The Bronx’s Green Housing Boom

Photo courtesy of Larry Raccioppo/HPD

When President Jimmy Carter famously visited the Bronx in October 1977, the Times began its coverage this way:

President Carter, in New York on United Nations affairs, made a sudden and dramatic trip yesteray morning to the South Bronx, where he viewed some of the country’s worst urban blight. The Presidential motorcade passed block after block of burned-out and abandoned buildings, rubble-strewn lots and open fire hydrants, and people shouting “Give us money!” and “We want jobs!”

He visited Charlotte Street, where he praised those trying to build Charlotte Gardens, one of the earliest redevelopment ideas for the Bronx still being ravaged by arson and the RAND Corporations’s “planned shrinkage” scheme to reduce city services in the neighborhoods that needed them most.

A half a block away and four years later, Daniel Petrie filmed a memorable scene from Fort Apache, the Bronx, in which a prostitue, Charlotte, played by Pam Grier, approaches and kills two police officers on a grim stretch of asphalt and decrepit buildings.

The Bronx is now emerging from the era of disinvestment in a big way. As The Times reported on plans to build a seven-story mixed-use building with ground floor retail space and 174 apartments reserved for low-income families. There was a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday. Every other month, the New York City Housing Development Corporation announces financing for multiple buildings of about that size on empty lots in the Bronx. (Most recently it announced financing on two 111-unit apartments buildings, one at Intervale and Westchester, and one at Villa Avenue and 204th Street.) The Bronx is undergoing a big housing construction boom, largely off the radar screens unless you live there.

Urban Horizons II will be at Intervale Avenue and Louis Nine Boulevard. It’s future site is pictured below.
This building is particularly exciting because it will have a “green roof,” which every building in New York should have. Topsoil and vegitation on the roof will help reduce summertime temperatures in the city, and will absorb particulate matter in a neighborhood suffering from disproportionately high asthma rates, will drink up stormwater runoff that inundates sewers that overflow with foul water into the Bronx River, and will also strengthen the roof and reduce long-term maintenance costs. Reflecting its nonprofit developers belief that Internet access should be provided to all families regardless of income, in the way that the government provides electricity or water, all the apartments will have high-speed Internet access. It is also respectful of the neighborhood’s mid-rise housing history, incorporating a red brick facade and decorative cornice and window lintels — a place that people will be proud to call home.

The image at the top of this post shows the site as it stood this morning. Below is an architectural rendering of the building.

And here is another view.

Despite the wonderful and extremely important feature of the green roof, the building’s greenest features are, to paraphrase the New Yorker’s David Owen, that it is big, and that it is in the Bronx. A large apartment building has much less surface area than the number of detached single family homes that would house an equivalent number of people. This means it requires less energy to heat in the winter and cool in the summer (and even less energy to cool because of green roof). And the building’s location next to the subway (it’s half a block away from the 2 an the 5) will encourage its residents to ride the subway instead of drive.

When you compare this building with its green roof, its retail space and its 174 wired apartments with the Charlotte Gardens up the street, the improvement the city is witnessing in affordable housing supply is stark. Begun the year after Fort Apache came out, Charlotte Gardens consists of 89 houses on 10 blocks of detached, single-family homes amid the charred rubble of a former dense neighborhood of five-story apartment buildings adjacent to Crotona Park. This suburanization of the city, in my mind, always represented the epitome of “planned shrinkage” in that it wastes 10 blocks to house the same number of people who could easily fit in one modest apartment building. The following image shows the footprint of the neighborhood circa 1965, before the arson and abandonment, and a site plan for the Charlotte Gardens.

And the following image shows a bird’s eye photograph from local.live.com of Charlotte Gardens as it appears now.

Is that the Bronx? It looks more like Long Island. As Richard Plunz wrote in A History of Housing in New York City:

At Charlotte Gardens the houses stand in surreal contrast ot the burned-out shells of apartment buildings nearby. … [A]t the very end of the era of postwar suburbanization, the suburban single-family house has finally been attained by a few urban low-income families, albeit in minuscule numbers, and in the South Bronx rather than in Hempstead. … The density of 6.2 dwellings per acre is the lowest of any social housing ever constructed in New York City.

Today, the Bronx remains as desperate for housing as ever. The decision to use 10 blocks to house 89 homes at Charlotte Gardens seems like an inefficient use of space. In any event, the Bronx has come a long way from the days of Carter’s visit and its portrayal in Fort Apache.

- The Greening of a Landmark of Urban Blight [NYT]
- Housing and Economic Development Group Pioneers New “Green” & “Wired” Affordable Housing in the South Bronx [Whedco]
- Planned Shrinkage [Everything2]
- A History of Housing in New York City [B&N]
- Fort Apache, the Bronx [IMDB]

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3 Responses to The Bronx’s Green Housing Boom

  1. deepeekay says:

    Remember the “Fort Apache” era Bronx all to well. That said-

    That clump of single family houses never rang true in my mind. Suspect that that path was a knee-jerk reaction to all the negative shit that the outside world saw (and perceived about the BX).

    While there are some positive aspects of single unit housing, there is no reason that some of the same goals couldn’t be accomplished with multiple dwellings.

    BTW, that new apartment building is very attractive.

  2. futurebird says:

    I hope they get it right this time– though “getting it right”often means gentrifying the current population out of existence– I hope that’s not the case either.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The clump of single family homes known as Charlotte Gardens was one of a few developments that contributed to the turn around of “Fort Apache” and the rest of the South Bronx.

    The business of ridiculing the low density of Charlotte Gardens is all wrong. One of the major reasons the area was destroyed in the first place was the wall to wall tenements. Very few people liked it here even 70 years ago.

    In the early ‘80’s the area was frightening, 95% burned out, filthy, dangerous and hopeless- no one even wanted to pass through, let alone live here!

    The 89 houses that make up Charlotte Gardens was the seed for many thousands of 2 & 3 family houses that have been built over the past 19 years all over the South Bronx. Charlotte Gardens was an inducement for people to take back “Fort Apache” and the rest of the South Bronx.

    There is nothing wrong with having some apartment buildings. If one advocates wall to wall apartments one would be repeating the mistake that destroyed the South Bronx in the first place.