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Prospect Plaza Towards a new future, since 1997

Case study by Koen Moesen


1974

2012

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Introduction The site of former New York City Housing Authority’s public housing complex, the Prospect Plaza towers, is being revitalized. Although the first renovation plans date from 1997, today three of the Prospect Plaza towers are standing like a ghost town. The windows are scattered and the wind and rain whistle through the buildings. They have been vacant since 2003 and no renovation plans have been started in all those years. The fourth tower is been demolished in 2005, leaving a huge vacant lot. Today this lot is still as vacant as in 2005. The revitalizing of the Prospect Plaza complex seems to be an everlasting story.

Prologue The Prospect Plaza towers1 have been built in 1974 by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The complex originally consisted of four high-rise buildings with 12 to 15 stories. A total of 1.171 residents once filled the 368 apartment units. Three of these towers are still standing at this moment. The complex is bordered by Saratoga and Howard Avenues, St. Marks and Sterling Place and is situated in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn. Today 20.814 people or almost 20 % of the inhabitants of Ocean-Hill Brownsville are being housed by the NYCHA2. Therefore this community district has the highest concentration of public housing in New York City. Unfortunately all these public housing projects, and especially the ‘tower-in-the-park’-complexes, became associated with a higher crime rate, a racial segregation and a concentration of poverty3. Prospect Plaza was an extremely low-income development, since the average family earned approximately $ 11.700 a year4. This meant that their house-hold income was less than one-third of the average income of a New York City household. In fact, the situation is even worse, given that the Prospect Plaza residents have large families. These undesirable conditions made Prospect Plaza a very interesting choice for the NYCHA to renovate, although the towers are fairly new, compared to the rest of New York City’s public housing inventory. Like any other Housing Authority in the United States, the NYCHA could get money for renovations through the federal HOPE VI program.

1 New York City Housing Authority, ‘NYCHA Housing Developments - Prospect Plaza’, on: www.nyc.gov/html/nycha, (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/developments/bklynprospect.shtml, Oct 8th 2011). 2 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop’, on: www. revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/ RPP_ppwguide.pdf, Oct 8th 2011). 3 WILLIAMS, Sabrina L., ‘From HOPE VI to HOPE SICK’, on: www.dollarsandsense.org, July/Aug 2003, (http://www. dollarsandsense.org/archives/2003/0703williams.html, Oct 8th 2011). 4 NEUWIRTH, Robert, ‘Tower wreckers’, in: City Limits, 2001 (25) nr 7, pp. 14-18. (Left page) Pictures of the Prospect Plaza site today, taken on 9 Oct 2011. 3


The HOPE VI program HOPE VI5 is a federal funding program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Design (HUD). It stands for ‘Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere’. In 1992 the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (NCSDPH) surveyed 1.2 million units of public housing in the United States. The survey concluded that 86.000 units or about 6 % of the public housing inventory were in a severely distressed condition. The NCSDPH called for a revitalization of these distressed units by providing money to the Public Housing Authorities, so they can address the housing and social service needs. It recommended that demolishing should be on a one-for-one basis. Based on these recommendations, the Congress appropriated the first HOPE VI funds that same year, but it lasted until 1999 before the federal HOPE VI program was authorized. Unfortunately the requirement of a replacement on a one-for-one basis was excused. This would have an enormous impact on HOPE VI projects all over the country. HOPE VI aims at new mixed-income developments, where home-owners and renters would live side by side. This was in fact also the initial goal of public housing, although this goal was never reached. A mixed-income approach would hinder any concentration of poverty. To get this economical diversity, the HUD requires for a HOPE VI project also to be ‘mixed financed’. The federal funding needs to leverage dollars from the private sector. Off course private developers are euphoric to build these projects, since a mixed-income program would mean higher profits for them. The HOPE VI program seems to shift the former public housing funding to the construction of new units, which will be rented or sold at market rate. At this moment the HOPE VI program has demolished more than 100.000 severely distressed public housing units across the United States6. This number clearly exceeds the 86.000 units, which the NCSDPH surveyed as dangerous or unhealthy. Also the number of replaced units is far below the number of demolished units. In the magazine ‘Dollars and Sense’7, one speaks of a ‘replacement of only one affordable unit for every five destroyed’. Since the new constructions are mixed-income developments, the actual available new housing units for low-income are even less. This results in the fact that most of the former residents, once a project is being revitalized through HOPE VI, are unlikely to ever return home.

