Tuesday, February 09, 2010

. . . And Down Come the Projects

The biggest Crown Heights news last week came from the New York City Housing Authority, which announced the demolition of the 3-tower Prospect Plaza public housing complex. NYCHA claims the cost of renovating the 475-unit complex, at nearly $400,000 a unit, doesn't justify the returns, and plans instead to replace the towers with mixed-income housing. However, former residents, many of whom were relocated within the NYCHA system, have cried foul, arguing that the city's promise to renovate their apartments has been broken and expressing concern that mixed-income development will take longer to build and contain fewer units for low-income New Yorkers.

The New York Times ran a good piece on the issues facing both the agency and residents, noting a startling fact. While other cities have leveled their high-rise housing projects with what could best be described as gleeful abandon--Chicago has taken down 79 buildings--NYCHA, to date, has demolished only one: the fourth Prospect Plaza tower, in 2005. The building was replaced with a mixed-income, mixed-use development from MAP, which noted that their design "
will help to set a precedent for future developments in this area."

One reason typically given for NYCHA's thus-far conspicuous eschewing of the dynamite plunger is sheer size and density: most American cities, cleared by white flight and suburbanization while the projects went up, have the room to absorb the residents displaced by demolition, but New York City's already-tight residential market couldn't find homes for a significant portion of NYCHA residents if they were turned out. Others make a cultural case--all New Yorkers live vertically, so projects lack some of the alienation and stigma they carry elsewhere--or a management one--NYCHA took much better care of its towers than Chicago or St. Louis.

Still, one wonders whether NYCHA isn't starting to envision a grand, post-Robert-Moses remaking of its own, one that looks more like the buildings in the foreground of the bottom photo (above) than the ones looming large behind it. High-rise housing projects were already coming under heavy fire when Prospect Plaza was completed in 1974--residents resented the shoddy construction and anonymous nature of the places, while theorists from Jane Jacobs to Oscar Newman blasted the flawed logic of "towers in a garden." Anti-tower sentiment has only consolidated and escalated since--the NYTimes notes that Baltimore threw a parade when it took town 6 towers in 1995, and Mayor Daley has all but danced on the rubble of Chicago's projects.

However, the "towers are terrible" and the widespread demolition it has fostered ignore some of the more nuanced realities of public housing and urban development. Two things, in particular, are problematic: first, current residents may have criticisms, but the towers are still their homes, and being evicted anywhere is traumatic; secondly, the widely-hailed solution, mixed-use, mixed-income development, hasn't entirely delivered, for a number of reasons. It takes time to replace projects, and in the interim, residents are at the mercy of voucher programs, many of which have strict requirements if residents want to maintain their "right of return" to public housing, including not leaving the state or living in non-voucher housing (e.g. with relatives). Even for those who do return to mixed developments, the sense of community is often lost and replaced with class contention, and retail prices are often higher. This Chicago Public Radio transcript captures a few of these issues well.

Finally, critics say, the demolition of public housing may have less to do with its effectiveness (hate them though you will, towers house people, and despite "defensible space" arguments, it appears they can be managed) than what it represents--poverty--and how this affects other development in the areas near projects. Cynics everywhere have called demolitions land grabs, and cities have, in more than a few cases, proved them right, replacing low-income housing with swank condo devlopments that give lip service to "mixed-income" by providing a few heavily-policed units. Milton Bolton, the president of the Prospect Plaza Tenants Association, has made just such an accusation, pointing out that the Prospect Plaza site could house "another Atlantic Yards."

This question of perception is important in Brooklyn's gentrifying neighborhoods, many of which, including Crown Heights, contain significant public housing developments. Do we (the city and the public that our government nominally represents) want to replace projects to improve the lives of those who live within their walls, or do we want to erase these symbols of poverty so that we can better re-imagine the areas around and within them for ourselves?


  1. The critical issue is the problem with the Hope VI replacements all over the country. They build new, car-oriented suburban density which undermines local retail, transit and on-street security. They diminish by large #s the #s of public housing unit.

    Everyone finds the mixed-income so appealing, justifiably, that few recognize that density could be added to balance the low-income which would replace the middle-income population that was displaced when the public housing was built in the first place decades ago.

    Roberta Brandes Gratz, author, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way

  2. In this case, I think that its time to tear those particular buildings down. They have been empty like that for the last five years or more. I can't remember when they weren't empty. The politics may have been shady, but sadly there has already been too much done; people evicted, buildings gutted to concrete shells. Unfortunately the city has let this sit for years and it makes no sense to rehab those buildings at this point.

