3.5 million as a “head start” to the program in the form of a new Vest Pocket Housing Plan. With Eugenia Flatow, City Housing Coordinator, and Donald Elliott, City Planning Commission Chairman, as leads, the city selected three of the most impoverished areas of the South Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn and appointed planners to work with residents in formulating neighborhood plans. The goal was to create 14,500 units of low- and moderate-income housing through new construction and rehabilitation by both the Housing Authority and non-profit sponsors with the help of federal mortgage subsidies. This would break down into 8,000 apartments in the three Model Cities neighborhoods, each of which had within it a smaller vest pocket target area, as well as some new housing to be built on “scattered sites” throughout the city and in two other neighborhoods where a community planning process was in effect.

The aspirations of vest pocket housing were described in terms strikingly familiar today: it envisioned “community participation on an unprecedented scale,” “more housing and minimum uprooting,” and an “emphasis on neighborhood design [with] buildings of a scale to fit into the neighborhood.” A pamphlet describing the plan also addressed what today is called “leveraging”: the program estimated that each municipal dollar of “land write down” would bring in ten dollars of private “construction activities.” [4]

The Mott Haven Community Development Plan. Red and pink represent new construction in two phases; dark and light purple represent rehabilitation in two phases; orange represents new commercial construction; dark green represents new parks and open spaces; and darker blue new community facilities. | From the New York City Planning Commission's "Plan for New York City," published 1969

In the South Bronx, the city hired architect Jonas Vizbaras as a planning consultant to assist a group of area residents, the Mott Haven Planning Committee, with conceiving a neighborhood plan. Vizbaras met with residents beginning in December 1966, and submitted the results to the city four months later. The plan reveals a bias in the Bronx toward physical renewal over social programs from the start. Besides proposals for new housing (both new construction and rehabilitation, with recommendations based on a survey of existing conditions conducted by another young architect, Herbert Mandel), there were proposals for parks and open space, street improvements, and community facilities. A 1969 update to the plan added detail regarding designated housing sponsors and the new housing finance programs they would work with. [5] Significantly, the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act replaced existing mortgage subsidies for nonprofits with a policy known as Section 236, which was more generous toward for-profit developers of rental housing.

Perspective showing landscape play spaces connecting the back yards of new and rehabilitated residential buildings on adjacent lots. | Image from People and Plans: Vest Pocket Housing published by NYC Housing Development Authority in 1967

In 1969, New York City’s Board of Estimate approved the plans that had been developed by the three Model Cities neighborhoods, and within the year HUD approved a first round of implementation grants, eventually allocating a total of $240 million to New York’s Model Cities programs. [6] However, three years after the launch, there was little to show for it; implementation stalled. Lindsay, in establishing by executive order how Model Cities would work, had not defined how elections were to be held, what mandates the elected citizens on the Local Policy Committees (LPCs) would have, or how the coordination between the neighborhoods, city hall, and city agencies should occur. LPC elections in 1968 had been chaotic and characterized by ethnic rivalries, and agencies had not moved forward with their plans.

President Richard Nixon, in office since early 1969, had Model Cities evaluated for its effectiveness. So did Mayor Lindsay, engaging the consulting firm McKinsey & Company for the job. In April 1970, he restructured Model Cities into a centralized organization in which three newly appointed Neighborhood Directors (NDs) reported to an Administrator vested with all approval powers. The LPCs retained a purely advisory role. Victor Marrero was appointed ND for the South Bronx: a young, Bronx-raised, Yale-educated lawyer of Puerto-Rican origin, he had community roots. And as an advisor to Mayor Lindsay since his first term, he was closely connected to city hall. Marrero funneled Model Cities money into physical, rather than social, programs; in the program’s third year, South Bronx Model Cities spent almost one-half of its annual budget on three housing projects alone. [7] The centralization and restructuring of Model Cities thus immediately jump-started construction of both long-planned and newly conceived projects. These organizational and staff changes did not, however, lead to a parallel centralization in the city’s housing agencies. On the contrary.

