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Dear Mayor Bill de Blasio: Letter From an Urban Designer in Brooklyn

05/02/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2014

This letter is currently on exhibit with 49 other letters to mayors across 20 cities at Storefront for Art & Architecture downtown.

Dear Mayor De Blasio:

Thank you. Thank you for being you. Thank you for talking about a grassroots approach to New York City governance.

Your time is precious, so I will be brief.

Your focus on affordable housing is inspiring. You boldly include public housing in your affordable housing plan ("Safe, Affordable Homes for All New Yorkers"). The ninth point of this plan states your commendable goal to "Make Our Public Housing the Pride of Our City." The two quick paragraphs that follow mention, however, as specifics, 1) removing mold and 2) hiring tenants to make safety repairs.

These are important matters, but these improvements are not quite getting to the level of the "Pride of Our City."

For New York City to be proud of something, it better be impressive. It better have style and a story behind it. It will likely be something the rest of the country does not yet have or cannot have. New York City is proud of the Yankees and Jay-Z, skyscrapers and Fashion Week, Basquiat and the Lower East Side, downtown dance, the United Nations, the Harlem Renaissance, the art market, 24-hour transit, Puerto Rico, Museum Mile and surfing the Rockaways in the summer. (Puerto Rico is not actually in New York City, but it is very close.) Snaking the drain and cleaning out mold are a great start, but that will never be enough.

How does it happen, then? How can New York City Housing Authority housing really become the Pride of Our City?

I trust that you are already working on this, so I will be brief. My proposal is in two parts. The first part is so obvious that I will skip over it rather quickly. The second part demands some nuanced consideration, as it may be overly ambitious.

1) Build new public housing with the most forward-thinking, innovative design firms in the country. (Hint, these firms are local.)

Launch international competitions or invited competitions, or expand the DDC Design and Construction Excellence program to include even more firms with an even wider range of experiences. Whatever you do, please do not use the large corporate firms that do so much New Urbanist work in Florida because, honestly, they make New York City look like Florida.

2) Retro-fit from the ground up.

This second part of my proposal would involve some changes to the structure of NYCHA property management.

Let us look with fresh eyes at one area in Brooklyn, not so different from other neighborhoods in its layout, but famous and heralded for its location, amenities, and gentrification: Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Please see the enclosed Figure 1 as a reference.

2014-05-02-Figure1FortGreene.jpg

Looking at this map, or a map of many other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, one does not need a degree in planning to notice that public housing was used in the 20th century as a buffer between industrial zoning and private residential neighborhoods. Of course, with the transition from heavy and light industrial to digital production, Etsy, and commercial design offices, what used to be a buffer now sits on prime real estate. While, in the long-term, one might consider this poetic justice for what planners certainly intended as the short end of the stick, that will be the rare response. More frequent will be calls, such as the former Mayors', to build revenue generation into the housing, integrate retail and commercial activity, plug in some market rate housing -- i.e. a slippery slope to privatization.

This is what makes your approach so bold. Rather than apologizing for public housing, asking it to pay for its accidentally prime location, you say -- What we have is not enough.

The enclosed map focuses on Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and surrounding neighborhoods, showing Farragut Houses and Walt Whitman Houses along with Brooklyn Navy Yards, Fort Greene, DUMBO and adjacent neighborhoods, up to Brooklyn Bridge Park and the East River. In a simple way, this map considers New York City parks and New York City Housing Authority open spaces together as one system of public space. What if NYCHA's public spaces were open to the public?

This leads to part 2 a) of my proposal.

a) Tear down the awful black gates. Under the authority of NYCHA, get rid of the gates and the signs that say NYCHA residents only. Why are NYCHA's ground-level landscaped areas gated off like a giant suburban front yard? The rest of New York City is comfortable with privately-owned public space. NYCHA needlessly maintains gated communities.

b) Make the "park" part of NYCHA's 20th century "towers-in-a-park" typology actual Parks. Imagine if the open space around NYCHA towers were landscaped with as much consideration as Brooklyn Bridge Park or the Highline. Both are managed by New York City Parks Department. With the design vision and political will, it is possible, no?

c) Retro-fit the architecture without removing the tenants. This can be done, as well. La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris is one of many inspiring social housing retrofit projects. The tenants of La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre gained larger, daylight-filled living rooms and the neighborhood gained a better-looking tower, through pre-fabricated modules inserted from the exterior. There are many notable examples throughout Europe, Latin America, Singapore, and elsewhere. New York City needs to lead in the United States. No other city in the country has the density of social housing, the political commitment, or the plethora of urban design and architectural talent.

If it seems inappropriate or superficial to be talking about design when there are important safety and maintenance issues to consider, let me just emphasize in conclusion that these are not fluff issues. When NYCHA housing separates itself from the rest of the city physically and logistically, it isolates its residents and leaves itself politically prey to privatization land-grabs. As far as the significance of design and style in these considerations, let us not forget that Marcy House's most famous former resident founded a fashion label, along with a recording music empire. Through hip-hop, especially, New York City's housing projects have set style for millions, if not billions around the globe.

I hope your administration will be the first to do justice to that legacy, as well as the first to treat New York City public housing as worthy of design greatness. Make our public housing the pride of our city by building new housing projects with the most innovative design talent, converting existing NYCHA open spaces into 21st century urban parks, and retrofitting apartments with care for both existing residents and changing neighborhoods.

Sincerely,

V. Mitch McEwen
Partner, A(n) Office
Principal, McEwen Studio