New York Reimagined Subsidized Housing. What Happened?
Via Verde aspired to serve as a model of beautiful, sustainable subsidized housing. A decade later, our critic finds that a building can change minds, but maybe not systems.
You have been granted access, use your keyboard to continue reading.New York Reimagined Subsidized Housing. What Happened?Via Verde aspired to serve as a model of beautiful, sustainable subsidized housing. A decade letter, our critic finds that a building can change minds, but maybe not systems.Akilah Browne and her son walk with their neighbor Eduardo González. They were early buyers of Via Verde’s co-op apartments.Credit...Daniel Arnold for The New York TimesFeb. 7, 2024, 5:01 a.m. ETHeadway Explore the world’s biggest challenges through the lens of progress. We'll send you the next Headway story as soon as it is published. This story is from Headway, an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. Headway looks for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what’s been tried.“A beacon.”That was how Shaun Donovan, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, heralded Via Verde, the South Bronx development, in 2011.Construction was nearly done at the time, and I chose Via Verde for the subject of my first column as The New York Times’s architecture critic. It wasn’t the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It wasn’t a visual spectacle, but it was handsome and dignified, standing out with its prefab metal facade not just in a neighborhood of empty lots, aging apartment blocks and derelict rail tracks but also against a backdrop of dreary, bare-bones affordable housing developments all across the city.Most important, its goal was larger than itself: to reimagine subsidized housing for a new century. I promised in that column to report back on whether it succeeded.Did it?Some history: A Bloomberg-era trophy project, Via Verde emerged from two international competitions. Every relevant city agency helped to speed its construction, unheard-of before or since. Engineers, solar experts, community groups, architectural organizations as well as the New York City Council pulled in unison. Envious developers and architects of less coddled projects grumbled.The winning design team paired Grimshaw, a glamorous architecture firm based in London, with Dattner, a veteran New York outfit. They conceived a 20-story tower and mid-rise annex with 151 subsidized apartments for working poor and formerly homeless renters, alongside 71 townhouses for first-time, income-restricted homeowners, itself a novel concept. Lee Weintraub, the project’s landscape architect, envisioned the campus: a refined, leafy oasis with an amphitheater, rooftop community garden and apple grove.Via Verde’s design incorporated rooftop gardens and other amenities not usually found in subsidized housing.Credit...Angel Franco/The New York TimesVia Verde’s most trumpeted feature was its mixing of green and health-conscious design with aesthetics. The South Bronx suffered from some of the highest asthma rates in the country (it still does). And it’s a fresh food desert. Community members voiced their desire for health-conscious living during Via Verde’s public planning sessions. So in addition to the community garden, where residents could grow their own fruits and vegetables, developers included a rooftop gym and leased the building’s storefronts to a clinic and pharmacy.Luxury projects routinely market green and healthy features alongside fancy architecture. But for subsidized housing developments, this was not just unusual back then, it was provocative. Housing and homeless advocates argued — many continue to — that in the midst of an affordable housing crisis every available dollar for new development should be spent on constructing as many apartments as possible.That’s understandable. But Via Verde implied a different calculus. Paying a premium for better architecture and sustainable design, it suggested value as an alternative to cost. Its proposition was that spreading dignity, promoting equity, inspiring pride in its residents — all this would pay for itself in the long run.Residents arrived in 2012. Architects and design students from around the world started making pilgrimages to the South Bronx. Via Verde became a case study at the Harvard Business School.For a while, I sat in on meetings where a gardener from the nonprofit GrowNYC helped residents who volunteered for Via Verde’s community garden. Over the years I checked in with the project’s developers, Adam Weinstein, president of Phipps Houses, the venerable New York nonprofit, which now manages the site, and Jonathan Rose, a national for-profit developer of affordable housing with a reputation for sustainable and health-conscious design.And I returned one frigid morning this January to meet with a few Via Verde homeowners. At the front gate, Marisol Colon, the building’s concierge, was on duty. She buzzed me into the heated vestibule, where several residents lugging groceries from around the corner were stamping their feet against the cold.From its tallest building, Via Verde’s rooftop gardens blend into the winter Bronx landscape.Credit...Daniel Arnold for The New York TimesDanny Nieves lives in an apartment above his son’s family in Via Verde.Credit...Daniel Arnold for The New York TimesVia Verde, on Brook Avenue in the Bronx, is separated from the street by a gate and a concierge. Credit...Daniel Arnold for The New York TimesThrough much of the last century, subsidized housing developments were designed for sprawling, porous campuses. “Towers