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NYC’s brilliant plan to capitalize on land no one else wants

The city–like many others in America–faces a housing crisis and a climate crisis. To figure out how to create 300,000 affordable units over the next decade, it’s turning to architects for help.

NYC’s brilliant plan to capitalize on land no one else wants
Only If [Image: Only If Architecture/courtesy AIA]

When New York’s City Council passed its own version of the Green New Deal in late April, it focused heavily on the city’s large buildings (not a huge surprise, they tend to be remarkably wasteful). For instance, it mandates that all large buildings be retrofitted to lower emissions, and also restricts the use of glass in facades, which tends to be common on large, commercial buildings. “Fix your buildings or pay the price,” Mayor DeBlasio (who today announced a 2020 presidential run) tweeted at Eric Trump yesterday, referring to the Trumps’ commercial real estate holdings in the city.

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Greenfill House as Garden by Michael Sorkin Studio. [Image: Michael Sorkin Studio/courtesy AIA]

The plan also proposed building 300,000 units of affordable housing and creating 100,000 jobs, building on the goals set by its existing Housing New York 2.0 plan.

The three issues–homes, labor, and climate–are intimately connected. By building hundreds of thousands of affordable and low-emissions housing units, the city is aiming to create new jobs in the construction sector, but also create housing for the people who would work those jobs. Those twin goals also respond to a climate imperative: that cities must get denser to become more energy-efficient. That’s easier said than done in a city like New York. Between 2013 and 2018, the city reported that it had financed about 89,000 affordable units. About 30% was new construction, while the rest was created in existing buildings. There simply isn’t much space left–and even when there is, many developers would prefer to build more lucrative forms of housing, such as high-priced condos.

Mass Green Living [Image: Anawan101 + Kane AUD/courtesy AIA]
Without a doubt, developers drive construction in American cities. But New York is also asking architects for help reaching the ambitious numbers set by the Green New Deal and Housing New York 2.0. In February, the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Design launched a design competition called Big Ideas for Small Lots that invited designers to design housing that would fit on so-called “odd lots” owned by the city, which are either too small or awkwardly shaped to entice most developers.

Where a developer might look at a 17-foot-wide vacant lot and only see a number of units that doesn’t add up financially, Big Ideas for Small Lots asked architects to come up with ways to build livable, affordable housing on land that had been deemed unbuildable.

Or as Jeremiah Joseph–principal of the architecture firm Anawan/101–puts it, “We’ve got all these residual spaces. Why are we not doing more with them?”

Joseph is one of the winners of the competition’s penultimate stage, which chose five teams to move forward into development this week. He worked in collaboration with architect Ted Kane of Kane Architecture and Urban Design on a proposal for a five-unit building that mixes micro-studios and one-bedrooms on a thin, long lot. The focus of the proposal is its ground floor, which Kane and Joseph envision as an open, shared area (they call it an “urban garage”). Inspired by cohousing, where neighbors share communal resources, the space would be free to anyone who wanted to garden, host events, or work on DIY projects.

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“We wanted another amenity as a kind of overflow space, or a space that could be more of a community space,” Kane says. While most townhouses in the city designate the backyard for one unit in particular, the duo’s design proposes an entire open ground floor that anyone can enjoy. “Everybody wants access to that kind of light and air and garden space,” but not many New Yorkers get it.

More With Less [Image: Palette Architecture/courtesy AIA]

They weren’t the only winners to consider unconventional models of housing for the competition. Palette Architecture, a nine-year-old studio based in the city, submitted a plan that devotes one of its two units to “coliving,” a scenario where rooms are rented by individuals, who also have access to communal amenities like kitchens and living rooms.

More With Less [Image: Palette Architecture/courtesy AIA]

In this case, tenants could rent one of four bedrooms and share access to other spaces in the building. “Common kitchens, unprogrammed flex spaces, exterior spaces, and semi-private interior terraces are new types of space that provide residents with scalable levels of privacy and become the armature for unique and organic community growth,” explains Palette partner Peter Miller, who also emphasized the importance of shared spaces when it comes to affordable housing. “As architects, we have the challenge to look beyond the number of individual units created and advocate for higher-quality communities,” he adds. “The shared space which forms in between units is as important as the quality of units themselves. Properly designed common space encourages healthy interaction and strengthens the lives of those who live in them.”

Emphasizing communal space is one strategy to fit more housing onto a smaller lot–but as many of the winners point out, it can also bolster community-building within a development.

Out of the five winners that will move forward with the city’s help, at least one has extensive experience with odd lots in particular. Adam Frampton and Karolina Czeczek are cofounders of the five-year-old firm Only If. The duo came to the competition having spent the past few years designing for irregular lots; Only If even staged an exhibition of its prototypes for these pieces of land in 2017, and they’re currently building a home in Brooklyn that sits on a site that is just 13 feet and 4 inches wide (compared to an average rowhouse, which might sit on a lot that’s 20 feet wide).

[Image: Only If/courtesy AIA]

For Big Ideas for Small Lots, they designed a seven-unit building, including a range of apartments from miniscule-but-livable studios to a conventional two bedroom. Frampton describes odd lots–of which the city has some 3,600–as a design opportunity.

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“The constraints of these irregular and narrow lots have provided an opportunity to vary the units within our design,” he explains over email. “Unlike larger or more conventional projects, which often provide cookie-cutter repetitions of apartments, our seven units range from a micro-studio with a front stoop, to studios and loft studios, to a one- and two-bedroom unit.”

Will any of these ideas be realized as the city pushes forward with its ambitious plans for building 300,000 units of affordable housing within the next decade? That’s the plan. A NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development spokesperson says that HPD will now work with each of the five teams (which also include Michael Sorkin Studio and the collective OBJ) to develop their proposals, helping them finalize their plans to connect with developers. They’ll designate which city-owned odd lots it will offer for potential development by the end of the year.

If all goes to plan, each of the proposals could eventually become a model for other affordable developments across the city–and potentially prove to other developers that odd lots, not to mention the expertise of architects when it comes to designing for them, are worthy investments. Frampton puts it, “New York City’s housing crisis is fundamentally an issue of quantity, but also quality.”

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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