Unreleased Masterplans Show Sustainable Roots for Low Income Housing

Eat Harlem Low Income HousingIn 1972, one of the most ambitious government-funded, low income housing projects in history broke ground in Harlem on the upper East side of Manhattan. Spanning an entire city block, the Taino Towers complex boasted four-story base with various integrated amenities supporting four 35-story towers of concrete and glass to stand over the surrounding neighborhood. The project was known as a “pilot block”, meant to serve as a new urban model for the integration of low-income housing into large cities like New York. However, there also exists a little-known master plan for future phases of low-income development in Harlem that were drafted as a model for sustainable urban growth.

Taino Towers was realized due to the funding of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). At the time, the project was the largest endeavor that HUD had ever undertaken. The design goal was to redefine low-income development away from the string of “project” housing that had materialized in the city. Instead of isolated towers existing in a parkscape of connecting paths, the four towers of apartments sat on a base containing a series of useful programs whose proximity would add safety and convenience to life on the block while fostering a inherent sense of community. Inside, the building hosted apartments from studios to 6-bedroom units with nearly every unit having a balcony overlooking the city and ceiling heights up to 11 feet. For an inner-city housing project, Taino was trailblazing new boundaries for size and scope.

A HUD-guaranteed loan for $39 million plus $3 million for the site itself began the construction effort in 1972, but costs would eventually spiral to upwards of $60 million before the project was finally completed almost 12 years later after a flurry of construction difficulties and legal battles. In the dollars of today, the price tag would be over $220 million. To the eyes of the public, these attributes paint a project of the massive scale that sparked many controversial exchanges that rose to the highest level of President Ronald Reagan’s office who criticized the development as luxury living for the poor.

But if we peel back the curtain to the hands that were guiding the design of Taino Towers, we can see that the single block was only a piece of a larger vision for reviving Harlem. When a colleague of mine poured through the mountains of original drawings for the complex, created by architects Silverman & Cika, he came across the fascinating image below.  Whether or not you like the architecture, the rendering is—at the very least—an impressive piece of artistry. As an architect, I can vouch for this taking many hours of diligent work to produce, but the values and goals that are woven into this vision of a new urban fabric have a strong undertone of sustainability.

Silvermnan Cika Plan 1

East Harlem Pilot Block Phase 2 (click to enlarge)

The drawing is labeled as “Phase 2” for the East Harlem Pilot Block. The rendering holds little resemblance to any part of Manhattan that we know. First of all, there are many more people than cars. The proposed strategy rises from a pedestrian-centric environment; a series of terraced, gardened pathways and buildings that extend the pedestrian experience beyond merely the level of the traditional sidewalk. The archetype of the New York Brownstone is pushed and pulled into hillsides of living and shopping intermingled with public space. This masterplan is clearly designed to promote street life and pedestrian traffic—the source of a well-functioning, sustainable city.

Every so often these lower planes of movement and commerce rise up into a building with a conspicuous pitched roof. It is likely no coincidence that all of these buildings are oriented to face south and arranged to minimize any tall building casting a shadow over another. Above the lines of tiered balconies, the sixteen square objects could very well be solar panels. Notice as well how the lower portions of each building are tapered inwards to allow more natural daylight to reach the ground around it. Vegetation does not play a defining role in terms of form, but its abundant presence would help to mitigate both solar heat gain and stormwater runoff. This is a case where a green city does not hinge on being a “garden city”.

In the background stands a massive, cylindrical tower rising out of a heavily vegetated block. The tall, thin design seems like an ode to efficiency achieved through density. As it looms over the rest of the image it is easy to forget the scale of the drawing and what it encompasses. This plan spans over six city blocks, over 1.5 million square feet. If you have trouble identifying the four original Taino Towers of “Phase 1”, they are the four pale forms drawn without detail in the midst of the urban scheme. If the scale holds true to their final, built existence of 35 stories tall then the top floor of the futuristic tower in the rear would have to be over twice as high off the ground.

Amazingly enough, Silverman & Cika did not limit their imaginations to a mere six city blocks. On the nearby shores of the East River another massive plan for a cultural center was depicted on the coast, seemingly taking up roughly another six city blocks with a foot bridge that disappears off the page—theoretically to the far off banks of Randall’s Island! Again, an arrangement of multi-level pathways end in strict, geometric buildings with one tall skyscraper pinning the core of the development to the site. The city grid is rendered barren, little more than an errant existing condition aside from the Phase 2 development to the Northwest and an unnamed group of buildings to the Southwest (perhaps Phase 4?).

Silverman Cika Cultural Center

East Harlem Cultural Center (click to enlarge)

Interestingly enough, this image was likely designed not long after the completion of the FDR (or East Side Highway) in 1966 whose viaducts severed the city’s connection with its waterfront. On the contrary this project proposes a reversal in creating a building fabric that surmounts car infrastructure to grant access to the river back to the people.

Too Big & Too Rigid

To be fair, for as many strides as the designers tried to take in depicting a new reality for depressed Manhattan residents, there are a few things that are contrary to a sustainable mindset.

Though the grand scale of these designs was common in the era of their creation, their size and scope inherently barred them from realization. One common quality of most masterplans drawn throughout the 50’s and 60’s is the fact they usually were never finished. The original pilot block of Taino Towers took over a decade to finish and yet represented one twelfth the entire plan’s girth that could have required billions of today’s dollars.

Furthermore, the allusion to phasing in these drawings is deceiving given that the phased portions are still more than any private consortium of developers could ever create, restricting them to the realm of vast, government-directed projects. The poison pill for plans like this one was their prescriptive and rigid nature. As urban planners of today are much more aware, any plan that spans over such large amounts of urban space must allow for more than one definitive conclusion—an urban M.O. rather than a detailed plan with every entrance located. Without any ability to respond to the ever-changing present, it was only a matter of time (and usually shorter than their designers anticipated) before the unbuilt portions these plans became outdated.

In this light, this aspect of masterplans like this one is inherently unsustainable—to the point that it prevents realization.

Low-Income Sustainability is Still Worthwhile

Despite the fact that these drawings, and Taino Towers, don’t represent a silver bullet for sustainable low-income housing development, it does not mean that the goal lacks merit or plausibility. Accepting that it is likely that the U.S. will continue to help fund low income housing projects, integrating systems that continue to help these developments become closer to self-sustaining not only helps the residents, but taxpayers as well. Whether it is renewable energy production, more efficient lighting or geothermal heating and cooling, sustainable building systems can lower the long term costs of living for the people that need the help the most. Greener buildings are also healthier buildings, with focus on indoor air quality and VOC content that help decrease mold and hazardous off gassing.  Whether it is construction, maintenance or health care, large portions of these bills ends up finding their way back to government funding anyway—just another diversion of tax dollars.

Bronx Green Affordable HousingThough low income housing projects are even more restricted on budget than most buildings trying to be greener, the task is still far from impossible. Johnathan Rose, a developer in New York, has carved out a portion his business for the construction of affordable housing and sustainability has an ever-growing presence in his portfolio. Projects like the Via Verde, sited in the Bronx, combine affordability with density and sustainable systems like rooftop farming. This project was designed to exceed LEED Gold status. Like the Taino Towers, projects like this try to bring about an evolution of the building blocks of low-income development. *As a sidenote, during my time at Cook+Fox architects I had the privilege of actually participating in the competition that prompted the design of this complex—albeit on a different team!

Image Credits: harlemonestop.com , rose-network.com ,