in the park” became the term of art, and over time, also a rough shorthand for all the failures of public housing. Via Verde reconsidered the model, combining it with something like the Upper West Side courtyard-style building. Spread across one and a half acres, it isn’t porous but features a single gated entrance, watched over 24/7 by an attendant, or concierge, as at a luxury development.According to Weinstein, the cost for the concierge has more than amortized itself over the years. Crime, he says, has been largely a nonissue at Via Verde, unlike just outside its gates. At Lambert Houses, another Phipps project in the South Bronx, Weinstein and his team have been erecting new high-rises with doormen, in imitation of Via Verde, to replace the project’s six-story buildings from the 1970s with their multiple, unguarded entrances. I visited the first new tower to be completed a couple of years ago.“I’m not scared anymore to come in and out of my apartment,” one resident told me. She said the new building made her feel “cared for.” I heard the same from Via Verde tenants.Care, Weinstein says, translates into dollars saved. The development has had its share of headaches and miscalculations — apartments plagued by flies because windows weren’t designed for screens; sustainable bamboo cabinetry that fell apart; a tower elevator on the fritz when I last visited.But Weinstein told me maintenance costs have remained flat for a decade. Expenses for repairs have been half what they are at subsidized projects of a similar vintage. At a cost of $99 million, Via Verde has turned out to be “the least expensive most expensive project in the end,” Weinstein says.This is partly because Phipps knows what it’s doing. It’s also because, residents and staff members say, Via Verde has become a source of pride. Eduardo González Jr. was one of the first to buy an apartment at Via Verde. A Bronx native — he is assistant director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Cornell Cooperative Extension — he was attracted to the idea of buying into a mixed-income community. Now he and his wife are raising a family at Via Verde, where their children play with other children from the building in Weintraub’s open, gated spaces.But his children don’t attend neighborhood schools, González told me, saying he sometimes feels “conflicted” about what another homeowner, Akilah Browne, calls “living in a bubble.”Akilah Browne’s son reaches for one of his books inside their Via Verde home. Credit...Daniel Arnold for The New York TimesWhen I asked Colon, the concierge, about the neighborhood outside Via Verde, she rolled her eyes. A teenager was recently shot and killed around the corner; meth dealers and homeless encampments are a growing presence along Brook Avenue, Via Verde’s front door. “But inside,” Colon stressed, “it’s all smooth and safe.”In that first column I wrote that there is only so much “a housing development on its own could do.” For Donovan, now chief executive and president of Enterprise, a national affordable housing nonprofit, Via Verde’s legacy is inseparable from its architecture. “The care and respect residents and workers continue to have for it,” he says, “reflects the respect and care that great design shows for residents and the community.”Rose and Weinstein told me separately that, in their own work as developers, there is a before and an after Via Verde. The project road-tested features that are today considered best practices for affordable housing developments across the country, including the use of solar panels, green roofs and day-lit stairwells to encourage walking. Energy codes have become more aggressive for affordable developments.How much of that, if any, is linked to Via Verde is obviously hard to pin down. There are other developers and designers of affordable housing whose work has also raised the bar around the country, among them the architects David Baker in San Francisco, Andrew Bernheimer in Brooklyn and Michael Maltzan in Los Angeles.Richard Dattner, who collaborated on Via Verde, believes the project “showed what was possible, architecturally.” His firm is presently completing more than a thousand new subsidized apartments in Brooklyn. Rose is about to complete Sendero Verde, a 750-unit affordable housing development in Harlem.“Architects grumbled that the project got special treatment but they should be thanking us now,” Dattner told me. “Now better architecture is a requirement.”You wouldn’t necessarily know it, however, from much of what still gets built. Design quality has slipped as a priority during the administrations of Bill de Blasio and Eric Adams. If anything, bringing city agencies and community groups together around new subsidized housing has become harder.The problem isn’t just a lack of leadership. Last year, New York State failed to pass any legislation whatsoever to support new housing. Across the country, NIMBYism and the weaponization of environmental law, historic landmark rules and other regulations have turned all sorts of proposals for subsidized housing into sieges.Via Verde reminds us we can do better. It’s still a beacon.The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.Michael Kimmelman is The Times’s architecture critic and the founder and editor-at-large of Headway, a team of journalists focused on large global challenges and paths to progress. He has reported from more than 40 countries and was previously chief art critic. More about Michael KimmelmanEnjoy unlimited access to all of The Times.6-month Welcome Offeroriginal price: $6.25sale price: $1/weekLearn more