Friday, August 13, 2010

☞ REVIVE: Retrofitting Urban Renewal Blocks

The top image is what a new neighborhood would look like if the city started to fill-in the open land around the superblocks that took over many New York communities during the Urban Renewal years. Some have been wondering why the city has not started retrofitting the massive "towers in the park" that have destroyed the culture of so many neighborhoods. Well, it's actually been happening on a large scale in Manhattan but for some reason, many have not pointed out the obvious.

The above sketch is that of the Columbus Square (originally Columbus Village) development in the neighborhood just diagonally adjacent to South Harlem. We were doing a story on the new Whole Foods that opened up at 97th Street and took the following photos when walking around the housing projects nearby in early spring. This area of the Manhattan Valley from 97th Street to 110th Street has about 30 percent of its land taken over by moderate and low-income towers (click on map to enlarge). Currently, the 4 city blocks towards 97th street has now been developed into Columbus Square with major retail at street level alongside individual towers that are spread out and apart (the third photo down shows a new building next to the old).

The overall result looks like a brand new neighborhood, adds more housing in the area and restores the foot traffic with the (low-level) commercial spaces fronting the avenue. Another point to note is that the buildings have the step-back design after 4-stories and that the new towers still give a sense of open space. Read more about this development in the The Real Deal article from 2008: LINK. We will feature a story on a small scale street retrofitting plan in Central Harlem next week. See our past post on the Radiant City and Urban Renewal in the city: LINK. All photos by Ulysses


  1. I think Columbus Square / Village is a great model. Literally any change of scale will inspire some griping (or worse) in this city, but from what I've heard, many of the existing area residents appreciate the new stores and services that have moved in as the development has been completed.

    More projects of this type seem a no brainer -- a nearly unmitigated win-win-win for cash-strapped city agencies, for private developers, and for existing residents. I think the only reason we're not seeing more of this already is the current condition of the economy and capital markets -- but the application of this model on an even larger scale appears inevitable.

  2. When was this retrofit done on the UWS? The economy and capital markets were as strong as ever prior to 2008, yet there was no movement (to my knowledge) on doing this in other neighborhoods. Perhaps there is a neighborhood demand element to moving such a proposal forward, or there could be other political considerations that I'm not familiar with. However, I don't think the economic downturn is the primary roadblock.

  3. After a subsequent review, it's clear to me that the POLITICAL considerations here are a significant impediment. Congressman Rangel, the borough president, and various state congressmen and city councilmen sued to block this development. They were not successful in this case, but I imagine things could be different in Harlem, where the concentration of projects (and therefore the number of affected residents) is exponentially greater. If that isn't a clear indiator of the political roadblocks to a more widespread implementation of the higher-income infill strategy, I don't know what is.

    The financial and economic side of this will take care of itself. We are Harlemites need to be concerned with and act on the political angles to ensure this strategy takes hold locally.

  4. Harlemfanatic: Thanks for checking out some of the history. I agree that the political obstacles are significant, but based on what you've found I think I'd actually draw the opposite conclusion.

    Columbus Square / Village represents a significant precedent -- one that is no less applicable in Harlem. NYCHA entered into an agreement with developers, and, as you've pointed out, the political hacks were unable to stop them in the courts.

    To the extent we're talking about NYCHA-owned land in Harlem, it's exactly the same scenario. It is up to NYCHA (and, as a practical matter, the mayor's office) whether they enter into development agreements of this sort.

    Once NYCHA gets the ball rolling, the political forces you've listed will be no more empowered to stop a large-scale infill / retrofit process in Harlem than they were in Manhattan Valley with Columbus Village. As a legal matter, it would be no different.

    I will venture a guess that the Bloomberg administration and John Rhea already have a set of plans along these lines sitting on the shelf, ready to go. I actually think that the current political circumstances (with MB in his last term and city agencies facing a serious budget crisis) actually lend themselves more to this possibility than we have ever seen before, or are likely to see again for some time.

    If I'm right about this, what's the one thing that might prevent them from taking those plans down off the shelf? A lack of developers willing or able to go in on such a huge undertaking could certainly do it. It's not the kind of thing the Bloomberg administration would risk rolling out without having all of their ducks in a row -- they would only get one shot at it. And the current condition of the capital markets could represent a significant -- and possibly insurmountable -- obstacle to making this happen, at least for now.

    In sum, I think the political challenges you describe did in fact serve as an effective roadblock to rolling this out in Harlem -- that is, prior to the financial meltdown. Today, I think there is very little that could stop the Bloomberg administration from giving the Columbus Square treatment to every parcel of NYCHA-owned land in Manhattan -- except, of course, a lack of private financing for a venture of this scale.

    I hope they find a way to make it happen, as I'm not sure we'll ever see a better opportunity.