Here a project that exemplifies the best execution of infill development and affordable housing production that I have seen. At West 120th Street and Mount Morris Park West, a row of nine brownstones built in 1891 and 1893 was allowed to decay during the 1980s and 1990s to the point where the houses were mere empty shells known as “the Ruins” and seen here in a photo from the Community Preservation Corporation. The state of the buildings was so dismal that the AIA Guide to New York City, 4th edition (2000), seemed resigned to their perpeptual disrepair:
Ruins with a future? Perhaps New York deserves something equal to Tintern Abbey or Heidelberg’s castle, reminding us of the ups and downs of urban life.
Today, the buildings have been completely rebuilt.
These buildings won McGraw Hill Construction’s 2002 Residential Project of the Year award, and for good reason. Here is part of the citation:
Mount Morris West Condominium is the triumphant tale of nine Victorian brownstones that were once the centerpiece of the Mount Morris Park area. The site, at 120th St. and Mount Morris Park in Central Harlem, is part of an historic district.
The brownstones were considered ruins, challenging the project team to repair, reconstruct and restore the existing facades, construct contextual infill facades where existing facades had been demolished, installation of landmark-quality wood windows, replacement of metal cornices, repair, replacement and/or restoration of decorative brownstone cornice details and reconstruction of the brownstone front stops and yards.
The buildings opened in 2002 with 36 apartments. Units in here would easily sell today for, I don’t know, probably anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. But they were built to be housing for middle-income people. (Prices started at $195,000 for 18 two-bedroom units and $243,000 for three-bedroom ones.) So here is a project that increases the housing supply at reasonable rates and preserves stately historic architecture and does both at density levels that sustain their neighborhood.
Much of the affordable housing production during the 1980s and 1990s, like the Partnership Houses and the Nehemiah Houses, consisted of cookie-cutter, sometimes cheap-looking rowhouses that provide opportunities for home ownership but eat up too much land to house too few people. Each with its car pad out front, these strips represent creeping suburbia, making permanent the depopulation that came when these once-bustling neighborhoods burned in the 1970s. All over the city you find two- or three-story rowhouses standing among to the older five-story apartment buildings that a city district needs to support walkable retail and mass transit. Cutting against this trend, here is a project that keeps the density that made Harlem a great place to be during its heyday from 1880 to 1950.
Today, a plaque adorns the buildings. It reads:
Restoration of 1-9 Mount Morris Park West Brownstones was made possible, in part, by a NYS Department of Transportation grant secured by Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and a historic preservation grant from The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This project was sponsored by Harlem Community Development Corporation.