Press | February 5, 2007

Magnusson Architecture Breaks Template of Traditional HUD Design

By Matthew Marin, Associate Editor Multi-Housing News


Designed under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Section 202 program, La Casa de Felicidad is an 85-unit, seven-story housing complex in the Melrose Commons section of the Bronx. New York-based Magnusson Architecture and Planning PC strived to create a hospitable environment for low-income seniors.


Completed in late 2006, La Casa de Felicidad is expected to be fully occupied this month. Magnusson worked closely with the two developers. The joint venture of Nos Quedamos, a local community group, and Phipps Houses, the oldest non-profit housing developer in New York City, had secured funds from the Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program. It offers capital advances for the construction of supportive housing for very low-income seniors.


Located at the intersection of Third Avenue and 158th Street, the project sits at the edge of the Melrose Commons neighborhood, a 15-minute walk to Yankee Stadium. The Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan Design Guidelines determined the building massing and street frontage of the project. The 74,000-sq .-ft. development, situated across from a public park, runs almost the entire block from I 58th Street south to 157th Street, as well as 100 feet along 158th Street.


To enhance a sense of community in the building, Magnusson designed resident dayrooms on each floor, inspired by neighborhood elders who often sat on lawn chairs in front of their apartment buildings during warm weather months. The firm positioned dayrooms at the corner of the building and opposite the elevator lobby with double-height windows that face out onto Third Avenue.


“At La Casa de Felicidad, people can see the world, watch children play across the street at the park and see the passing traffic on the block, which has an s-shape curve,” Petr Stand, APA, principal of Magnusson Architecture and Planning PC, told MHN. “Everyone calls buildings designed under HUD Section 202 housing a vanilla box, providing a roof, shelter and heat–no more, no less.”


Typically, HUD 202 guidelines do not provide for such gathering spaces on every floor. Magnusson’s placement of the dayrooms near elevator lobbies complied with HUD 202 requirements. These gathering spaces offer a place where elderly residents can spend time together regardless of the weather. The elimination of doors further encourages residents to use the spaces freely and frequently.


In addition to the layout of the dayrooms, Magnusson aimed to create a community atmosphere in the laundry rooms, which were placed on the main floor, near the lobby, as opposed to in the basement. The laundry rooms have double-height windows, allowing residents to “see what’s going on, and it can be a part of the social setting of the building,” Stand said.


Street-level community spaces, meanwhile, face either Third Avenue or a landscaped garden space with raised planting beds, near the rear of the building. Social services offices, the building management offices, security and mechanical spaces as well as residential units for the hearing and visually impaired are also located on the street level.


To create a vibrant aesthetic, the color scheme of the exterior masonry is a yellow and gold tone, reflective of schemes seen in the Caribbean because 75 percent of the people in the area are Hispanic, according to Stand. The look of the building has also made a positive impression on people outside the area as well. “People have looked at it and said, ‘Where is the condo sales office?” Stand added. “It doesn’t look like an affordable housing project. We believe that [all people] should live in dignity and grace.”


Touring other urban HUD 202 projects, the design team observed details that could be applied to La Casa, which lead to the inclusion of features such as roll-in showers in handicapped units. Handicapped accessible units are located on each floor opposite the elevator lobby. All of the apartments are handicapped adaptable and meet Uniform Federal Accessibility Guidelines.


The developer’s ties to the community prompted some unique design decisions, such as the use of cavity walls in the building’s construction. Typical HUD 202 buildings are built with bonded walls, which are not breathable and retain mold-causing moisture. Nos Quedamos lobbied for the use of cavity wall due to the high incidence of asthma in the neighborhood.


Nos Quedamos was also instrumental in choosing the building’s site. In order to reinforce residents’ connection to the urban community, there is a corner setback creating a small plaza at the street level. Across the street is a bus stop where residents can board busses to Fordham Mall or to the Hub where they can connect to Manhattan-bound subways.


“We believe the location and design combine to make this one of our finest projects,” Adam Weinstein, president of Phipps Houses Group, said in a statement.


La Casa de Felicidad is situated opposite La Puerta de Vitalidad, a 61-unit apartment building for low-income families. Together, these two projects are expected form a gateway to the transformed Melrose Commons neighborhood. The area is considered one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation, according to Stand.


Since the early 1990s, Magnusson has designed about 16 residential developments in Melrose Commons, totaling about 1,000 units and one million square feet.