Small Town In Town: Preserving Public Housing in New York City


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By: Jessica Smith

This fall, as part of the Documentation and Interpretation course in Pratt Institute’s Historic Preservation program, five graduate students (including myself) were given a project that involved researching five of New York’s public housing developments on the Lower East Side. We were each assigned one site that included the Smith Houses, the LaGuardia Houses, the Baruch Houses, the Wald Houses, and Jacob Riis Houses. The project had two objectives: one was to provide research and consultation for the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project (NYELJP) who, in November, brought a lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in an attempt to stop their recently proposed Land Lease plan.

Our role was to look at the issue from a historic preservation perspective and determine if any additional measures could be taken to allow a more public review using preservation. The second objective worked in tandem with the first, in that, it sought to provide us with experience in writing and submitting an application for a National Register of Historic Places designation. Since the five sites were constructed between 1949 and 1959, all were potentially eligible for a National Register designation, which then would provide additional protection under a Section 106 review. In addition to the National Register application, we created a website titled “Small Town In Town” that compiled all of our research on these five sites in hopes of creating even more public awareness and fostering community pride about these developments.

Image (below): Modern Housing by Catherine Bauer, p. 179

As I began to research the Jacob Riis Houses and public housing, I initially believed that the modern approach and design concept that post-war housing followed originated from the ideas of Le Corbusier. After further research I realized that although Le Corbusier’s designs were influential, the foundations of these ideas were formed earlier. At the end of the 19th century, a new model for housing was emerging in Europe that sought to solve the issues of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions found within the burgeoning slums of the Industrial City. Built upon the ideas of reformers such as Robert Owens, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, William Morris, and Patrick Geddes, the new design concept for housing emphasized the necessity for light, air and space in order to provide a standard of living for the working class citizen by redeveloping the current city block, shifting the density of the buildings from outward to upward, and combining multiple blocks into a superblock. Thus Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the Garden City emerged as “a town designed for healthy living and industry; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life, but not larger; surrounded by a rural belt; the whole of the land being in public ownership or held in trust for the community” which influenced the later design of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City.2 By the 1920s, countries such as England, France, and the Netherlands began to implement planned communities, characterized by tall, residential towers set within open park spaces built upon the new superblock. Catherine Bauer (a pioneer of the public housing movement in the United States) writes in her 1934 book Modern Housing: “The proof of this, in so far as the ‘housing movement’ in Europe is concerned, is that within fifty years it had developed from a simple little matter of providing a few philanthropic tenements for paupers to the problem of providing a decent living environment for everybody…Most important of all, these activities were no longer confined to social theorists: architects, engineers, and technicians were beginning to take part.”3  
Image (below): Aerial view of the Lillian Wald Houses and the Jacob Riis Houses along the East River in New York City. Stuyvesant Town is seen in background. Photo credit: New York City Housing Authority, circa 1949
These ideas changed and influenced the course of how housing was approached, in architecture and city planning not only in Europe but also in America. Spurred on by government funding with the passing of the Housing Laws of 1934, 1937, and 1949, New York City and other large cities were able to clear out slum neighborhoods and build affordable housing. In New York, city blocks that had once consisted of dumbbell tenements crammed on 25 foot by 100-foot lots now were combined into superblocks and the housing that was built upon them followed the European “Tower in the Park” model.4 Yet, in both Europe and the United States, these planned communities developed problems of their own, and many critics believed these developments only isolated and compounded the economic and social obstacles faced by the people who could afford to live there (note). What architects and planners were unable to foresee were the economic and cultural trends that took place and their effects resulting in drastically different outcomes in the way that the public utilized public housing than the original intent of the designers that ultimately fostered the demise of sites such as St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe and Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Houses that have since been demolished.5   
In the Netherlands, post-war public housing such as the Bijlmermeer, located in the southeast borough of Amsterdam, has also seen many of the same problems that developments in the United States have. Located in the outer regions of cities, post-war housing is farther away from additional amenities Parts of the Bijlmermeer have already faced demolition, while other parts are being redeveloped, and As Dirk van den Heuvel, Faculty of Architecture at Technical University Delft, pointed out in an interview with Docomomo US President Theodore Prudon in 2012, the large-scale housing were simply too large to maintain, and the open park configuration affected the sense of safety. These factors have also affected redevelopment, and the solution has been to market the units as “Do It Yourself” projects where people are able to buy a larger unit, knowing they will need to continue in their own renovations.6
