Architects Wanted: Design These Odd Lots

Architects Wanted: Design These Odd Lots

New York City is holding a competition to create affordable housing on some of its most difficult properties.

A narrow vacant lot on West 136th Street in Harlem, where feral cats have taken up residence.CreditCreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

The city owns some of the narrowest, most unusual lots in New York.

Some of the land has been vacant for decades, even as affordable housing options have dwindled and luxury apartments have risen nearby, for at least one good reason: Nobody has wanted to build there.

Whether it is the result of development leftovers or zoning quirks, building code challenges have often made these lots undesirable to private investors.

Now the city is turning to architects, not developers, for help: On Monday, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will announce a design competition for ideas on how to create affordable housing on 23 of these small, irregular lots.

The department hopes the winning entries will help solve design problems at other lots where site challenges have curtailed building. But the question of just how affordable these homes will be when they are finished has some residents wary.

The program, called Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC, will partner with the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects to select designs for lots as narrow as 13 feet wide, with areas as small as 1,008 square feet. The tiniest sites the city typically deals with are 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, or 2,500 square feet — the size of many townhouse lots. The properties, mostly wedged between residential buildings, are in all five boroughs.

Entrants will be judged by a panel of nine jurors, including architects, urban planners and private developers. Submissions are due Mar. 24, and finalists will be selected in May. A second phase, in which contestants will propose budgeting and site plans, is slated for late 2019.

“We have to have a strategy for every single lot, because the housing crisis is quite dire,” said Maria Torres-Springer, the department’s commissioner.

The city became the owner of thousands of properties beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, many in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where properties were seized from delinquent landlords and urban blight was rampant. The department still owns about 885 lots, more than half in some stage of planning or development, Ms. Torres-Springer said.

Overall, city agencies own more than 1,015 acres of vacant land in the five boroughs, according to Living Lots NYC, a data tool created by the nonprofit organization 596 Acres.

While the competition is relatively small scale, the department hopes it will have an outsize effect on neighborhoods.

“It’s really important to have continuity on the block,” said Hayes Slade, a partner at Slade Architecture and the president of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter, who is one of the jurors. A vacant lot in the middle of the block is “like missing teeth,” she said, and the competition aims to fill those gaps.

Entrants will be asked to focus on a property on West 136th Street in Harlem, a 17-foot-wide, 1,665-square-foot mid-block lot that is overgrown with weeds and home to a number of feral cats. It was chosen because many of its challenges, including narrow frontage and limited sunlight, are present at other lots on the list, according to a spokesman for the project.

The department may consider co-living or micro-unit arrangements, but it is mostly anticipating plans for two- or three-family homes for buyers selected through the affordable housing lottery, although income limits have not been established yet. Below-market-rate rentals are also being considered.

Some in the community are apprehensive, as they have seen city-subsidized developments, on larger lots, that they believe neglected the needs of longtime residents, said Paula Z. Segal, a senior staff attorney for the Community Development Project's Equitable Neighborhoods practice.

About 10 blocks away from the small lot in Harlem, an almost 8,500-square-foot property recently used as a community garden is expected to become a 36-unit, below-market-rate apartment building, with a restaurant and “tech incubator” space.

Units will be reserved for tenants making 30 to 90 percent of the median area income; for a family of three, that ranges from $28,170 to $84,510 a year. But that is a poor match for local tenants, Ms. Segal said. The median household income in this part of Harlem is about $38,000, according to census analysis by the data site Social Explorer.

On a recent morning, the feral cats on the West 136th Street lot were nowhere to be seen, but next door, in a handsome townhouse, construction workers were busy on a major renovation.

Andréa Duncan-Mao, a homeowner who has lived on the block since 2002, before a wave of luxury apartments arrived, said below-market-rate housing would be welcome in the neighborhood, with caveats.

“I just wonder what H.P.D. means by ‘affordable,’” she said. “It’s becoming a very high-rent block.”

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Stefanos Chen is a real estate reporter, based in New York. He joined The Times in 2017 after five years with The Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter and multimedia producer. @stefanoschen

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Architects Wanted: Make Sense of These Odd Spaces. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Mon, 04 Feb 2019 17:35:53 +0000