Via Verde — a New Model for Affordable Housing

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 oasis of homes known as Via Verde, or the “Green Way.”

Lance Jay Brown, professor at Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College

Lance Jay Brown, professor at Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College

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.

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.

Lance Jay Brown, professor in the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York, served as adviser on the two design competitions that led to Via Verde.

“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.”

“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. Low raised key issues about the economic and social needs of low-income 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 forward by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an epilogue by Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was trained as an architect.

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.

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. Four criteria were used to select a winner: affordability, sustainability, aesthetics and replicability.

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 inspire 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.