5 WILLIAMS, Sabrina L., ‘From HOPE VI to HOPE SICK’, on: www.dollarsandsense.org, July/Aug 2003, (http://www. dollarsandsense.org/archives/2003/0703williams.html, Oct 8th 2011). 6 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop’, on: www. revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/ RPP_ppwguide.pdf, Oct 8th 2011). 7 WILLIAMS, Sabrina L., ‘From HOPE VI to HOPE SICK’, on: www.dollarsandsense.org, July/Aug 2003, (http://www. dollarsandsense.org/archives/2003/0703williams.html, Oct 8th 2011). 4


In fact, this is exactly the goal of HOPE VI. The program is born because the nation’s grand experiment with public housing had failed8. In the beginning public housing intended social welfare, but these projects resemble now eternal ghettos. HOPE VI does not try to create more public housing units. Instead it attempts to shrink the number of units and it prefers to tear down high-rise buildings, which are associated with an increased crime. Although it might seem an improvement to replace high-rise buildings with townhouses, the math is inescapable: HOPE VI reduces the supply of affordable housing units. This huge gap between the amount of low-income units, which have been destroyed, and the amount of new low-income units, is solved by a voucher program. Former residents who didn’t get a place in the new project are being offered places in other public housing projects or Section 8 vouchers. These Section 8 vouchers make it possible for a family to rent a unit at market rate, up to a certain limit that differs per location. The family will then only pay 30 % of its income for the rent. The remaining difference between the rent the family paid and the actual market rate rent, is then covered by the Housing Authority. An interesting aspect is that these Section 8 vouchers don’t restrict a family to a certain city, but they are allowed to rent anywhere in the United States. But it can be questioned if these vouchers aren’t concentrating the poverty even more, by pushing the poor to other lowincome neighborhoods?

Getting funding from HOPE VI In 1997, the NYCHA tried to get funding through the federal HOPE VI program to renovate the Prospect Plaza Towers. Its proposal was renovating all four Prospect Plaza high-rise buildings and adding new townhouses at the nearby vacant lots. Since the tenants couldn’t see a downside, they all approved. Unfortunately the HUD rejected the plan, because it would not decrease the density of the complex. One year later the NYCHA came up with a new proposition: the tower at 430 Saratoga Avenue would be demolished, since it suddenly appeared to have a wide range of structural problems9. But it’s unclear if the HUD ever received any documentation of these problems10. This tower would become the first public housing project ever to be demolished in New York City, since the NYCHA had always preferred preservation and renovation, rather than demolishing11. The three other Prospect Plaza towers would still be renovated, and the townhouses would still be added. Since this proposal did decrease the density, the 8 NEUWIRTH, Robert, ‘Tower wreckers’, in: City Limits, 2001 (25) nr 7, pp. 14-18. 9 LIFF, Bob, ‘City to raze project 15-sory building set for demolition in Prospect Plaza’, in: Daily News (New York), 1999, Sept 19th, Suburban: p. 2. 10 NEUWIRTH, Robert, ‘Tower wreckers’, in: City Limits, 2001 (25) nr 7, pp. 14-18. 11 FERNANDEZ, Manny, ‘Public housing project to come tumbling down‘, in: The New York Times, 2010, Feb 6th, p. A13. 5


Phase I - Family houses

Phase III - Towers Phase II - Rental units

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HUD accepted the plans and made $ 22 million available in 1999 for the renovation, the demolition and the new construction. Between 2001 and 2003 the 365 families occupying Prospect Plaza were being relocated to various other public housing projects or they were handed Section 8 vouchers12.

Home-ownership units and rental units In 2003 the NYCHA started to build 37 two-family houses13 nearby the Prospect Plaza site, at Dean St. and Sterling Place. They consist each of an affordable rental unit on the ground floor and an owner-occupied duplex on top. This would enforce an income mix in these townhouses. This construction was the first phase of the three-phase revitalization of Prospect Plaza. The construction was completed in 2005. Thirty-two of these newly built units were purchased by former public housing residents, although only one was a former Prospect Plaza resident. In 2005 also the tower at 430 Saratoga Avenue and its adjacent community center were being demolished, making place for a new community center facility and rental units. The second phase started in 2007 with the construction of the 150 rental units nearby two empty Prospect Plaza towers by a private developer. They would become four-story high townhouses. The construction was completed in 2009. Forty-five of these rental units are set aside for former residents or other public housing residents, in possession of Section 8 vouchers14.

