Atlantic Cities

Transforming Public Housing, Minus the Wrecking Ball

From Baltimore to Los Angeles, Chicago to New Orleans, public housing authorities have demolished low-income housing projects and replaced them with privately built mixed-income developments, often based on New Urbanism’s principles of low-rise, high density neighborhoods arranged along traditional streets and parks.

The thinking is this: economically segregated housing built on architecturally modernist superblocks doesn’t work, so it’s better to start from scratch. Give tenants rent vouchers to move to private market off-site locations, demolish the projects and erect new buildings where some project tenants can return to live among middle-class neighbors.

In New York City, the potential for an alternative model for redeveloping public housing has only fairly recently emerged. In the face of cuts in federal support for operations, the New York City Housing Authority announced plans to lease 14 sites within eight Manhattan projects for the development of privately built mixed-income housing. The sites, currently parking lots and playgrounds, are usually at the projects’ edges and face streets and avenues, leaving the majority of open spaces in the middle of the projects undisturbed.

Approximately 4,300 apartments will be constructed, 80 percent as market-rate units and 20 percent of them reserved as "low-income affordable" housing (in New York City, open to four-person households with annual incomes slightly above $51,000, more than twice the NYCHA average of  $23,000). The idea is that such development would generate revenue that will help address NYCHA’s annual $57 to $67 million operating deficit as well as years of backlogged building repairs.


Perspective shows new buildings in blue inserted among existing Lower East Side public housing projects. With up to 22 million square feet of development potential in the area, there is room for a rich mixture of uses, included college campuses and reserarch centers. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

In a city of giant development deals, NYCHA’s plans for just a few of its properties are relatively modest. On the other hand, their implications are profound. If NYCHA were to execute a comprehensive plan for all of its 343 projects, an arc of new neighborhoods covering 2,500 acres could be built across New York. It’s a chance to go beyond developing the occasional parking lot by re-imagining projects and aligning them with New York’s 21st-century future in technology, the arts, research, health care and higher education – not just for the benefit of NYCHA’s bottom line but for the city as a whole.

Recently groups of architects, urban planners and landscape architects enrolled in my studios at the University of Michigan Master of Urban Design Program focused in on this re-imagining New York City’s public housing. Held before NYCHA’s plans were announced, I organized the studios to 1) address through design and programming the near-universal criticism of public housing’s superblock planning and segregation of low-income people; 2) leverage the projects’ development potential toward the benefit of their residents and surrounding communities; 3) identify development opportunities to help address NYCHA’s well-known annual deficit. 


Figure ground of Astoria housing projects illustrates potential development sites (red) that define new streets as well as courtyards that preserve open space. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

The students looked at two different neighborhoods with large concentrations of NYCHA projects – the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Astoria in Queens. Their discovery: the projects offer room not only for new, revenue-producing housing but whole neighborhoods featuring schools, work places, retail space, recreation facilities and cultural venues. And because so many project superblocks leave 80 percent and more of their land open, such development can occur without demolition and displacement, preserving the projects as one of New York’s most important sources of low-income housing. (Public housing currently serves more than 400,000 New Yorkers. That’s a population larger than Cleveland as a whole.)

Here are some recommendations Michigan MUD studios make for re-imagining New York City's housing projects:

  • Identify and capitalize on community economic and demographic trends (e.g., in the Lower East Side the growth of nearby New York University and in Astoria the emergence of arts and technology-related businesses both in the neighborhood and nearby Long Island City).
  • Mix training and workplaces in new buildings so that project and neighborhood residents can enjoy pathways to economic development.
  • Include primary, secondary and post-secondary schools to help prepare young people for the future.
  • Open up project superblocks with new streets and public spaces that make new services and amenities visible and accessible to people inside and outside the projects.
  • Incentivize services and amenities by allowing developers to build taller and more profitably if they include them, just as zoning does elsewhere in the city in support of public benefits.

To address NYCHA tenants’ likely concerns about development, the studios recommend making them part of the "deal" by assuring them the continuance of low-income housing through new subsidies brought by development, giving them priority for new and/or improved apartments, or offering them equity stakes in new development.

They also propose that tenants be engaged in shaping project plans, not just for their input but to make the process a community-capacity building tool, especially for young people who can be introduced to the fields of architecture, urban planning, engineering, construction and real estate development (perhaps for school and college credit). Here’s a way to help grow the city’s next generation of thinkers and builders that should inspire parents in the projects to support the plans.

If coordinated across NYCHA projects, similar plans could create new neighborhoods extending from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Sound View in the Bronx, intersecting with the ongoing redevelopment of areas such as downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Harlem as well as with new parks, ferry systems and climate-change projects along the waterfronts to help define 21st-century New York. (Citywide coordination of NYCHA properties also opens options for transferring "air rights" between sites to keep development scale appropriate for different projects and their surrounding neighborhoods.)


View of proposed new housing and work places along streets, bikeways and soil channels inserted between NYCHA buildings in Astoria. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

And with such plans, New York’s public housing will be treated differently from the way it has been in the rest of the country.  It will be identified as an asset worthy of investment and revitalization rather than a problem to be demolished, as is appropriate for the city that built the nation’s first public housing in 1935.

 Master of Urban Design students engaged in the projects described above included Komal Anand, Daren Crabill, Emek Erdolu, Yingying Guan, Aditya Inamdar, Seun-Hyun Kim, Rachan Ky, Jun-Yi Lin, Obiamaka Ofodile, Kwanseok Oh, Danna Reyes, Amal Shaaban and Xuan Zheng.

Roy Strickland, a native New Yorker, is a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan where he served from 2001 to 2011 as the founding director of the Master of Urban Design Program. All posts »

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