Betances, Beekman, Borinquen

East 137th Street looking west. At left, part of Betances Houses, at right, part of Plaza Borinquen, and Mitchel Houses in the distance, 2016. | Photo by Susanne Schindler

The implementation of Model Cities in Mott Haven gave a first glimpse of the private housing sponsorships and the reduced role of city agencies that characterize New York’s current fragmented housing development landscape today. Three projects bring this point into sharper focus. Betances Houses, the main vest-pocket, multi-type public housing project, was developed by the Housing Authority according to plan, but outsourced the actual construction under a new program. At Beekman Houses, a private, for-profit developer used the new Section 236 mortgage subsidies to undertake a large tenement rehabilitation effort. And finally. a newly formed non-profit community development corporation also used Section 236 subsidies to build Plaza Borinquen, a low-rise, high-density infill project.

A rendering of a Betances Houses block shows a combination of rehabilitation, row house, and new midrise development. | From the New York City Planning Commission's Plan for New York City, published 1969

The three projects are as varied in their design approaches as in their development models. [8] The astonishing features of Betances Houses, realized primarily between 1970 and 1974, are at once its scope, variety, and modesty. Its more than 900 apartments encompass a variety of typologies and sizes, in new and rehabilitated buildings, and were designed by six different architectural firms (Castro-Blanco Piscioneri Feder, H.I. Feldman, Ralph Leff, Fred Liebman, John Pruyn, and Jonas Vizbaras). On a single block you can find newly built townhouses with a five-bedroom duplex above a one-bedroom apartment, both accessed from a small covered stoop; floor-through apartments in renovated tenements, with duplex apartments combining the top two floors (likely to minimize costs by avoiding an elevator, since four stories were, and are, the limit to needing one); and newly built five- and six-story, double-loaded apartment buildings, the type that has become the norm in New York City housing. On Betances’s only full-block development, tower buildings on the avenues are combined with four-story walk-ups along the streets. Community rooms, daycare centers for adults and children, and sports facilities, as well as some below-ground parking and commercial spaces were incorporated throughout.

For all its typological variety, Betances adhered to clear urban design guidelines: the buildings were situated along the streets with entrances directly off the sidewalks, and were built in materials considered compatible with the surroundings, generally brick. Select blocks were closed as “play streets”; backyards were combined to create larger, landscaped spaces; “vest-pocket parks” were sprinkled on one-lot-sites throughout; and several pedestrian-only connections, thought to enable children to walk safely to school, were proposed to weave at mid-block from north to south.

Floorplan of a Jose de Diego-Beekman Houses rehabilitation, 1973. | Image via Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP

While Betances included a few rehabilitated buildings, the Jose de Diego Beekman Houses went a significant step further in reusing the existing building stock. Beekman encompasses an astonishing number of over 1,350 apartments in 32 rehabilitated tenement buildings. [9] The rehabilitation was designed and implemented by architects Beyer Blinder Belle in nine phases between 1970 and 1973. The architects generally connected adjacent buildings, in order to introduce an elevator which would serve the new and larger building. Interiors were gutted to create fewer, more varied apartments ranging between one and four bedrooms in size. Facades, including fire escapes and ornament, were left as found. The Beekman project, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to a new appreciation not only of the practical, but the historic and cultural value of speculatively built early 20th century housing.

A typical Plaza Borinquen section. The bulk of the 44 split-level units consists of four-bedroom triplexes over four-bedroom triplexes. The end units are simplexes on the first floor with larger duplexes above that. All units have private gardens. | Image by John Ciardullo, PC

Plaza Borinquen, finally, reveals a definitive shift in New York City and New York State policy from high- to low-rise models for new low-income housing — an outcome that was to stick with New York City well into the 1980s and even 1990s. Completed in 1975, Plaza Borinquen includes 44 split-level units, in row houses clustered on four infill sites. Architect John Ciardullo designed the buildings so that each row house would be comprised of two four-bedroom triplexes, accessed across distinctive exterior stairways reaching either the street or shared backyards. [10] The sites were originally designated for new parks and playgrounds. Likely because of growing pressure to show results, they were re-assigned for housing in 1970, and transferred from the oversight of a city agency to the newly formed South Bronx Community Housing Corporation. [11] This new nonprofit was conceived by, among others, the new Neighborhood Director, Victor Marrero, who became chairman of its board. Borinquen, then, not only stands for a new design approach, but an embrace of community corporations (which had been originally locked out of the Model Cities program) and the increasingly interwoven relationships between local players, public officials, and the corporate sponsors who sat on these entities’ boards. [12] At Betances, NYCHA’s implementation of a “turnkey” process to cut construction time – handing off the implementation of existing building designs to private developer-contractors, then buying the buildings back upon completion — also intertwined the public and private sectors. [13]