As a result of the “Small Town In Town” project, I realized that New York City’s public housing is experiencing a type of dilemma that looks to alter the site plans of selected developments in a different way. The New York City Housing Authority has currently proposed an infill plan that targets eight housing sites for luxury, high-rise towers. The proposed plan provides 20% affordable units and 80% market-rate units, and NYCHA has promised that the new towers will only be built on parking lot or playground space, not causing any displacement of current residents. However, tenants and other New York residents see this as an infringement upon the right to light, air, and space and the beginning of low-income residents being pushed out due to rising market rates. Three of the sites we studied, the LaGuardia Houses, Baruch Houses, and Smith Houses, are part of this proposed infill plan. Of the two towers proposed for the Smith Houses, one is 50 stories tall; a drastic difference from the existing 17-story buildings that currently sit upon the site.7 In addition, NYCHA has failed to conduct the necessary environmental reviews and floodplain analysis before soliciting bids from private developers, and it was upon these grounds that the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project filed their lawsuit against this land lease proposal.
Images (right): New York City Housing Authority Land Lease Pre-RFP Discussion Document for the Alfred E. Smith Houses
As a class we recommended two courses of action that the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project could incorporate into their lawsuit using a preservation approach. The first course of action approached the issue from a federal perspective by seeking a National Register designation for each site in order to qualify for a Section 106 review. This course, however, depends upon multiple factors in order to obtain eligibility as well as the consent of NYCHA and therefore might not provide any additional protection. The second course of action we recommended was seeking a Special Planned Community Planned district designation. This designation is a New York City zoning resolution that preserves communities that have been planned as a collective unit, and would not allow any new development except by special permit. The special permit could only be obtained after a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and would be publicly reviewed.
Yet, the question arose in this discussion of whether preserving these developments as they exist today is really the best solution. There seems to be a need for change if these public housing developments are to continue to provide what they set out to in the first place: clean, healthy living that provides adequate light, air, and space for residents. So, can preservation be incorporated into a more comprehensive approach that creates communities that are livable today yet still exhibit the modern principals that public housing was built on? An interesting approach to answering this question is provided in a proposal by Momin Mahammad based on his Master of Urban Design thesis at the University of California, Berkley in 2012 titled, “From “Projects’ To A Sustainable Community: Re-visioning Public Housing in New York. “  The project focuses on redeveloping the Baruch Houses, Lillian Wald Houses, and Jacob Riis houses by reinstating the street grid, extending the East Village commercial overlay code that would allow for retail frontage and would reconnect the developments with the adjacent neighborhoods. The project also seeks to incorporate the existing residential towers in with the new development without causing any displacement of current residents along with dedicating the majority of the 3,200 new units to affordable housing. Mahammad received the Student Grand Prize a competition sponsored by Congress For The New Urbanism for his proposal.8
Image: Plan View of proposed redevelopment. Credit: “From ‘Projects’ to a Sustainable Community” Momin Mahammad, MUD 2012
The design concepts, architecture, and materials that defined post-war public housing has played a significant role in the development of the built environment in cities all across the United States, Europe, and other countries around the world for better or worst. There is great opportunity to preserve and incorporate these developments into the framework of the city today, but I believe that ultimately their success depends upon the active participation and support of the community who lives in and around these sites.

1. Benfield, Kaid. 2012. “The Future of the Public Housing Project.” The Atlantic Cities Place Matters. Accessed Jan. 4.
2. Bauer, Catherine. Modern Housing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934. p. 111
3. Bauer, Catherine. Modern Housing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934. p. 107
4. Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing In New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in the American Metropolis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
5. Freidrichs, Chad and Jaime Freidrichs. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Directed by Chad Freidrichs. Taiwan: Unicorn Stencil, 2012.
6. The Netherland-America Foundation. 2012. “The Preservation of Public Housing: A Perspective from The Netherlands.” Accessed Jan. 3.
7. Smith, Greg B. 2013. “High and mighty NYCHA: Luxury Towers on leased land would ‘look down’ on Projects.” New York Daily News. June 11.
8. Congress For the New Urbanism. 2013. “From ‘the Projects’ to a Sustainable Community: Re-envisioning Public Housing in Lower East Side Manhattan.” Accessed Jan. 5.