By Margaret Ramirez
Stepping out of the subway station at 149th Street and Third Avenue in the South Bronx, you hear the sounds of honking cars and noisy crowds pulsate through the hardscrabble streets like the borough’s heartbeat. But walking further, after passing a smoke-filled falafel truck, a pawnshop, and a weed-choked lot, you soon encounter a striking silver oasis of homes known as Via Verde, or the “Green Way.”
Via Verde, an award-winning affordable housing development with sustainable features, rises on 156th Street and Brook Avenue as a stylish 222-unit mixed-income residence that includes 151 rental units and 71 co-op apartments. When the rental units were offered to the public through a lottery, more than 7,000 people applied.
Since opening last year, Via Verde has attracted attention from architects around the world, who are impressed by the stunning design that combines affordability with energy efficiency and programs geared toward a healthy lifestyle. The $99 million development boasts 40,000 square feet of green roof space featuring a grove of evergreen trees, an apple orchard and a vegetable garden for residents. The innovative design came from Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects, which teamed with two developers, Phipps Houses Group and the Jonathan Rose Companies.
But beyond providing homes for working-class residents and reviving a blighted block in the South Bronx, Via Verde seeks to transform the architectural world’s vision and the public’s view of urban affordable housing.
In a message to New York City’s soon-to-be-elected new mayor, published on Oct. 16, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote that one of the lessons of Via Verde “is that a modest premium for green design and architectural excellence produces social and economic dividends.” Kimmelman added: “A new mayor could encourage more exceptional designs like Via Verde for at least a percentage of subsidized housing projects.”
The story of Via Verde is a testament to how small ideas can take root, inspire a dialogue, change opinions, then blossom into homes for more than 200 families. The project’s success stems largely from the dozens of architects, developers, urban planners, housing experts, community groups, banks and government agencies that came together to create Via Verde, and throughout the process, two CUNY professors also played a pivotal role.
City College architecture professor Lance Jay Brown, who served as adviser on the two design competitions that led to Via Verde, said that having CUNY involved in the project seemed natural.
“CUNY has the only public school of architecture in the city and this is a publicly minded project,” Brown said. “It’s a project that aims to respond to the needs of CUNY’s constituency, which is the emerging urbanite, the basic players on the stage of what this city is about. This is about providing housing accommodations for them, just as it has helped to provide housing on campus for its students.”
“It’s also helping, in a time when there is a paucity of affordable housing, to participate in showing the way,” Brown said. “It’s not just participating in the production. It’s celebrating the way.”
Setha Low, professor of environmental psychology and anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, served on the jury that selected the winning architect-developer team for Via Verde. As the only social scientist on the jury, Low raised key issues about the economic and social needs of low-income and working-class residents.
A new book, The Legacy Project, New Housing New York: Best Practices in Affordable, Sustainable, Replicable Housing Design, chronicles the development of Via Verde. The 256-page work, co-authored by Brown, includes a foreword by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an epilogue by Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was trained as an architect.
“Via Verde is a model for what affordable housing ought to be — a platform for opportunity, a source of stability, a building block with which we forge neighborhoods, put down roots, and build the communities that are the engines of our nation’s economic growth,” said Donovan, at the opening of Via Verde in June 2012. “Via Verde represents architects re-engaging in the design of affordable housing, the best practices for environmentally friendly design as well as the wider concept of sustainability through community meetings where stakeholder voices were heard and locally driven planning efforts were used as a model.”
Via Verde grew out of two international design competitions that sought to excite interest in the design of affordable housing. In the past decade, notable architecture firms have turned away from housing to design more lucrative projects like museums and cultural institutions. Even architectural school assignments for student projects on housing have diminished, according to Brown.
The American Institute of Architects sponsored the first contest in 2004 and asked Brown to serve as the competition adviser. Brown agreed and was instrumental in CUNY becoming a primary sponsor and providing the venue for submissions to be reviewed. More than 160 entries were displayed on easels and filled the Great Hall on the City College campus.
“This was an ideas competition. Nothing was to be built,” Brown said. “It was meant to increase awareness and nourish the field of housing that many people felt had been eclipsed by other things.”