“Failure,” “Fiasco,” and “Debacle”

Meanwhile, the economic backdrop was shifting dramatically: the energy crisis and the end of the gold standard had abruptly halted economic growth. In parallel, a cultural and political backlash diminished national support for anti-poverty programs and direct federal involvement in housing and other social programs. President Richard Nixon’s 1974 Housing and Community Development Act officially brought an end to both Model Cities and urban renewal, as well as Section 236 and other financing programs. The eulogies for Model Cities came quickly, as many critics pointed to problems in the program’s design and implementation: with over 150 municipalities taking part, it was overextended and underfunded; it was stiffly bureaucratic and yet prone to corruption; and it never truly relegated decision making power to the local level. Scholars at the time of its collapse decried the program as a “failure,” and the little historical work of the decades since has confirmed it as a “fiasco” and a “debacle.” [14] At most, Model Cities is acknowledged for having helped a generation of community-based, often African American and Puerto Rican political leadership emerge, but is generally at best annotated as a minor, intermediary step in the broader resurgence of inner-city neighborhoods. [15]

Spread from Bronx Plan 1968–72: A Report on the Bronx Model Cities Neighborhood, published by the City of New York, Office of the Mayor, Model CIties Administration, 1972.

Vest pocket housing came to its own end, not with a big bang or by new legislation, but as a consequence of both New York City’s general fiscal decline and direct political opposition. The approach had been attacked early on as being economically inefficient and more expensive to realize than large-scale single-site projects. Indeed, it never produced the numbers it had set out to achieve. However, this was likely less for financial than for political reasons, in part due precisely to the community involvement sought by Lindsay. “Vest pocket” was sometimes implemented as “scatter-site” housing, which inserted new low-income housing in middle-income neighborhoods, in the hope that residents would benefit from the education, employment, and services provided there. Many of these projects were stopped by the largely white residents of the middle-class areas they were planned for — a reminder that “community involvement” is rarely discussed in terms of whom it excludes.

In architectural and planning history, vest pocket housing and Model Cities are never included in the simplified consensus narrative about the relative roles of government, the private sector, and designers in the attempt to improve living conditions in cities. This narrative runs from (speculative, but beautiful) capitalist traditional development, (beautiful, but quantitatively ineffective) interwar reform efforts, (ugly, modernist, and destructively top-down) postwar tower in the park, and back to the (good, if sometimes mediocre, contextual and community-driven) perimeter block. While the broad strokes of this story may hold true, the role of government in housing, in particular, is more complicated and multi-faceted. At Betances, Beekman, and Borinquen, large-scale governmental programs did not work against small-scale community efforts, but were instrumental in their emergence. The existing variety of housing in Mott Haven would likely not have been realized without the comprehensive planning philosophy embraced by, and funding made available through, Model Cities. And while Model Cities explicitly attempted to move beyond the “bricks and mortar” solutions of urban renewal, and has generally been criticized due to failing on that sociopolitical account, the physical “bricks and mortar” that resulted and largely survive to this day are an entry point into reevaluating the overall program and its legacy.

Model Cities and vest pocket housing in Mott Haven as built, 2016. | Graphic by Susanne Schindler

Then is Now and Now is Then

The end of Model Cities in 1974 did not result in a drastic turning away from the program’s principles. Rather, its principles with respect to financing, design, and governance, and its practices as these principles played out in the early 1970s, were later institutionalized. They continue to frame federal and local approaches to neighborhoods — and not only low-income ones — today.

