Press | December 22, 2014

Just Another Messy Urban Neighborhood


By Jonathan Lerner


Remarkable simply for being normal, Melrose Commons flourishes where the Bronx once burned.


Thanks both to New York’s skyrocketing real-estate market and a mayor who promised to do something about it, affordable housing is a topic of the moment. The focus is often on below-market-rate units in high-profile new buildings (and, sometimes, on separate entrances for those units’ occupants). But a different affordable-housing model has been maturing in the South Bronx for two decades. It possesses absolutely no glam factor. It has altered the skyline, but mainly by reestablishing a version of the closely knit, stylistically unexceptional low- and mid-rise urban fabric that existed before the project area was decimated by poverty, drugs, and crime. It has certainly transformed the local streetscape, though. Into 30-some blocks now designated Melrose Commons, where it was once impossible to lead a normal life, a neighborhood has been reestablished with about 4,500 new low- and middle-income residential units and plenty of new retail operations. The lessons of this redevelopment project, which are really more about constructing community than erecting buildings, should be an operating manual for the reclamation of other damaged parts of the city.


“Develop it organically”

Melrose Commons lies within a larger area called Melrose, which has a population of 53,000 in 1920; by 1990 only 6,000 people remained, amid burned-out blocks and empty storefronts, with a median income of $12,000. The city floated a wholesale “new town” urban-renewal plan for Melrose Commons that would have razed and replaced buildings that were still standing. It met resistance from people living in them, who wanted renewal without themselves being first removed. Enter Magnus Magnusson, AIA and his partner Petr Stand, APA, who met weekly with a community group called Nos Quedamos/We Stay, which coalesced in reaction to the city’s initiative. They drafted a master plan adopted by the city in 1994 that, Magnusson says, aimed to “develop organically.”


One thing community members knew they didn’t want were towers like the dreary public housing a few blocks away; they insisted on an eight-story height limit. Magnusson’s plan called for these mid-rise buildings to be located along the principal avenues; responding to another community desire for mixed-use, they typically incorporate retail and institutional spaces at street level. Smaller-scale infill went in on side streets. Adventurous design was not on the community’s agenda. “They didn’t understand modern architecture, so we created a Bronx palate,” he says, taking cues from the area’s original early 20th-century building stock, “incorporating things that were familiar.” Most of the new buildings are primarily red and tan brick. Many have modest Art Deco motifs. The large ones are generally relieved in scale by variations in massing and in exterior finishes and color. New construction was slotted in where buildings had already been demolished or were unsalvageable . With only three significant sites now left to be filled, the result is a neighborhood that feels intact, human in scale, and much like parts of New York that never experience the trauma of disinvestment and destruction.


At the time, Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP) was developing its Melrose Commons’ scheme, Magnusson was unaware of the simultaneous founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “But since then we’ve felt that Melrose Commons is very much following the principles of New Urbanism,” he says, “tried-and-true, form-based planning that learns from what has worked in the past.” Among the many accolades Melrose Commons has earned is a CNU Charter Award; it also was the first LEED-ND-certified project in the city.


Magnusson’s firm designed the majority of new buildings, but other architects have contributed. among them are Dattner Architects, which did two pairs of mid-rises that together contain 540 apartments; one includes 23,5000 square feet of retail space and the other¬† a 10,200-square-foot community center. Danois Architects designed a three-family townhouse type, 70 of which went up on scattered sites along side streets. With a large owner unit and two rental apartments, it is a revision of a two-family owner-renter model developed earlier by the Housing Partnership, a public-private partnership that promotes affordable housing – and is both a response to the extended-family culture of the area’s predominately Latino population, and a means of encouraging ownership while providing a variety of unit sizes. Going up soon on a prominent remaining site adjacent to the glassy high-rise of Boricua College’s “vertical campus” is a large apartment complex designed by Marvel Architects that will incorporate an arts space and a plaza for performances and temporary markets. With a restrained contemporary look, it departs from what Magnusson calls the “Bronx vernacular” of the earlier new construction, but he addresses the challenge of massive size with similar tactics: a mix of material, fenestration, and height among its several volumes. “These are all ways to build scale and identity. It is the approach we take on much of our work. Affordable housing shouldn’t be any different,” says Guido Hartray, AIA, Marvel Architects’ partner-in-charge.


Thriving and exuberant

The cumulative result of all this effort is a thriving neighborhood in what was once a virtual war zone. There are very few gaps in teh built fabric, and most of those are exuberant community gardens. There is no sense of menace at all. Groups of kids walk themselves to and from school without adult supervision. Moms wheel strollers to the shops, among Melrose Commons’ retail establishments, a typical range for a working-class area, there are now three supermarkets where before there were none. In quite a few of the new townhouses, accountants, lawyers, day-care services, and other enterprises have hung out their shingles. Most of the pre-existing buildings appear to be in good shape, too; there are new windows in the old apartment houses, and few signs of neglect in the single-family homes. New and renovated housing has not changed that fact that this is still a predominately poor and low-income neighborhood, but a slum it is certainly not. “It looks like just another messy urban neighborhood,” Magnusson observes with evident satisfaction.


The “organic” way Melrose Commons has been developed – retaining existing structures and the established street grid, and using a contextual architectural language – fits it seemlessly into the larger Melrose district that surrounds it. There is considerable redevelopment taking place just beyond the project area’s borders, too; surely Melrose Commons has helped catalyze that. Just across a street, for example, is Via Verde; well-known as a model of green architecture designed by Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects, it comprises 222 rental and co-op apartments, a wellness center, roof gardens, and retail spaces. Next to that, the city’s Housing Development Corporation broke ground recently for a building with 175 apartments and 18,000 square feet of commercial and community space. Other new buildings have been going up in the area, including a seven-story, 56-room hotel.


Magnusson calls it “unfortunate” that the Melrose Commons community insisted on the eight-story height limit. Developers naturally felt compelled to maximize rentable space, which limited the opportunity for more creative design gestures such as upper-story setbacks. “We ended up with simple boxes,” he says, “but I feel good about all the families living here now, raising their kids, and feeling safe.”


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