Blighted Bronx Revives With Roof Gardens, Solar Panels

Via Verde
An overall view of Via Verde, a 222-apartment development in the Bronx that mixes for-sale apartments and rental for a mix of incomes. The stepping form reduces the apparent size of the development and makes room for rooftop gardens shaded by trellises supporting solar panels. Photographer: David Sundberg/ESTO via Bloomberg

My tour of the new Via Verde apartment complex began on a roof that sprouts just-planted Christmas trees.

Stairs brought me to three higher levels, where I walked through a grove of cherry trees and vegetables beds, then entered a fitness room under a porch roofed with solar panels.

This is affordable housing? In the once-blighted Bronx?

It’s a new model serving a range of low to middle incomes, a huge swath of people that the conventional housing market doesn’t reach.

The City of New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and its Housing Development Corporation took an industrial 1.5-acre wedge of land and packed it with ideas to improve the quality of housing.

In the course of years of investment, the city helped fill empty blocks with housing and restore old apartments. Shoppers now throng the Hub, a retail nexus just blocks from Via Verde.

In a design by Dattner Architects and the New York office of London-based Grimshaw, a narrow building wraps around the edges of the site to form a protected inner courtyard. The roofline rises in jazzy syncopated steps from three-story townhouses to a 20-story tower.

The low-rise wings guide the winter sun into a landscaped courtyard that features a children’s play area patterned in a swirling rubbery play surface.

Block-Long Invitation

Grillwork sun shades spray checkerboards of shadow across the silvery building panels. Colorful wood-panel accents dot the surface like an outsized Mondrian.

The whole structure extends a block-long invitation -- a rarity for a large development.

Via Verde’s most remarkable amenity is its multilevel roofscape, most of which is open to all residents. I can’t imagine anyone -- especially children -- who wouldn’t want to scale the bleachers leading up from the play area to take in the expansive views among rooftop trees. Or clamber higher to tend vegetables, helped by the nonprofit GrowNYC. Residents will also harvest an annual Christmas tree from the grove of firs.

These design elements urge residents into safe play, exercise, and healthy eating habits -- an antidote to the high rates of asthma and obesity found in the South Bronx.

Dattner and Grimshaw configured most apartments to cross ventilate, drawing in fresh air naturally. With the sun shades and ceiling fans, residents can choose to forgo air conditioning entirely. Heavy insulation and solar panels cut energy use. The rooftop gardens recycle rainwater.

Ambitious Goals

Shaun Donovan (who headed the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and is now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington) worked with community groups to define the project’s ambitious goals. He also collaborated with the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects on a design competition.

The two architecture firms won the competition in 2007, and teamed with locally based Phipps Houses Group and the Jonathan Rose Companies, both experienced developers and owners of affordable housing.

Rental units in the high-rise side of the project serve a range of low incomes. More than 7,000 people applied for 151 apartments. The lowrise half is a co-op selling 71 walkups, duplexes and floor-through live/work units. Households with incomes as high as $146,000 can apply for the apartments still for sale.

Mixed-income buildings and neighborhoods tend to be more resilient. Mixing rented and owned units is rarely done in the U.S.; the blend at Via Verde should raise residents’ stake in the long-term success of the project.

Assembling Funds

Unlike market-rate housing, which is heavily subsidized from federal tax revenue -- through deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes and home-equity loans -- low-income housing is perennially underfunded. Developers must usually assemble financing from a minimum of five sources, a costly and time-consuming process.

“A market-rate project would have required only two,” said Ari Goldstein, the senior project manager for Jonathan Rose.

Because of Via Verde’s resident mix and advanced green features, Phipps and Jonathan Rose had to assemble 13 public and private financing partners. That helped drive the $240-per-square-foot construction cost up to $340.

Via Verde shows the power of thoughtful design to transform low-income housing. Now it’s time to streamline the process and expand the supply. With housing starts stuck at historic lows, encouraging the “affordable” market would add desperately needed jobs while transforming peoples’ lives.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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