Response to the first competition was so great that organizers decided to hold a second competition in 2006. But this time, the winning architect-developer team would design and build an apartment complex.
The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development said it would give the winning team the land, a 60,000-square-foot triangular brownfield site a block south of the South Bronx’s Third Avenue commercial corridor. The competition, known as New Housing New York Legacy Project, was New York City’s first juried design competition for affordable housing.
The competition sparked international interest and led to 32 architect-developer teams from the U.S., Europe and Asia submitting their qualifications. From that group, five finalists were selected to develop detailed proposals for the South Bronx.
Brown said there were four criteria used to select a winner: affordability, sustainability, aesthetics and replicability.
“Replicability was key,” Brown said. “Could somebody learn from this how to do more of it? The goal was not to make something that was a one-off, but something that had aspects to it that would encourage more production of equally affordable, sustainable, beautiful housing.”
Brown said one of the most attractive features of the winning design from Dattner-Grimshaw-Rose-Phipps was their urban vegetable garden.
“It was a dramatic presentation,” Brown said. “It was a proposal that had green terraces on which you can grow food and that was very impressive. No one else had an urban, agricultural strategy.”
Low said she was pleased to see the community spaces were well integrated into the winning design and that there was a diverse range of activity spaces for both young and old residents.
“Social aspects of affordable housing — what market-rate housing calls amenities — are equally important for all families struggling to survive in the city but especially important for low-income households that do not have the ability to purchase these extras, such as play areas and gardens, elsewhere,” Low said.
Throughout the Via Verde complex, sun-lit exterior stairways, gardens, a welcoming courtyard and fitness center are all meant to encourage physical activity. Montefiore Medical Center, which opened a health center this year in Via Verde’s retail space, is planning a diabetes prevention program in the building for adolescents and young adults.
Dalia Sanchez, 57, a retired social worker who previously lived in the Mott Haven city housing development, said her life has improved dramatically since moving to Via Verde. While living at Mott Haven for more than 27 years, she said the building was littered and unkempt, and her outdated apartment often needed maintenance. After a shooting in the building, Sanchez lived in constant fear.
She said when she received the letter saying she was eligible for a one-bedroom rental apartment at Via Verde, she burst into tears.
“I was so happy,” she said. “My life is different now. I live in a building that’s clean and quiet. If I complain about something they come right away.”
“And, I’m not scared anymore,” she said.
Via Verde property manager Max Ruperti said the key to the project’s continued success is developing programs that appeal to all residents, regardless of income level. He pointed to the gardening club as a popular activity that united tenants, from upper income co-op owners to working-class rental residents. The club, led by the nonprofit organization GrowNYC, tutors residents on gardening and offers healthy eating classes and cooking demonstrations.
“The idea is to get people excited,” Ruperti said. “The pollution is such a problem here in the Bronx, so we wanted them to gain knowledge and have that magic moment of seeing something grow.”
Other activities at Via Verde included outdoor movie nights in the courtyard, wine and cheese tastings on the roof and an annual Christmas tree lighting where residents are encouraged to bring their own ornaments.
“The old models of affordable housing failed mainly because they segregated people according to income,” Ruperti said. “Here at Via Verde, this is the future of affordable housing.”
To determine the health impact of Via Verde’s unique design, researchers from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, together with other partners including Columbia University, are conducting a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the MacArthur Foundation to determine whether such innovative buildings produce measurable gains for tenants when compared to other types of affordable housing. Some research has already shown that moving to affordable housing can reduce asthma symptoms, lowering anxiety and depression with the increase financial security.
The rise of Via Verde comes as New York continues to face a shortage of low- and moderate-income housing. The project was developed as part of Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan to finance 165,000 units of affordable housing for half a million New Yorkers by 2014.
But the question remains whether future developments will be as successful as Via Verde. Ruperti said affordable-housing developers should look to Via Verde as a model for inspiration and ideas
Brown said the main reason for publishing the book was for other cities and developers to use the story as a primer on what needs to be done to make this happen.
He also hopes to use the book in the classroom to teach and inspire the next generation of architecture students to pursue projects in affordable housing.
“All this feeds back into what I do when I’m in the studio, and when I’m teaching. I can bring that knowledge and information back to the campus. And that’s important to me,” he said.