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Monday, July 02, 2012

Via Verde



Via Verde in the Bronx, New York by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw, 2012

In 2003 the New Housing New York (NHNY) design ideas competition was launched by AIANY, the Council of the City of New York, and CUNY, leading to the NHNY Legacy Project three years later, which aimed at realizing a sustainable affordable housing project. Sponsored by AIANY and NYC's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the competition targeted an elongated, triangular site near "The Hub" shopping area in the Bronx, asking architect-developer teams to submit designs that nevertheless could be replicated elsewhere. The team of Dattner Architects and Grimshaw with for-profit developer Jonathan Rose Companies and non-profit developer Phipps House won the competition with Via Verde (The Green Way), a distinctive design that terraces up as it snakes its way around the perimeter of the site.

Six years later and Via Verde is complete, a handsome presence in its Bronx setting that wears many of its sustainable features for all to see. For, unlike buildings in Manhattan that tier as they rise in response to the required zoning envelope -- not interested in providing anything of use with the setbacks -- the terraces at Via Verde support urban agriculture, green roofs, and space for photovoltaic panels. The last is especially prominent from the south and west, and the first two are hinted at through the greenery visible on the roof from the same two directions. Cutouts in the long Brook Avenue elevation facing west (top photo) also give glimpses into the courtyard, where the terracing starts, and where the project really gets interesting.

One of the gaps in the Brook Avenue street wall is the main entrance for the residents. Straight ahead through the gate is a children's play area that is overlooked by a small amphitheater. At first blush, it seems like an odd place for such a thing, but it serves two purposes: allowing parents to oversee their children and giving access to the first of four accessible terraces. Ascending from the amphitheater are the evergreen orchard, fruit trees orchard, vegetable garden, and fitness center garden; higher still are inaccessible green roofs bordered by PV panels. (See this diagram for help in orientation.) The vegetable garden is the largest terrace, acting as a hinge between the southward terraces and the northward ones; the latter ascends along Brook Avenue and terminates at the 20-story tower on the north end of the block.

Beneath the various terraces are 222 units in a mix of apartments, duplexes, townhouses, and even live-work units. Of that number, 151 are set aside as affordable rentals (affordable is defined as making 30-60% of the area's median income); co-ops comprise the remainder. Not surprisingly, the townhouses are beneath the low terraces, the apartments are in the tower, and the duplexes are in between, in the Brook Avenue bar south of the tower. The last are reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation, such that there is flow-through ventilation, corridors happen every two floors, and units are L-shaped in section -- a living room on one side and bedrooms above on both the street and courtyard elevations, the latter with balconies. All of the project's units are expressed with a crisp rainscreen facade of three panel types -- aluminum, fiber cement, wood composite -- and generous sunshades over the windows.

Of course, the unique response to the site via the building's massing, the mix of unit types, and the prefabricated facade make the replicable nature of the project highly questionable. Costs for the $100 million project break down to $236/sf, leading some people to call Via Verde the High Line of affordable housing (source). Yet from experiencing the building firsthand, the most valuable lesson that the project can give is in the way it uses the site toward social ends. The terraced snaking of the building creates an intimate communal space that is far from a leftover space between buildings, the way many outdoor spaces are treated in housing, be it affordable or even market-rate. As the landscape continues up the building in a series of terraces, the outdoor communal space is expanded to create an active place that actually invites use. This is no easy feat, and it is a testament to thoughtful planning, good architecture, and the desire to make an impression with affordable housing.

Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

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