    In general though, I'm really against the way public housing has been demolished in other cities. Take my home town of Baltimore, where much of the public housing has been demolished over the last twenty years. In 2007 The Abell Foundation (they do Baltimore focused policy research) published a report[1] on the decline of public housing. They found that the Housing Authority's "occupied inventory has dropped by 42 percent over the last 15 years – from 16,5254 units in 1992 to 9,625 in the spring of 2007. With virtually no plans to replace the deteriorated units being razed or sold, tenant representatives and housing advocates have watched with growing alarm as they wonder if the housing authority has abandoned its mission to house the poor."

    There is hardly any public housing left in Baltimore, and none left near downtown. Much of it has been a land grab. A new University of Maryland biotechnology research center sits on what used to be public housing - in fact they were likely the low rises portrayed in the Wire (though had been razed by the time the show taped). On the east side of downtown there were several small project tracts scattered between downtown and (around) the main Johns Hopkins Medical Center campus. Several huge parcels of the land from those razed buildings have been handed over to the university. Hopkins is Baltimore's number one employer, and number two land owner so its a little like NYCHA giving land to NYU.

    The high rises that were imploded to great fanfare back in the nineties have in fact been replaced by mixed income Hope VI housing, but as Roberta mentions, the replacements are far less dense and offer less affordable housing.

    Since those particular projects were torn down, things have only gotten worse for the Housing Authority of Baltimore. As part of the 1996 federal slashing of the social safety net, the federal funding for public housing was cut drastically. The law used to require a one to one replacement for demolished public housing units. The government would also help fund it. There is no longer any such requirement or funding. In a city like Baltimore this has created a huge crisis for public housing - the city has lost a third of its population over the last thirty years, and a quarter of those left behind are likely eligible for that housing. Like most urban areas, Baltimore is in a constant budget crisis, and there is no money for public housing from the declining tax base.

    Public housing is clearly a need in our society. However until we actually change the way that we conceive of poverty, and the faces of the impoverished I fear that we will repeat the kind of short sited plans that we got with the "tower in a garden" designs. I would love to see NYCHA work with urban planners to create a new kind of high density public housing that would address some of the things we've learned about public housing, as well as things we've learned about sustainable development. I would love to see Prospect Plaza be a test case, but I'm cynical about that actually happening.

    [1] www.abell.org/pubsitems/Housing.update.100 7.pdf

  3. Hi Nat,

    I read your piece a few days ago and meant to respond sooner. Very thoughtful and was very interested to hear about Baltimore in your comment.

    Ah yes, the projects . . . when I started my blog, I was living in southeast London in a huge, brutalist 'estate' - the equivalent of an American project - the Heygate Estate, in the storied Elephant and Castle. The Heygate was universally derided as an eyesore, crime-ridden, can't get rid of it fast enough etc but, at least when I was there, it wasn't a bad place to live, and one of the few affordable places left in central London.
    The estate is due to be ripped down this year, and the whole area 'regenerated' which, given what's been built already, likely means revivified for the rich, like everywhere else in central London.

    Brutalist housing estates, here or across the pond, have many problems, but it is notable that, say, Stuyvesant Town, seems to get by just fine. As does the co-op - I can't remember the name - in Clinton Hill south of Lafayette. Both look just like 'projects'.

    Anyway, this is an immensely complicated issue, but thanks for adding this perspective.


  4. NYCHA is using some 'new math' if they think they can tear down all of the buildings and build new units for 381K per unit. The cost of demolition for the 3 remaining towers is estimated to take up all of the $20 million they have budgeted for the project. Now if their 381K included that, that means they are building the new housing at somewhere below $300 a square foot for new construction -- that means what they are planning to build is very low quality. In fact, it's likely to be lower quality than what was there originally, which by NYC standards wasn't bad (PP was built in '74). There were originally over 350 units of housing in Prospect Plaza, and NYCHA only is required by HUD to rebuild 250. More 'new math'.. they cannot achieve the same density, i.e., move everyone back, with less buildings to move them back into. Also, the lower density buildings will mean that the much-needed parks and recreations spaces Prospect Plaza had originally cannot be provided... it will be replaced by cheap, ugly apartment buildings and surface parking lots.
    Its curious that NYCHA is planning ambitious efforts to update their housing in Manhattan (St. Nick) but Brooklyn is getting screwed with broken promises and cheap housing.

    Mike, former Prospect Plaza Resident