New York building for formerly homeless is contextual but challenges conventions

From NYTimes writer Michael Kimmelman: "Bronx Park East opened last year opposite the New York Botanical Garden.  It consists of a five-story brick pavilion with triple-height windows facing the street, and a seven-story wing for 68 small studio apartments.  'A good neighbor,' is how its designer, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, described the building’s look.  Serious architecture is another way to describe Bronx Park East. "It is a single-room occupancy residence, an S.R.O., built to house tenants who had been homeless.  Sunny, with modest kitchens and full bathrooms, its apartments are smaller (around 285 square feet) than otherwise legally permitted for studios in New York because different rules apply to housing for social service clients.  'Isn’t the idea here to improve mental health?' Mr. Kirschenfeld said. 'Isn’t good architecture part of that?'

But the project is exemplary for another reason, too.  Households have evolved.  But New York’s housing stock hasn’t.  The problem? Partly, a collection of sometimes conflicting city and state laws that do things like dictate minimum room sizes and outlaw more than three or four unrelated people sharing an apartment. Other rules compel developers in many parts of town to construct a parking space for each new unit they build, a disincentive for designing smaller, inexpensive apartments.

"As David Burney, the city’s commissioner for the Department of Design and Construction, put it the other day, 'The regulatory environment has fallen behind' the times.  So had a conspicuous part of the architecture world, which, until lately at least, focused on glamour projects rather than on how most people live.  In the past New York has adapted to changing household patterns. For example, grand Upper West Side apartments from a century ago were chopped up to provide more units for smaller families.

The question now is can the city become nimble again?  The Citizens Housing & Planning Council organized a conference the other day, in collaboration with the Architectural League, that tackled these questions.  Their brief was to ignore existing codes and regulations that got in the way of innovative design but to stay real: to focus on what could actually happen in terms of safe, economical construction given a few tweaks to existing laws.

"As Fred A. Bernstein reported on the conclave in The New York Times on Sunday, not everyone was excited by the plans.  But the exercise was instructive anyway. A better, more equitable city, with more smaller, smartly designed, adaptable apartments and houses, is within reach."  Full article here.  (Photo credit: Rodrigo Pereda.)