Revitalizing the towers The final phase would have been the rehabilitation of the three remaining Prospect Plaza towers. In 2003 Michaels Development Company15 (MDC), a real estate company based in New Jersey, was hired to renovate them. But in 2007 this contract was terminated by the NYCHA because the company couldn’t get a financially interesting plan. In April 2008 MDC sued the NYCHA for breaking the contract. This lawsuit stalled the project.

12 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop’, on: www. revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/ RPP_ppwguide.pdf, Oct 8th 2011). 13 GRACE, Melissa, ‘Townhouses lift Brownsville hope’, in: Daily News (New York), 2003, Aug 1st, Suburban: p. 1. 14 MARKEY, Eileen, ‘When Brooklyn Projects go down, what will go up?’, on: www.citylimits.org, Aug 19th 2010, (http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/4152/when-brooklyn-projects-go-down-what-will-go-up, Oct 8th 2011). 15 FERNANDEZ, Manny, ‘Public housing project to come tumbling down‘, in: The New York Times, 2010, Feb 6th, p. A13. (Left page) Pictures of the Prospect Plaza site today, taken on 9 Oct 2011. Areal photograph with the phasing of the HOPE VI revitalisation, source: Google Maps and www.revisionprospectplaza.com. 7


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In 2010 the NYCHA decided to tear down also the three remaining towers of Prospect Plaza, since that would make financially more sense. The Housing Authority envisions a series of privately owned smaller apartment buildings, but only 80 of them will be actual public housing16. The demolition has been planned for fall 2011, but the exact further development of the resulting new vacant space at Prospect Plaza has yet to be determined.

Re-vision Prospect Plaza, a blueprint for the future In June 2010, a blueprint for the future has been formed, based on a three-day lasting community workshop: ‘Re-Vision Prospect Plaza’17. A participatory process will now form the base for the new development plans of Prospect Plaza. The first day of the workshop, a tour on site was planned. Every participant made observations of the positive and negative qualities of the site. Later, after being divided in groups, they came up with a list, to ensure the qualities of neighborhood and improve its shortcomings. Sherida Paulsen of PKSB Architects was the lead architect of the workshop. After her presentation about the site, a ‘design-with-icons’-session was held. The icons corresponded to scaled versions of the desirable functions. The groups explored a total of six concepts. What all these concepts had in common was that all the high-rise buildings were being removed. Although this argument points toward the demolishing of the Prospect Plaza complex, it should be said that only 50 people were present at the workshop, and not all of them were former residents of the projects18. All participants agreed to rename the Prospect Plaza site to Prospect Place North, Prospect Place South and Saratoga Park. The design session continued the second day. At the end of the day, the design team reduced the concepts of the six groups to two different design options. On the final day the workshop was concluded with a final presentation of the workshop results. These results will now become recommendations for the further development plans of Prospect Plaza.

16 MARKEY, Eileen, ‘When Brooklyn Projects go down, what will go up?’, on: www.citylimits.org, Aug 19th 2010, (http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/4152/when-brooklyn-projects-go-down-what-will-go-up, Oct 8th 2011). 17 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop – Volume 2’, on: www.revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/ uploads/2010/08/RPP_pwguide.pdf.zip, Oct 8th 2011). 18 MARKEY, Eileen, ‘When Brooklyn Projects go down, what will go up?’, on: www.citylimits.org, Aug 19th 2010, (http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/4152/when-brooklyn-projects-go-down-what-will-go-up, Oct 8th 2011) (left page) The design proposals of the six different groups on the community workshop and the translation to two different design options, source: www.revisionprospectplaza.com. 9


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Recommendations of the Community Plan Design Principles19 - Demolish existing three vacant towers: build at least 368 new housing units - Maintain the neighborhood scale: up to six-story buildings - Allow for housing type diversity: seniors and families - Create safe streets: provide more entrances at grade - Integrate green spaces into each site: pocket parks and green backyards - Allow for quality retail spaces: Fresh Foods supermarket and small neighborhood stores - Incorporate sustainable design: materials, systems and building layouts Actual components of the Community Plan20 - 360 housing units, including two walk-up buildings and five elevator buildings - 16,600 square feet of open space, including two 5,000 square foot pocket parks and a 6,600 square foot terrace as part of the building on the Saratoga Park site - 12,000 square feet of community facility space, including a 2,000 square foot community room on Prospect Place South and a 10,000 square foot community center on the Saratoga Park site - 32,860 square feet of retail space, including a 20,000 square foot Fresh Foods supermarket and a 3,000 square foot neighborhood store on the Saratoga Park site, and four neighborhood stores on Prospect Place South, along Saratoga Avenue - 30,000 square foot community park on the site adjacent to the Saratoga Park site - 120 parking spaces across all three NYCHA sites

