Gentrifying the Air

The athletic field at the Alfred E. Smith houses on the Lower East Side. Photo: Marcus Yam/The New York Times/Redux

A century ago, the urban poor were jammed in stumpy tenements lining streets that were perpetually thronged. They could barely breathe or move. Then the government stepped in and rehoused the needy in high-rises spaced like candles on a cake, separated by plenty of vacant land. To planners, those open areas were health-giving expanses of greenery, bringing nature and architecture into harmony, and supplying residents with fresh air and dignity. Instead, they often became crime incubators and drug bazaars, where broken streetlights cast pools of menacing darkness.

Yet there’s money in those lots, and the New York City Housing Authority is starting to see those spaces as fallow real estate that could be put to work. In a smart scheme that could still go wildly wrong, nycha has picked eight housing projects, five downtown and three in upper Manhattan, where open areas could be leased to developers. These are not the first incursions into the open space on public-housing campuses, which have already absorbed new community centers and affordable apartments. This time, though, the goal is capitalistic: Under the new plan, market-rate towers would rise among the public high-rises, priming the cash flow of a desperately underfunded agency with an estimated $30 million to $50 million per year.

Welcome to government by lemonade stand. All over the country, cities have been holding fire sales of their assets, privatizing garbage collection, water mains, and parking. In New York, branch libraries are being sold off as teardowns, and sections of Flushing Meadows Corona Park could get carved up for tennis courts, a soccer stadium, and a shopping mall. By those standards, nycha’s plans are modest: They’re mostly just renting out the sky over parking lots.

This is not your average real-estate deal, nor is it just a myopic, one-off privatization scheme. It’s a way for a troubled public agency to live up to the moral imperative laid down decades ago—one that housing agencies elsewhere abandoned when they blew up projects, or allowed them to devolve into lawless wilderness. Vast areas of New York were shaped by the urge to shelter the poor, and although it was often done with arrogance and brutality, the current generation has a chance to correct some of those mistakes. The proposal is based on three immovable facts: Decent public housing depends on constant upkeep; there’s no money to pay for that maintenance; and neither federal nor state nor city government is likely to come up with any new funds. According to the historian Nicholas Bloom, the author of Public Housing That Worked, rigorous maintenance has made New York public housing an anomalous success. While officials in Chicago and St. Louis threw up their arms and tore down their towers, their counterparts in New York insisted on gathering the trash that rained from windows, fixing elevators, and mopping up urine on the stairs. The result is a workable if imperfect system that, owing to tightening budgets, is now in danger of falling apart. (Meanwhile, a new exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum flaunts the fact that Vienna has left such petty troubles far behind: It has a building program so long-standing, aggressive, and architecturally diverse that nearly 60 percent of the population lives in some form of subsidized housing, yet the city still exudes economic vigor.)

Even without a financial emergency, there is plenty to like about alleviating some original sins of planning with infill—an unfortunately dental-sounding term for dealing with cavities in the city grid. In 2009, students at the University of Michigan Urban Design Program detailed ways to thread new streets through Lower East Side projects and add apartment towers, office buildings, and libraries. The idea was to knit isolated superblocks into their rapidly evolving neighborhoods, bringing residents the benefits of gentrification without its dislocations. Manhattan projects are islands of affordability surrounded by deluxe real estate. Done right, the latest plan could bring people of vastly different incomes together on the same block, without displacing anyone.

Something in a New Yorker’s soul rebels against the idea of building on precious parcels of greenery. But housing projects have more open space than its residents know what to do with. About 80 percent of the land on some campuses remains unbuilt, and it comes in a variety of forms: fenced-off and inaccessible bits of lawn, bald patches shaded by plane trees, asphalt walkways wide enough for trucks, paved plazas with stone picnic tables, basketball courts, playgrounds, compactor lots, and parking spaces.

The plan has stirred up a host of worries, many justified, a few verging on the paranoid, and most prompted by the mix of urgency and vagueness with which nycha has approached its constituents. “They’re having all these meetings, and they’re rushing us,” Jane Wisdom, president of the tenant association at the Upper West Side’s Douglass Houses, complains. nycha is not especially sympathetic. “We’ve been working on this for three years. It may feel rushed to people who have just now begun to focus on it,” snaps the agency’s chairman, John Rhea.

The tenants’ long list of concerns boils down to this: They don’t want to feel like second-class citizens in their own projects. They worry that this is a step toward selling off public-housing stock completely and throwing residents to the mercy of rapacious developers. The agency has been making reassuring noises, promising that all new buildings will include at least 20 percent affordable housing, and hinted that it would favor developers who can figure out how to raise that number without—and here’s the catch—eroding profitability. nycha has also vowed not to tear down any apartment buildings or displace any residents—who will get preference for the new buildings. (Less wisely, it plans to replace all subsidized parking spots.)

Still, the debate is shrouded in rancor. “You can’t have a discussion on the merits of the proposal, because tenants simply don’t believe what nycha is saying,” says Nick Prigo, the co-chair of the housing committee at Community Board 7, whose district contains the Douglass Houses.

The agency has a good strategy, but it still has to prove that it knows how to prevent private development from aggravating the troubles of public housing. You can’t guarantee sensitivity, but you can insist on a solution more integrated, inspiring, and humane than merely squeezing the biggest possible buildings into the available lots. How new structures interweave with the old, how different populations coexist, how people move between the streets and the inner greens—all these are complex urban problems that capable architects can tackle creatively, given the leeway and the time. The best way to maximize the chances of screwing up is to be hasty, blinkered, and greedy.

Gentrifying the Air