Design Center as Catalyst: “Envisioning East New York”

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”

by E. Perry Winston, R.A., Pratt Planning & Architectural Collaborative

At the end of January 1995, 25 teams of architects, planners, artists, and landscape architects submitted their entries to the “Envisioning East New York” urban design ideas study conducted by the New York Architectural League. The impetus for the call-for-ideas was disappointment with the lack of imagination shown in the disposition of City-owned vacant land in the neighborhood and the desire to tap the imaginations of architects, planners, and landscape architects to broaden the range of development possibilities. The Architectural League’s brief challenged entrants to bring current urban design theories and strategies to bear on the problems and opportunities of this low-rise, mixed residential and industrial area of Brooklyn.

The timing of the competition was particularly useful; first it occurred at a critical point between phases in the struggle by local groups to improve conditions in this neighborhood. Second, it aroused public interest, within and without East New York, in the future of this area which has had to deal with unemployment, physical deterioration, crime, and overcrowded housing. Indeed, it appears that “Envisioning East New York” has become one of a very few urban design studies to have developed a life after the final jury.

The Context

East New York is the Easternmost section of Brooklyn, an area of over 160,000 people, 86% of whom are African-American and Hispanic, 30% are under 18, almost 30% are living below the poverty line, and where 1/6 of the total area is vacant land, half of that City-owned. Between 1970 and 1980, parts of the neighborhood lost 25% of its building stock and 30% of its population. Three years ago, the New York City record for most homicides was broken by the 75th precinct in East New York with over 340 in one year. In 1985, Charles Bronson’s film “Death Wish III” was filmed here.

Over the past fifteen years, the efforts of local citizen groups have begun to make an impact on these conditions. Beginning in the early ’80’s, over 1,000 units of new single-family “Nehemiah” housing have been built by a coalition of churches, East Brooklyn Congregations (E.B.C.). Since 1985, the Pratt Planning & Architectural Collaborative (P.P.A.C.) has worked with local members of the Mutual Housing Association of New York (M.H.A.N.Y) on the rehabilitation of over 300 units of coop housing from vacant city-owned buildings in the area. Non-profit groups like United Community Centers have established several child care centers. Organizers for the East New York Urban Youth Corps have worked with residents to drive out drug dealers from their buildings.

This groundswell of activism, however, has not prevented large-scale projects from being planned without adequate local input. For example, the next phase of 750 Nehemiah housing units to be built in East New York were laid out by the City and E.B.C. in a broad brush manner, necessitating the demolition of many existing houses and of 80 units of multi-family housing. At the City Planning Commission hearings, the neighborhood found itself at odds with itself over the issue.

Just after these hearings in 1994, the Collaborative’s parent group, the Pratt Institute Center for Community & Environmental Development (P.I.C.C.E.D.) was awarded a grant from H.U.D. to be one of several university-based “Community Outreach Planning Centers” (C.O.P.C.) whose basic purpose is to engage universities to facilitate local planning processes. With the endorsement of neighborhood groups it had worked with in the past, PICCED included East New York as one of four Brooklyn neighborhoods in which it would concentrate efforts under the COPC program. The hope expressed by one group was for the creation of a vehicle for planning that would be directly accountable to the residents.

It was a stroke of good luck that simultaneously with the start-up of work by PICCED under COPC the Architectural League announced the “Envisioning East New York” design study. Besides the immediate interest of the PPAC architects in the creative aspect of the study, it also presented the Pratt COPC team with a good opportunity to expand our information base on the area as well as to explore the issues identified by East New York residents (at forums held in the neighborhood by the League ). Indicative of stirrings among the neighborhood’s leaders, one of the study’s key organizers was Mervyn Garnett, a member of the local Community Board and an architect who, after the Nehemiah controversy, saw the need for more active and less reactive planning on the part of the neighborhood. Despite much of the Community Board’s hesitance about the design study, the event was about to focus the attention of professionals, the public, and local elected officials on the future of the neighborhood.

The PPAC Entry

Of the four areas listed in the competition, the design team at PPAC passed on the two with the most potential for fantasy: Broadway Junction (an infrastructural nexus where three subway lines, one passenger and one freight railway, and two highways cross at the same point), and the Gateway, the marshy land bordering Jamaica Bay. Our very experience of working within the existing fabric of East New York helped ballast our flights of fancy and set the overall tone of our entry. We chose instead the two with the strongest existing residential fabric: the North Core and the Livonia/New Lots triangle, both with sizeable amounts of vacant land, some in clusters, many in scattered single lots.

We had three overall intentions; first, from a planning point of view, we wanted to use as a point of departure the issues raised by the residents at several community forums held by the League, to listen and see how existing conditions, now seen as liabilities, could be used as advantages. Second, we wanted an integrative approach, where more than one issue could be addressed on one site. Third, as architects we wanted to develop paradigms of new development which would complement and reenforce instead of overlaying or undermining the current built fabric. Starting with the issues brought up by the residents in the forums, we set out the Principles to be followed in our proposal in addressing Housing, Commerce/Manufacturing, Open Space/Recreation, Youth & Social Services, and Infrastructure. The following is a brief description of some of the specific Strategies proposed following these Principles.

Housing Principles

  1. Maintain current urban texture and character: low-rise owner-occupied rowhouses.
  2. Provide a variety of unit types, layouts, and tenancy.
  3. Accomodate different living patterns within the same building or same unit. The controversy over the latest phase of the Nehemiah housing stemmed in part from the inability of the selected housing prototype to adapt to smaller, scattered sites. The need of the prototype for long, uninterrupted lots clashed with the existing owner-occupied houses whose residents had no desire to relocate.