Epilogue Since 1997, the Prospect Plaza complex is in process of being revitalized. Therefore all of the former tenants were temporarily being relocated, leaving vacant towers, looming over the neighborhood. One of the four towers was being demolished, because a decrease in density was demanded by the federal HOPE VI funding program. Unfortunately, when the private contractor wasn’t able to realize an economically interesting renovation plan for the three remaining towers, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) decided to demolish also the three remaining towers. This would be financially more interesting. Demolition was planned for fall 2011, although a design proposal and a developer are still not present today. 19 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop – Volume 2’, on: www.revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/ uploads/2010/08/RPP_pwguide.pdf.zip, Oct 8th 2011). 20 New York City Housing Authority, ‘Re-vision Prospect Plaza – A community planning workshop – Volume 2’, on: www.revisionprospectplaza.com, June 2010, (http://www.revisionprospectplaza.com/wp-content/ uploads/2010/08/RPP_pwguide.pdf.zip, Oct 8th 2011). (Left page) The situation today and the community plan, source: www.revisionprospectplaza.com. 11


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It seems that the future development of Prospect Plaza will be based on the community plan ‘Re-Vision Prospect Plaza’. Here, the typology of the high rise tower-in-the-park will be replaced by a neighborhood-scale development, up to six stories. These neo-traditional row houses, replacing towers-in-the-park all over the United States, are no doubt a more liveable alternative. But, it’s also clear that the HOPE VI program has caused a displacement of 90 % of the former population.21 Probably much less than half of the former residents of Prospect Plaza will ever be able to return home. Is it reasonable that the poorest ones are forced to leave their home and their neighborhood? Isn’t such displacement to other poor neighborhoods making those neighborhoods even worse? On the other hand, is the neo-traditionalist row house the only viable typology? Do we need a future with just one homogenizing solution for the Grid? Isn’t the Grid the perfect instrument to act as an neutralizing agent between the different morphological episodes?22 Ocean-Hill Brownsville is the district with the highest percentage of ‘tower-inthe-park’-typologies of New York City. This typology houses 20 % of Ocean-Hill Brownsville’s inhabitants. Although this typology might represent a failed chapter in the United States housing history, it still is a part of the district’s identity. Therefore wouldn’t it still be better to renovate instead of demolishing, and changing the perception of the high rise tower-inthe-park to a new attractive and liveable identity. Unlike many other cities across the United States, New York City has more or less resisted the national trend towards demolition.23 The Prospect Plaza towers are the first public housing project that will go down in New York City. Will it therefore become an iconic example for the rest of New York City’s public housing inventory, despite the announcement24 of the NYCHA in December 2011 that it will continue the path of preservation? Unfortunately, this preservation policy is mainly guided by repair and maintenance, while the NYCHA as the biggest landlord in New York City holds the power to reshape the skyline. A continuous disinvestment by the government in the NYCHA is resulting in the disrepair of public housing projects, the decrease of supportive services for the residents and rising rents. Therefore, in the end, there seems no escape from the road to the private sector and its money to revitalize a public housing project.

21 SORKIN, Michael, “The End(s) of Urban Design”, in: SORKIN, Michael, All Over the Map, Verso, New York, 2011, pp. 287-309. 22 KOOLHAAS, Rem, Delirious New York, Monacelli Press, New York, 1994, pp. 104. 23 DODGE, David, ‘An Overview of New York Public Housing’, on: http://cdp-ny.org/, Sept 2009, (http://www.cdp-ny. org/report/NYpublichousing_sept09.pdf, Feb 14th 2012). 24 New York City Housing Authority, ‘PlanNYCHA: A Roadmap for Preservation’, on: http://www.nyc.gov/ html/nycha, Dec 2011, (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/plan-nycha.pdf, Feb 14th 2012). (Left page) An areal photograph of the site today, source: www.revisionprospectplaza.com. 13


Case Study - Prospect Plaza  

Case Study about the Prospect Plaza public housing project of the New York City Housing Authority, situated in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, Brook...

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