Sustainable Affordable Housing Is No Myth

Event: “Green Affordable Housing” screening
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.24.08
Speaker: Jonathan Rose — Jonathan Rose Companies
Moderator: Jessica Strauss, AIA, LEED AP — Co-Chair, AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)
Sponsors: COTE; Jonathan Rose Companies; Autodesk; Natural Resources Defense Council; Enterprise

Via Verde

Via Verde in the South Bronx — a sustainable, affordable housing project by Phipps Rose Dattner Grimshaw.

Phipps Rose Dattner Grimshaw, courtesy AIANY

The success of a sustainable and affordable housing development hinges on the community in which it resides, not on the building itself. This insight has helped Jonathan Rose of Jonathan Rose Companies develop a portfolio of successful affordable housing projects, some in areas that initially fought the idea with a not-in-my-backyard mentality. With the Burnham Building, David & Joyce Dinkins Gardens, and the upcoming Via Verde, Rose has proven that sustainable architecture can thrive in the intensely budget-conscious arena of affordable housing.

“Green Affordable Housing” is one of a handful of documentaries in the PBS series dedicated to sustainable design, Design e2. The film opens with examples of our past misguided attempts at affordable housing — specifically the isolated brick tower planted on a swath of dying grass with little or no community social life. Previously, the goal was to provide as many housing units as possible, as cheaply as possible, creating a monoculture in these towers. This model was doomed to failure as it ignored the critical biological principle of strength in diversity. A sustainable community should support a poly-culture of individuals and families.

In his quest to strengthen communities through diversity, Rose’s recent sustainable, affordable housing developments all include a mix of uses. In the adaptive reuse of the Burnham Company’s abandoned boiler and greenhouse plant in Irvington, NY, Rose with Steven Tilly Architects not only engaged in a housing renovation, but also inserted the town library into the ground floor. This allowed the existing community to interact with the low-income residents enough to realize that “they” are a lot like “us.”

With David & Joyce Dinkins Gardens in Harlem (expected to come in at $170-per-square-foot), Rose, in partnership with non-profit Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), built on the idea of diversity. Not only does the building mix uses with the Youth Construction Trades Academy and the Learning Garden on the ground floor, but also mixes the types of affordable housing — one-third of the units are reserved for 18-year-olds who have aged-out of foster care, and the remaining two-thirds are for low-income residents.

Finally, Rose’s current affordable housing project is the highly publicized Via Verde, winner of the New Housing New York competition with Phipps Houses and architecture firms Dattner Architects and Grimshaw, collectively PRDG. Located on an abandoned lot in the South Bronx, Via Verde will include 139 rental units and 63 co-op apartments, designed sustainably with an emphasis on health. The project will include a Montefiore community health center, an exercise facility, and an organic food co-op, promoting community contacts not only at street level, but also vertically within the project via stepping roof gardens and linked paths.

A strong community, like an ecosystem, consists of a network of multiple linked systems where greater complexity leads to a richer social and cultural experience for those living there. In Via Verde, the South Bronx will have a symbol of a new way forward, repairing the fabric of a community, and Rose, a man who believes in the potential of people regardless of their social or economic standing, has set a precedent of success.