On the level of how we fund housing, Model Cities was a key precedent for the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which were a central component of Nixon’s 1974 Housing and Community Development Act. The premise was to bundle federal resources and let the state or local level decide how to use the funds — precisely the “non-categorical” and “localized” aspect of Model Cities funding. CDBGs remain the main vehicle of delivery of federal aid for physical improvements from housing to sanitation to community centers to

An illustration from the guidelines adopted by the New York City Planning Commission in 1975. | From Zoning for Housing Quality, published 1975

On the level of how we design cities, vest pocket housing directly resulted in the Contextual Zoning rules and linked Quality Housing Program that govern large parts of new housing development in New York City today. Building housing “to fit the neighborhood” was codified in a 1975 incentive program for midrise perimeter block construction, Zoning for Housing Quality. These guidelines were virtually unchanged when the program became mandatory in 1987 for all newly-formalized “contextual zoning districts” and incentivized by extra floor area in all “non-contextual” areas. These rules are in effect to this day. [16]

On the level of how citizens are involved in planning matters, New York City’s system of community boards can also be seen as a result of the Model Cities program. In 1968, the entire city was divided into community planning boards, and all city agencies were henceforth required to consult with these boards on planning matters. But a 1975 revision of the City Charter institutionalized the community boards as purely advisory bodies, closely reflecting the mandates of the Local Policy Committees.

But significant change has also occurred between the era of Model Cities and the present day.

Federal subsidies have decreased dramatically since 1975. The overall congressional allocation to CDBG had shrunk to just one-fourth of the 1975 level by 2015, in the same time that the country’s population grew by 50 percent. The subsidies that do exist privilege private developers, not public agencies, even though their involvement in low-income housing isn’t always what it is made out to be. Under Model Cities, the turnkey process, according to a NYCHA spokesperson, “offered limited oversight into what was designed” and built. NYCHA says it is focusing on developing new design guidelines to prevent this from occurring today. The privately owned Beekman Houses ran into problems shortly after its completion, in part due to rising energy costs, but also due to mismanagement and neglect, and a battle for its takeover by a new mutual housing association and new funding took decades. Boriquen’s nonprofit community development corporation went bankrupt in the 1980s and was taken over by another entity. When it was again resold in 2010 it required substantial new subsidy to keep it at current income and price levels.

Private-sector involvement in low-income housing is never a charitable enterprise. It occurs only when it is made profitable through generous public subsidy, which generally encompasses free land, cheap financing, property tax abatements, rental subsidies, and tax write-offs for investors, as well as the opportunity to deduct the purported depreciation of the property from income taxes. Given that low-income housing can only be built and operated with public involvement, a public entity like NYCHA — which has a long-term interest in the maintenance of its buildings and is required to be publicly accountable — should at least be given access to the same public funding sources for capital and rental subsidies as private developers. Instead, it issues RFPs for which the public sector ultimately pays, while sacrificing oversight and financial benefit. [17]

A mural on the side of a Betances building on 146th Street depicts the project's namesake, Emeterio Betances. | Photo by Susanne Schindler

On the level of design, there has been an unfortunate ossification of the idea of “context” as a limited and normative notion of street-edge, midrise construction. This is apparent in recent development throughout the city. The authors of NYCHA’s Choice Neighborhoods application admit that there are few design improvements to be made at Betances. The main goal of their application is to fund new roofs, boilers, and garbage disposal systems; on the design level, the proposal merely advances new and more transparent lobbies. Ascribing to the widely-held belief that superblocks are inherently bad, the proposal calls for re-opening one of two streets that were closed to traffic in 1970, a single block of 146th Street — even though an analysis of the use of the neighborhood’s open spaces, submitted in the application, clearly identified this block as the most used. A recent site visit confirmed this: two passers-by on another block, unprompted other than by my mentioning I was an architect interested in 1960s architecture, told me that I should look at this part of Betances since it was “more spacious” and “had a community center.”

The question must be not only how residents of Betances and the larger neighborhood are consulted, but also which designers are involved. Working for Model Cities projects enabled a series of young, recently graduated architects to jumpstart their practices. These include Herbert Mandel, whose firm has designed housing of all types for decades; John Ciardullo, best known today for his schools; and Beyer Blinder Belle, one of the country’s premier firms for historic preservation. Today, neither NYCHA nor HPD seems interested in making use of young emerging talent.

