Bronx Park East opened last year opposite the New York Botanical Garden. It consists of a five-story brick pavilion with triple-height windows facing the street, and a seven-story wing for 68 small studio apartments. “A good neighbor,” is how its designer, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, described the building’s look.
Serious architecture is another way to describe Bronx Park East. It is a single-room occupancy residence, an S.R.O., built to house tenants who had been homeless. Sunny, with modest kitchens and full bathrooms, its apartments are smaller (around 285 square feet) than otherwise legally permitted for studios in New York because different rules apply to housing for social service clients. The building has a handsomely proportioned facade, spacious public rooms and light-filled hallways, none of it standard for an S.R.O.
The other morning a few residents were out on the sidewalk taking in the sun, chatting with people from next door. “Isn’t the idea here to improve mental health?” Mr. Kirschenfeld said. “Isn’t good architecture part of that?”
It is, and Bronx Park East, like other S.R.O.’s Mr. Kirschenfeld has designed in the city, lends dignity to what at least used to be a byword for urban pariah and a building type that often resembled a prison.
But the project is exemplary for another reason, too.
Most new homes in the city today are still designed for nuclear families. According to the nonprofit Citizens Housing & Planning Council, two parents raising young children occupy only 17 percent of New York dwellings; another 9 percent house single parents with children under 25. The city meanwhile has a growing population of singles — students, young professionals, immigrants, empty-nesters and the elderly — who can’t afford market-rate rentals. (That’s not to mention a report last week from the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that has frequently clashed with the Bloomberg administration , which put the city’s homeless population at 41,204, up from 31,000 a decade ago.)
Households have evolved. But New York’s housing stock hasn’t. In essence, New Yorkers have increasingly had to adapt to the housing we’ve got, instead of designing and building the housing that suits who we have become.
The problem? Partly, a collection of sometimes conflicting city and state laws that do things like dictate minimum room sizes, prohibit the construction of apartments without kitchens or bathrooms, and outlaw more than three or four unrelated people sharing an apartment. Other rules compel developers in many parts of town to construct a parking space for each new unit they build, a disincentive for designing many smaller, inexpensive apartments as opposed to just a few big ones, never mind what the rules imply for the environment.
Of course safety and fire concerns account for many codes. But together these good laws and outmoded ones have forced much of the city’s housing population underground, into illegal shares and jerry-built apartments.
As David Burney, the city’s commissioner for the Department of Design and Construction, put it the other day, “The regulatory environment has fallen behind” the times. So had a conspicuous part of the architecture world, which, until lately at least, focused on glamour projects rather than on how most people live.
In the past New York has adapted to changing household patterns. For example, grand Upper West Side apartments from a century ago were chopped up to provide more units for smaller families that no longer employed live-in servants . The question now is can the city become nimble again? Boston has zoned for micro-units to accommodate the young population and others struggling with market rates, on whom civic competitiveness and social equity ultimately depend. Can New York also meet the social and economic needs of the 21st century?
The Citizens Housing & Planning Council organized a conference the other day, in collaboration with the Architectural League, that tackled these questions. A clutch of city commissioners joined architects, among them Peter L. Gluck, Ted Smith, Deborah Gans, Rafi Segal and Mr. Kirschenfeld, who proposed new housing models. Their brief was to ignore existing codes and regulations that got in the way of innovative design but to stay real: to focus on what could actually happen in terms of safe, economical construction given a few tweaks to existing laws and putting aside intractable obstacles like rent control and rent stabilization.
As Fred A. Bernstein reported on the conclave in The New York Times on Sunday, not everyone was excited by the plans, including Robert D. LiMandri, commissioner of the Buildings Department, who said he kept worrying, “How is the fireman going to get in there?” Mr. Smith, a veteran of communal housing in San Diego, warned that communal kitchens cause internecine warfare and cool-looking convertible furniture, of the sort that a few speakers touted, tends to be expensive.
The larger truth is that wholesale change of the housing stock also can’t happen without more efficient federal subsidies and reform of the mortgage system. But the exercise was instructive anyway. A better, more equitable city, with more smaller, smartly designed, adaptable apartments and houses, is within reach.
I was struck by a few proposals, including one from Mr. Gluck and his young team of collaborators. They envisioned a five-story walkup on a town-house-size New York lot. The building would accommodate 20 micro-lofts, as the team termed them, some 150 square feet each. With mini-kitchens, 14-foot ceilings and public spaces for residents to socialize and work together on each floor, the plan trades basics like an elevator for private space and lower building costs, as it also trades views for privacy: it imagines large windows, but extra close to the blank wall of the building next to it (another legal no-no). By doubling the number of apartments from the 10 or so that present zoning laws allow, the project could be economical for developers to build, Mr. Gluck argued, and rents could be low.
Mr. Segal, working with the architect Stan Allen, both from Brooklyn, explored the conversion of increasingly obsolete 1960s Midtown office towers into residences, and they imagined kibbutzlike communes atop low-rise, underdeveloped commercial buildings in neighborhoods like Inwood. More practically, Ms. Gans retrofitted Tudor Revival cottages in immigrant-rich areas like Astoria, Queens, so they could house an evolving assortment of singles and families who might want to live together. Her plan, with buildings cleverly massed and fitted into the existing fabric of the neighborhood, conceived of up to seven apartment “pods” (“barnacles” became another operative metaphor) clinging to a 4,000-square-foot house.
But it was the proposal by Mr. Kirschenfeld and his collaborators that seemed most realistic. If the city simply applied existing laws to market housing for supportive projects like Bronx Park East, he said, it would in principle be possible tomorrow to create new high-density, low-rent apartment buildings.
He focused on revamping the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. “The Concourse is one of the largest and longest rooms in the city,” he said, “and it can become an urban incubator for the city’s young work force again.” He imagined greening that once-vibrant boulevard in conjunction with building housing that mixes tiny apartments for singles and larger ones that can be shared and swapped by a shifting roster of families and unrelated groups, a kind of “S.R.O. redux,” as he put it. Including the Concourse, the plan broke down the wall between inside and outside, public and private, in ways that seemed well attuned to modern city life.
Back at Bronx Park East, the benefits of good, economical design were obvious. “At the beginning there was opposition,” Raymond Berisha, the building’s 50-year-old superintendent, told me. I found him straightening up the terrace. He lived around the corner, he said. “Like everybody in the neighborhood, I was surprised by how well this fits in, to be honest, but you know New York.”
It’s a leap from an S.R.O. to inexpensive studio apartments and commune-style Tudor homes for young professionals and multigenerational families.
But the point is that we aren’t stuck with the housing models we’ve already got.
And that we are what we build.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 16, 2011
Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly identified the neighborhood of Bronx Park East as Bedford Park.