RPA Panel: Walkable Urbanism Key to NYC’s Housing Policy

St._Nicholas_Houses.pngNYCHA plans to restore 129th Street at St. Nicholas Houses (which would chop this superblock across the middle), part of an effort to integrate good neighborhood design with housing policy. Image: Google Earth.

The key to building better and more affordable housing in New York City is that oft-cited but elusive quality: urbanism. So said a panel of housing policy experts and real estate developers at Friday’s RPA regional assembly.

New York City housing policy must create conditions for greater density, more walkability, and better planning throughout the city, the panelists agreed. Otherwise it will be impossible to achieve the PlaNYC goal of building homes for a million new New Yorkers by 2030 while making housing more affordable and ecologically sustainable.

Jerilyn Perine, the executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner under Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg, forcefully argued that a lack of proper planning has stood in the way of necessary efforts to build housing that enhances the city’s urban fabric. "Density — that’s what our city is about," she said, but added that "we have a love-hate thing with it. We don’t want it because we just do density but don’t do planning." She pointed to the Williamsburg waterfront as a location where large-scale development should be a boon to the city but isn’t being supplemented with necessary public services and transit investments, a pattern that Streetsblog examined at the parking-heavy New Domino development

The panelists didn’t discuss the effect of New York City’s parking policy on housing affordability and urban design. But the qualities they praised conflict with policies that favor the construction of parking and induce more traffic, which disrupts the pedestrian environment and slows down buses. And they implicitly argued that effective transit is what keeps housing costs within reach for many New Yorkers. Every panelist agreed that no housing is affordable if you can’t get to a job from there.

Jonathan Rose, a developer who specializes in what he calls "green urban" projects, said that building walkable neighborhoods is critical to efforts to solve New York’s housing problems. "Safe and attractive streets" and "re-densifying" our cities are a prerequisite for good growth, he said.

One agency that’s doing some interesting work to connect housing policy with urban design is the New York City Housing Authority. NYCHA General Manager Mike Kelly pointed to a site where enhancing walkability is also helping to add and improve housing. At the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem, NYCHA plans to restore the street grid to a towers-in-the-park superblock, extending 129th Street from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard.

The new street will make walking more convenient for residents and will be accompanied by the construction of a new charter school, operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone, and possibly new housing. It’s one example of the overlapping goals of affordable housing and good urbanism, and hints at the potential of a closer alliance between housing and livable streets advocates. 

  • rlb

    The irony is that massive projects like the St. Nicholas Houses are extremely walkable – in the literal sense. They are not walkable in the urban sense, in terms of having something to walk to. Connecting 129th over to 8th is not going to increase the capacity nor the demand to walk through the area. Putting a school there will increase the demand for people to walk through. Ultimately, they are putting a street where people already walk and now there will be (a probably small amount) automobile through traffic.

  • While I understand the overall desirability of urban blocks vs. superblocks, I agree with rlb. As shown in the picture, three buildings are currently isolated from car traffic. Connecting 129th would expose them to more noise and pollution — would the tenants consider that an improvement? The only way to mitigate the harm of more car traffic would be to make it a car-free street. Manhattan could certainly use a lot more car-free streets.

  • Letting cars through may increase the eyes-on-the-street effect, slightly. It’s really hard to have eyes on a street that has nothing on it, though.

  • JK

    I happen to support breaking up super-blocks, including this one, which I know pretty well. Super blocks are like suburban cul-de-sacs. Not only do they stink for bicyclists, by disrupting the grid they increase traffic on adjacent streets — especially delivery trucks and cabs, which can’t be wished away. You can see increased turning movements and conflicts on street corners adjacent to super blocks. I’d rather see traffic diffused through a fine grid of traffic calmed streets, and reduced through road and street pricing, than have huge amounts of car-free streets. (Some central plazas and parks excepted.) People and businesses still need a fair number of motor vehicles — buses, service, delivery, emergency service etc. So less traffic on more streets, instead of more traffic on fewer streets.

  • Restoring the road without restoring the “streetwall” would be better for cars than people.

    I have my own opinion about the whole mission of public housing. However, Le Corbusier’s only saving grace may be all that green space. They’re extra lungs for a neighborhood, before which there was none. Plus as mentioned above they provide a shelter, for those within, from the demolition derby of the road.

    They’re very pedestrian friendly but if we want walkability then allow the ground floor the buildings to be rented out for shops. Or if we’re going to restore the road, then restore the original streetwall.

  • J:Lai

    Think Twice – I agree that adding street level retail to the re-mapped street would be a great enhancement for the neighborhood.
    However, as far as I know the NYCDOH does not allow retail in public housing buildings.

  • vnm

    Here’s the thing about these public housing superblocks. To build them, they decommissioned some streets, which one might think in some ways would be good for livable streets, since it represents a reduction in the paved surface area devoted to the movement and storage of automobiles. But thanks to 1960s autotopia urban planning conventional wisdom, they combined decommissioning of streets with widening of peripheral streets.

    These public housing superblocks were designed to be “towers in the park,” so that people without huge incomes could have access to light and air. But the park half of the equation got nibbled when the peripheral streets were widened. In many cases, the peripheral streets are now used for perpendicular parking. They widened portions of the streets are usually only a block or two. They usually have much less traffic than they were engineered to have.

    If we are going to be giving back some street space to the movement and storage of automobiles, we should be reclaiming an equal amount of space on the way-too-wide peripheral roads to expand the “park” half of the towers-in-the-park.

  • The green space at projects isn’t even that good – it’s often in the shade of the buildings, and it’s so inward-looking that it’s easy for criminal gangs to control. Jacobs contrasts the amount of theft going on within project grounds with the much smaller amount of theft on public street corners.

  • They definitely allow retail in public housing buildings:


    And there are a few examples of NYCHA using ground-level retail to restore the street wall. Here is one near my house, though I can’t recall the name of the complex, and I’m not entirely sure if this was restored, or has always been like this:



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