We developed seven housing prototypes which would be able to fit into scattered sites as small as 20′ wide. Parking requirements were handled either with garages, on short front yard pads, or group parking in the rear yard accessed over an adjacent vacant lot. If less than five spaces were required, the parking requirement could be waived in the R-6 zone. These prototypes avoided the extreme setback caused by front-yard parking and allowed building in line with existing streetfronts, with small buildings on mid-block lots and larger groupings along busier streets.

Within the seven prototypes we included options for single-, two-, or three-family occupancy. We used layouts which could accomodate a change from a single to a two-family situation or the addition or subtraction of a bedroom. House “G”, to be located along streets already zoned for ground floor retail, included a ground floor “swingspace”: a 10′ deep storefront with a one-bedroom apartment behind to provide start-up commercial space which could expand into the entire floor if the business took off or be absorbed into the residential space behind if it didn’t.

Commercial Principles

  1. Promote local retail within walking distance of new residential buildings.
  2. Improve physical environment, safety of local retail areas. In keeping with our goal of addressing more than one issue on the same site, our House “G” allowed ground floor local retail to be encorporated within residential developments on the main East-West streets which had commercial zoning. The 3-bedroom duplex apartment above the storefront would respond to the expressed interest of local merchants in owning their own store. Too often they struggle to make a business succeed only to have the rent raised, forcing many to relocate. At the same time the increased surveillance and illumination from upper story apartments would reduce the threat of empty sidewalks.

Youth/Social Services Principles

  1. Provide supervised, easily-accessible after-school facilities for study halls, recreation, skills training.
  2. Improve athletic facilities for local school, club teams.
  3. Provide entertainment facilities on “neutral” territory but close to the neighborhood We proposed two youth centers at scattered sites rather than one large one in order that they be within walking distance. One near the New Lots public library, next to a public playground and two child care centers; the other center on Livonia near the blocks to be developed with 750 units of single-family Nehemiah housing and two blocks from a subway station. We proposed new athletic facilities. One athletic field near the youth center on New Lots and a proposed new high school, and another on Livonia near P.S. 174 and the new Nehemiah housing. Responding to the comments by neighborhood youth we proposed a new indoor/outdoor pool on New Lots so they wouldn’t have to leave their own “turf” to swim.

Again, responding to youth who bemoaned the lack of a movie house anywhere close to East New York, we proposed renovating the old Biltmore movie theater on New Lots Ave. into a commercial multi-plex cinema in the main space, which could support the operation of rehearsal and studio space for local music and dance groups in smaller spaces on the 2nd Floor.

Infrastructure Principles

  1. Facilitate transfers between transportation modes.
  2. Make areas around elevated stations safe and attractive. We indicated the minor modifications required to provide a transfer capeability between the “L” and the #3 subway lines at the Livonia Ave. stop. This connection would provide more flexible access to the subway system.

How to revive decayed commercial strips along elevated transit lines is a problem in many New York neighborhoods. Along the Livonia corridor on the 100′-wide lots left clear by the adjacent residential development, we proposed a 2-story commercial building with ground floor retail to serve the new residents of the Nehemiah housing and people coming to and from the nearby subway stop. To contribute to increased security, a police sub-precinct station could be set up in the storefront closest to the subway with an ATM in the lobby of this sub station. In order to relieve the effect of the overhead transit tracks, we allowed a 25′ setback to allow light to penetrate to the sidewalk in front of these new stores. Tall, thin trees could be planted at intervals along the elevated tracks to form a visual screen without casting deep shadows.

This Show Has Legs

True to its announced intended audience, the exhibition of the 25 entries opened in May 1995 at the New Lots and Cypress Hill Branch Public Libraries in East New York. A community forum was held in June at the New Lots Library and project teams were asked to stand by their boards to answer questions. In July, the exhibition was displayed at the Urban Center galleries in Manhattan. In September, the study’s jury met with the entrants to provide some comments. Originally, the jury was to select three entries which would be asked to develop their schemes further. Apparantly, funds must be sought to finance this.

Even if this doesn’t happen, the study has done what it intended: to start people thinking and acting about the future of the neighborhood. In East New York, the Community Board, which had at first split on the idea of a design study, had by June formed a sub-committee to pursue drawing up a “197a Plan” (so named after a paragraph in the new City Charter that permits a locality to formulate its own plan for future development).

As well, the COPC process had progressed to where several community groups, doing good work but in a fragmented way, were meeting on a regular basis and planning additional community forums to elicit opinions on the most important short and long-term objectives to be pursued. After some initial worries about overlapping efforts, the COPC and 197a Committees seem to understand that their efforts could be complementary. The Board could benefit from the ability of COPC to increase citizen input, and the priorities developed at these forums would gain political weight if included in the Board’s 197a Plan.

Even without financing, some of the better-received entrants in the study have been contacted by members of the East New York community to discuss how to put their plans into action. Specifically, interest is focused on a project for food production, sales, and processing, building on the existing base of over 200 groups engaged in gardening on vacant City-owned lots in East New York. Another group of merchants is interested in building mixed-use housing like our House “G” in the commercially-zoned strips.

Whatever does or does not get built now, the study has been successful in sparking a series of activities around the future of this neighborhood. The “Envisioning East New York” boards will go back out to East New York again at the New Lots Library in November, and will be on display at the Brooklyn Borough President’s office after that. There have been many studies done on this area of New York City, but this was the first to elicit a quantity of visual images which stirred the imaginations of the viewers to see what the existing resources are and to project beyond the current reality to what the next Century might bring.