Press | November 1, 2003

Everything Housing: From Homeless Shelters to Luxury Living

By Thomas D. Sullivan



The residents wanted foyers in their apartments. Because when the pizza delivery guy comes to your apartment, you want to be able to get the pie without showing him your living room. And when you want to, you can open the foyer door for your guest.


Allowing people to greet visitors in different ways was one lesson learn by Magnus Magnusson, AIA, and Petr Stand, APA, and there colleagues at Magnusson Architecture & Planning (MAP), when they planned and designed for residents of Melrose Commons, a 35-block urban renewal area in the south Bronx.


The planning process was anything but simple. It brought together neighborhood residents, city officials, politicians, nonprofit leaders, architects, and planners. It began in the early 1990s, when Yolanda Garcia and other Melrose Commons residents learned about renewal plans for their neighborhood. The plans, developed without their input, their plans would have displaced many local residents. In response, they formed a community organization,” Nos Quedamos” (“We Stay”) to fight for their neighborhood, “We weren’t going to be pushed around, “says Garcia, who leads the group.


Nos Quedamos helped shape a revised plan which was signed into law in October 1994. The residents of Melrose Commons had much to teach the design professionals and city officials. “People who are committed to community know so much” about their neighborhood, states Stand.


The residents weren’t shy about making there views known. Talking to stand, one dweller slammed a mid-1960s copy of Progressive Architecture on the table. Speaking of the modernist work on the cover the man said, “I hope this isn’t the garbage work you’re going to give us.”


But uncovering what the residents wanted took time. A simple questionnaire was aggressively distributed to the neighborhood. The key questions were: What do you like about were you live? What do you want to change the most?


Responses and meetings guided the revisions to the plans: Resident preferred mid-block parks and low-rise buildings that provided “eye on the street.” Aluminum siding was out. Color is popular – so MAP includes three colors on the facades at Melrose Commons. Magnusson notes that it takes considerable time and commitment to earn the trust fo a community, which is essential to understanding what its residents want and need. “We get in on the ground floor of a 10- to 20-year cycle of development.”


The MAP firm has completed approximately 500 units in Melrose Commons, and has approximately 1,000 more units under design, according to Magnusson. An additional 1,000 units are in planning, awaiting financing and development.


Garcia praised simple design features like broad counters for kitchens. These allow mothers to work in the kitchen while their children do homework on the opposite side. She has also begun to champion cavity-wall construction made with brick and block, which prevents the growth of mold inside apartments – and, she says, reduces the incidence of asthma among residents.


Another firm is also engaged in interesting work in Melrose Commons. David Danois Architects, PC, has completed 30 townhouse units (Melrose Commons II), and will complete 40 more in 2004 (Melrose III). With the exception of the townhouses’ rear walls, the units are built entirely with precast concrete panels. The design by Daniel Danois, AIA, won the 2003 Green Building Award form the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association in the residential project category.


Melrose Commons is a success, Garcia contends, because of the “involvement of people.” Talks with city officials and others who helped plan the community – which continues to grow – helped residents discover their voice. The design of the new buildings has a palpable impact on people in her neighborhood. “Architecture is art – you protect it,” Garcia says.


Melrose Commons showed Magnusson how vital it is to partner closely with a community group. To help it grow, he muses, “Every neighborhood deserves an architect.”


Editor’s note: Magnusson Architecture and Planning merged for a time with another firm, and was part of Larsen Shein Ginsberg + Magnussson while Plaza de Los Angeles and La Puerta de Vitalidad were designed. Magnusson was the design architect and partner-in-charge for those dwelling.