And finally, now as then, citizen involvement remains the most difficult and least resolved issue in planning. Design, if not explored with the stakeholders and discussed in conjunction with the often competing demands of capital and community, tends to become just one subordinated aspect of unit counts and political posturing. As the early years of Model Cities reveal, it takes time to create excitement about participating in civic action, ensure accountability for decisions made, and provide the technical and financial support that leads to implementation. In contrast, building housing delivers much faster results, the countable kind that mayors like: housing units. Programs like Model Cities or Choice Neighborhoods, based in principle on the involvement of residents within a more holistic approach to neighborhood improvements, often end up primarily being used as funding programs for housing. Physical and social improvements, which ought to complement each other, come to compete for limited funds. Housing, thanks to its immediacy in terms of need and deliverable returns on investment, often wins out. This was evident in Victor Marrero’s approach to the South Bronx in 1970 as in NYCHA’s Choice Neighborhoods grant application in 2014. Of the $30 million requested, only $5 million were to be for non-housing programs.

The facade of a Beekman Houses building on 138th Street. | Photo by Susanne Schindler

Walking in Mott Haven on a sunny September morning, residents’ insights suggested that it was neither the housing nor its design that are the problem in Mott Haven today — perhaps in contrast to 50 years ago. When I asked how they liked living here, a resident of a Betances apartment building described how much she loved the fact that her living room had two entrances, and her neighbor, at home in a duplex penthouse, stressed the quality of his view. But to convey that living in Betances wasn’t only pleasant, he then added: “It’s the company.” He did not mean NYCHA. He meant his neighbors. “What do you expect?” he asked. “We’re in the Bronx.” A janitor of a former Mitchell-Lama building put it slightly differently: “It’s the teens. I don’t go out after 7pm.” And a Borinquen resident framed Mott Haven’s challenge in yet another way: “It’s the jobs. There aren’t enough.”

Which brings us back to NYCHA and HPD’s RFP for new construction: Where is the broader, public effort to address the socioeconomic inequities so striking in Mott Haven, through which the private developers currently being courted could be tied into “concentrated and coordinated” renewal — the same renewal we have been talking about for 50 years? [18]


Cindy Rodriguez, “Public Housing Invites Private Developers,” WNYC, June 28, 2016.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program transfers ownership of public housing to private entities in the hope that these will make the necessary repairs the housing authority has not had the money to do. The rationale is that private developers can access tax credits and other programs that housing authorities cannot; rents stay the same for the residents, but Section 8 subsidies pay the difference between these rents and market rents to the new owners.


NYCHA received a Choice Neighborhoods planning grant for Mott Haven in 2012, but in 2014 was denied an implementation grant. NYCHA resubmitted a modified application in 2016.


John Landis points out, not without irony, that the idea that government and citizens, the private and public sectors, physical, social and economic development need to go hand-in-hand should a neighborhood and its housing be improved, are precisely those of Choice Neighborhoods. “Model Cities Program,” The Encyclopedia of Housing, ed. Andrew T. Carswell, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2012.

“Private investment in the ghetto” or “in the slums” was broadly invoked as a strategy for improving inner cities at the time. As just one reference, see Robert Kennedy’s advocacy for the creation of what would become the Bed Stuy Restoration Corporation. “Kennedy Offers Plan on Ghettos,” New York Times, May 19, 1966.


These elements were part of the planning from the start, but are most clearly summarized and described in: City of New York, Model Cities Administration, Open Space and the Environment: An Open Space Plan for the South Bronx Model Cities Area, prepared by Environmental Planning and Design (Simonds and Simonds), Pittsburgh; and Jonas Vizbaras, Architect and Planning Consultant, April 1971.


Bronx Plan: A Report on the Physical Development Planning, prepared by Jonas Vizbaras, planning consultant. Office of the Mayor, Model Cities Administration, New York City 1969.


The main source of dates and figures in this article is a 1973 “Report on Model Cities” written for the New York State Temporary Charter Revision Commission. In 2015 dollars, the total grant amount would be approximately 1.5 billion.


