New York City's public design commission (PDC) reviews the design of "anything that is visible," explained Justin Moore, the commission's executive director. "Sewers, we don't look at."
On top of the city's parks and public buildings, the commission is finally taking on affordable housing. In May, the PDC released Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing, a guide for developers, designers, and community members that lays out the commission's ideas. There are eight design categories, ranging from site considerations to material selection, and seven examples of projects that the PDC considers well-designed and within budget. To create the guide, the PDC worked directly with architecture and design firms, builders, and affordable housing groups.
Affordable housing used to be out of the PDC's jurisdiction, as land for such projects that wasn't developed by the New York City Housing Authority was typically sold to developers. Once it passed out of city hands, the PDC no longer had design review. And the PDC has no jurisdiction over state and federal authorities like the NYCHA.
But there are an increasing number of city properties that the city is holding and giving to developers through ground leases. This, in turn, gives the PDC a say, and the aesthetic dimension of the PDC's purview goes into broader notions of design: site planning, the project's durability, how well the building relates to the broader context of the surrounding neighborhood.
The guide suggests selecting materials that complement surrounding structures; considering how the placement of windows and doors can foster engagement with the neighborhood outside; designing both active recreation spaces for children and more passive spaces for seniors. At Arbor House in the Bronx, one of the featured projects, there is a large fitness center with no fee for residents, and a rooftop greenhouse. In a Prospect Gardens project, glass-enclosed staircases provide light and a visual connection with the neighborhood.
According to Rebecca Macklis, the design and special projects manager at the PDC, the guide was a way of saying "Look what's out there—affordable housing is not just Pruitt-Igoe."
Often, "when people walking through New York think of affordable housing, they think of high-rise brick buildings with a lawn and fence you can't pass through," Macklis said. "New York City hadn't been looking at housing as community infrastructure, and because of that it hadn't been as holistically tackled." However, she added, "there are incredible projects going on now right under our noses."
When the PDC started developing the guide, it looked at projects across the country and around the world. The most important thing, Moore said, was figuring out how "to achieve great quality while keeping cost low—because, frankly, that's how we get affordable housing built."
"Our guidelines are all taking from that," Macklis said. "Putting in building screening inspired from an artist collaboration [with the local community] maybe [requires] more time and thought, but not more money."
One of the projects not included in the guide that has gone forward under the new PDC initiative is The Peninsula, an affordable housing project in the South Bronx's Hunts Point neighborhood. When Claire Weisz, studio principal at WXY and Victor Body-Lawson, principal at Body Lawson Associates, began to design The Peninsula, they wanted to create a public space that seemed permeable: Spaces that the community could be a part of but that were also secure. "We planned the buildings around a plaza with windows that look into [it]," Lawson said, "so that parents could look at the children as they were playing and feel like the community was a village."
"What's critical is making new spaces in cities—especially if they're public land—part of the pattern of living and working and using and enjoying the city," Weisz said. "If you make a perfectly wonderful area for residents only, you aren't connecting them to the community. A community more connected is more resilient."
It was also important to the designers to integrate industrial space with affordable housing. "Generally," Weisz said, "people look at it as you have to choose one or the other. But without giving entrepreneurial opportunities close to where people live it's very challenging, particularly for women and families, to create more opportunities for themselves if those opportunities are at the end of a very long commute. An urban design that brings in child care, health, light industrial, education, a bank, a grocery store, is the way of the future." As a result, Hunts Point is set to create 300 permanent jobs and 15,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
Moore said the PDC's guide is intended for all parties involved in the housing design process: showing developers, community groups, and community boards the scope of what is possible. Should a developer claim that a proposed project is of lower quality because it's funded by a lower income tax and has a high cost of construction, he said, a community group could point to a specific example in the guide with the same parameters and a more desirable outcome.
Macklis emphasized that the guidelines are neither rules nor regulations. "It's not '1+2 must be done to get 3' and get approval," she said. "We really wrote these as considerations to really expose people—the communities who are going to have this and the developers and architects—to the breadth of things out there that have been successful."
Most people, Moore said, think of housing, "as where you live, your apartment. But housing, for most cities, [is] the dominant built fabric of a city. It's the foundation of these communities." As a result, he said, "the building of a site connects to the public realm—the shared experience of being in a neighborhood or city."