On the Lower East Side, Bloomberg also closed the deal on Essex Crossing, an immense mixed-use complex, also by SHoP, that will finally fill the gash that for nearly half a century has been euphemistically called the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. The Times recently chronicled the decades of political maneuvering that keep that area vacant, and it’s a complicated story involving prejudice, power plays, and favoritism. But one reason every SPURA plan sputtered was that, in an area encircled by public projects, politicians uttered the phrase “affordable housing” and neighbors heard it as code for “slum.” The new project may prove desirable enough to create an equation with exactly opposite implications: Affordable housing = gentrification.
A third legacy megaproject, the second phase of Hunters Point South, went to the Office for Design and Architecture, headed by Eran Chen. The newish firm is quietly seeding New York with distinctive buildings, large and small, including the Breadbox Café in Long Island City, where an old brick service station has been enclosed by a screen made of thousands of rolling pins. At Hunters Point, instead of taking the default option of plunking a matched set of towers on a 12-story base, Chen divided the lot into segments, each 25 feet wide like a standard brownstone, but of very different heights. Imagine carving a skyline out of a loaf of sliced bread: At each end of the site, he bundled the segments into stepped towers and scooped out the space between them to create a row of townhouses and a terraced landscape of planted roofs. A rolling courtyard climbs over a shed that keeps the complex’s vital systems elevated above the flood zone. Chen is exactly the kind of architect de Blasio should recruit: earnest, hungry, and talented, with a taste for detail and the chops to work on a large scale.
New York is running out of such expansive tracts of terrain; most affordable housing will have to slot into small and awkward lots, if they can be bought at all. But the city already owns 2,600 acres of open space—the equivalent of three Central Parks—distributed among 343 NYCHA projects. De Blasio has promised a “total reset” of public housing, which makes this a great time to come up with a creative plan to preserve the gardens, lawns, and playgrounds and build on the parking lots and asphalt expanses. The agency proposed raising money by turning slivers of turf over to developers for a few high-end towers, a plan that effectively died last year. Instead, it could treat that land all over the city as a place to grow mixed communities in green and splendid buildings—as the birthplace of a new Vienna.