Construction is underway at the James Weldon Johnson Houses, a public housing project consisting of 10 residential towers on two superblocks in East Harlem bounded by 112th and 115th Streets, Park and Third Avenues. The housing project, administered by the New York City Housing Authority, is home to nearly 3,000 people who live in 1,308 apartments. The towers were completed in December 1948, early in the Modernist tower-in-the-park era of postwar housing construction. This philosophy tried to suburbanize the city by creating big, detached houses (with lots of people in them) surrounded by lush green lawns that rejuvenate the soul of one who so much as looks at them. It attempted to eliminate the essence of what makes a city a vital, exciting place to inhabit in favor of regimented slabs that lacked a retail presence. The James Weldon Johnson Houses are part of “The Project Wall” — a vast stretch of seven superblocks from Lenox Avenue to First Avenue that contain monotonous, bleak rows of towers that sever the vibrant, low-scale neighborhoods to the north and south. The Project Wall all but obliterated East 113th and 114th Streets and widened East 112th and 115th Streets to Interstate widths that intimidate pedestrians and encourage speeding.
Thankfully, this mode of development has been discredited and planners are beginning to make furtive steps at incorporating towers in the park and similar Modernist abominations back into the surrounding city fabric. At Lincoln Center, planners are narrowing streets and improving plazas. The Federal Hope VI program aims to achieve similar goals on a broader scale.
Here at the Johnson Houses, construction is proceeding on what is probably going to be a community facility of some type, perhaps a daycare center, which would help satisfy an important and much needed function. From an urban design perspective, it looks like this building will help to improve the street wall somewhat, making the pedestrian experience more pleasant and channeling a degree of vitality to the sidewalks. This development represents a way that the unused space around housing projects can be put to better use, provided that the massing and orientation of the buildings are done correctly. At right is a map of the general area where the new building will sit.
The difficulty with adding buildings to the sites of tower-in-the-park projects is that new buildings have the potential block the light and air to existing lower floors. The existing towers were designed to sit in open space, so they don’t lend themselves to easily sharing space with other buildings. Worse, all the buildings will decay at the same time, eliminating the organic, continual upgrading and replacement that occurs on normal blocks.