Earlier this week, giving her own version of a State of the City speech, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams was not wrong to promote the idea of new construction on the open “campuses” of the city’s 335 public-housing projects. She’s misguided, however, in suggesting that yet more subsidized housing should be built on this green space, which is so often host to crime and drugs.
The city may be in a perennial housing crisis, but it already has more public and subsidized “affordable” units than anywhere else in the United States—starting with nearly 1 million rent-regulated and 177,000 public-housing apartments. What the projects need, more than anything, is to be connected to the surrounding city with new streets, where both small, private homes and badly needed stores, especially supermarkets and pharmacies, are located.
As I proposed in 2019, the “towers-in-the-park” design of so much of the city’s public housing dates from a love affair with modernist architect and author Le Corbusier, who dreamed of a “city without streets,” where high-rise towers replaced the chaotic dynamism of vibrant urban spaces. Unfortunately, today’s public-housing tenants must live in the aging shells left to us by this long-ago-discredited idea.
Nevertheless, Speaker Adams’s idea of replacing the so-called parks of Le Corbusier’s vision—brought to life at the Queensbridge Houses, the city’s largest project, actually designed by one of his protégés—can lead in a constructive direction.
As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, public housing “must tie in with streets beyond the project borders, because the prime object is to knit this site with what lies around it. . . . The apartment buildings . . . can become street buildings, with their ground floors redesigned and incorporated into street-side uses. . . . The general aim should be to bring in uses different from residence, because lack of enough mixed uses is precisely one of the causes of deadness, danger and plain inconvenience.”
The architecture firm Curtis & Ginsberg has developed a plan to do just that, and former New York City Housing Authority executive director Greg Russ was actively considering it before he resigned this past January. The plan would cut through-streets across the projects and use the new lots created for small, multifamily buildings—privately owned and made affordable by virtue of being built on inexpensive, city-owned, preassembled lots.
The plan has a great many other virtues. It would subdivide the undefined public-housing campuses into de facto backyards for individual buildings—spaces that only tenants, using key fobs, could enter, thus deterring outsider criminal activity. Currently, visitors to the projects often find these open spaces littered with uncollected trash overflowing from dumpsters.
The architects’ plan projected that a significant amount of new housing could be sited: its analysis of one project (Pelham Parkway Houses) envisioned 270 new housing units that would include three- and four-story apartment buildings, two-family townhouses, eight-family walk-up buildings, and multi-unit elevator apartment buildings. The green space behind the new buildings would be fenced in for residents, as would the green space behind the existing public-housing buildings, now littered with trash.
The new corner lots that would be created would also be available for retail and service purposes. As a Manhattan Institute report found, the need for these is great: 180 of NYCHA’s properties are located in areas that the city classifies as “underserved” (i.e., having less than three square feet of supermarket floor space per capita), with some large NYCHA properties located more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket—in a system in which nearly half of tenants are elderly. The paucity of stores dates from a 1944 city decision to ban retail space in new public housing, which the city was then building at breakneck pace.
New supermarkets would serve those who now fear gangs when they roll their carts back to the projects—or who must rely on expensive delivery services, which may or may not be willing to venture there. Stores would also pay rent. The Housing Authority desperately needs such revenue as it faces a multibillion-dollar repair backlog.
Without a doubt, New York could use more housing. But public-housing tenants, languishing in buildings based on an outmoded architectural model, deserve to be connected to the larger city, not isolated on so-called campuses that could be mistaken for poverty reservations.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images