This bias toward the physical was still manifest half a century later, when Marrero handed me a photocopy of a 1972 publication on Model Cities in the South Bronx, of which the pages concerning the social programs had been consciously omitted. The projects are not identified by name, and the total sum is given as $9.6 million, or roughly $62 million in 2015 dollars. “Report on Model Cities,” p. 80. Besides Housing, the program components of Model Cities in New York City were Crime, Economic Development, Education, Environmental Protection, Health, Manpower and Development, and Social Services.


There were other projects realized at this time, among them a Mitchell-Lama financed complex of four mid- and highrise buildings sponsored by the Organizaciones Unidas del Bronx (OUB), today owned by Acacia Network, Inc., as well as the four midrise buildings that make up the George Hardy St Francis Apartments on 137th and 141st Streets, sponsored by the South Bronx Housing Development Fund Company, Inc.


Of the three projects mentioned here, Betances was never published in the architectural press, Beekman was mentioned twice as part of larger articles on adaptive re-use, and only Borinquen was featured, both in articles and books. None of the coverage mentions Model Cities as the framework in which these buildings emerged.


The same model was implemented by Ciardullo for NYCHA and the Urban Coalition for sites in Brooklyn. John Ciardullo in conversation with the author, December 2015.


According to Victor Marrero, the idea of a community-based development entity in the South Bronx went back to U.S. Senator Jacob Javits who wanted to “adopt a neighborhood” similarly to how Robert Kennedy had “adopted Bedford Stuyvesant” and supported the creation of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation there. Victor Marrero in conversation with the author, July 2016.


Housing was to be divided between NYCHA, responsible for low-income housing and all site acquisition, and the Housing Development Administration (HDA), the precursor to HPD, who would oversee middle-income projects.


One development model that was strikingly absent from the housing realized under Model Cities in Mott Haven is home ownership. This is surprising given that the 1968 Housing Act explicitly created Section 235 as a counterpart to 236 in order to enable low- and moderate-income households to buy homes, whether in multi-family or single-family structures. Section 235 funds allocated to New York City were not used in the Bronx prior to the 1980s, when it led to many of the new construction of single-family homes that line the streets of the borough, including Mott Haven, today.


Bernard J. Frieden and Marshall Kaplan, The Politics of Neglect: Urban Aid from Model Cities to Revenue Sharing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1975; Charles M. Haar, Between the Idea and the Reality: A Study in the Origin, Fate, and Legacy of the Model Cities Program. Boston: Little, Brown 1975; Walter Thabit, How East New York Became a Ghetto, New York: New York University Press, 2003.


Books that position the impact of Model Cities in this way include Tom Angotti, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008; and Jill Jonnes, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002 [1986].

Surprisingly, several recent histories on the role of community corporations in Harlem and Brooklyn, areas that received substantial Model Cities funding, do not address the program, beyond mentioning it as a failure. These include Michael Woodsworth, Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016; and Brian Goldstein, The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming in 2017.


The original study, commissioned by Lindsay near the end of his second term, is: Urban Design Council of The City of New York, “Housing Quality: A Program for Zoning Reform,” n.d. (1973). The regulations as adopted are: New York City Planning Commission, “Zoning for Housing Quality,” September 1975 (BYDCP 75-16). For current Contextual Zoning and Quality Housing rules, click here.


One reason NYCHA is legally prohibited from developing new housing is the Faircloth Amendment, passed as part of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 which targeted broader welfare reform. The amendment outlawed federal funding to housing authorities for expanding public housing stock.

Susanne Schindler is an architect and writer focused on the intersection of policy and design in housing. From 2013 to 2016, she was lead researcher and co-curator of House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate at Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, and co-author of The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate—A Provisional Report. Susanne has taught design at Parsons and Columbia, and is currently pursuing a PhD at ETH Zurich.

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


Douglas Balder AIA November 14, 2016

Susanne Schindler captures in her historical study of the Model Cities program in Mott Haven the complex interplay of design and policy with housing and the programming that provides human development for the poor. Most powerful about her work is how housing policy of 50 years ago and its legacy is insufficiently used to inform our planning practices today. Urban design policy of the 1970’s has not been advanced. It seems that we will not simply repeat our mistakes; we will fall well short today of what was attempted and modestly achieved some 5 decades ago. This is important research for those seeking to improve New York City Housing Authority’s public housing in a way that will protect and sustain its residents.