Vacant Spaces NY

Vacant Spaces NY
Michael Meredith, Hilary Sample, MOS
Actar Publishers, October 2021

Paperback | 6 x 9 inches | 608 pages | English | ISBN: 9781948765992 | $59.95


This project began by walking around our neighborhood noticing empty storefronts. Once we saw them, they were everywhere. They followed us, appearing quietly throughout New York City. Many with no signage, no “for rent,” no “coming soon.” Usually empty, sometimes dusty, sometimes with brown paper covering the glass. Now, vacancy has only increased. In the densest city in the United States. During a housing crisis. Throughout a pandemic. The quantity of vacant spaces is anyone’s best guess. It’s only partially documented. They hide in plain sight.

Vacant Spaces NY is organized from large to small, general to specific. It begins by looking at vacancy within the United States and continues down to each Manhattan neighborhood, where we zoom into specific vacant spaces, where we have provided as case studies that imagine some possibilities for transforming current vacant spaces into housing or social services. There is also a section on Covid 19, which infiltrated New York during our research. As a whole, this document is not meant to provide specific solutions. The data is incomplete. Case studies are limited. We are not policy experts or data analysts or urban planners. Instead, it is simply meant to show something we have taken for granted, vacant spaces, taking part in a collective process of imagining a better city.

Michael Meredith, along with Hilary Sample, is a principal of MOS, an internationally recognized architecture practice based in New York, and Professor at Princeton University School of Architecture. Hilary Sample is the IDC Professor of Housing Design and Sequence Director of the Core Architecture Studios at GSAPP, and co-founder of the New York-based architecture and design studio MOS.


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Traditionally, the busiest shopping street in my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, is Steinway, a north-south street that is home to clothing stores, restaurants, coffee shops, pharmacies, thrift stores, and other places to shop, as well as storefronts occupied by real estate brokers, dentists, attorneys, the ubiquitous branch banks, and other services. Although it would seem that the street's density and diversity of offerings would have made it less susceptible to the retail crisis brought on by online shopping and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, that is not the case as I've seen at numerous times, both before and after the start of lockdown in March 2020. Looking at one particularly glaring section of the street on Google Maps (using Street View's Time Machine feature), it appears that a trio of contiguous storefronts have been empty from at least November 2019 to May 2021 — or nearly 2.5 years if the situation holds today. Not only is walking up and down a street that is a patchwork of empty storefronts depressing, the situation exacerbates the death of once lively thoroughfares, places that were as much social as commercial.

Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, via Google Maps

Like most New Yorkers, myself included, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS Architects are well aware of the pervasive emptiness of retail storefronts around the city. Yet, instead of just shrugging their shoulders or complaining to their neighbors, the two architects and educators worked with students at Princeton University's School of Architecture and architects in their office to document vacancies in Manhattan and speculate on potential futures for the ground-floor spaces. Vacant Spaces NY is the outcome of that research and design process, a timely and colorful — Pantone 805, to be exact — book that focuses on a few neighborhoods in Manhattan but is applicable to nearly every neighborhood in all five boroughs.

All spreads from Vacant Spaces NY courtesy of Actar/Issuu

Most of the book's more than 600 pages are given over to maps, charts, and photographs that illustrate vacancies in Harlem, Chinatown, Midtown, and other neighborhoods in Manhattan, following from the city's Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (NTAs) rather than real estate designations, zip codes, or census tracts. Asserting that "data on vacant spaces in New York is opaque," the team made their own observations, photographing vacancies in each of the neighborhoods they covered. As such, the project focuses exclusively on storefront spaces, not residential and commercial spaces in upper floors, even though offices in particular also have higher vacancies due to COVID-19. The visibility of emptiness is what's important, as is the duration; the inclusion of the number of "days since logged occupancy" with the photographs is especially helpful in regards to the latter.

For people not overly familiar with the Manhattan cityscape, the research documentation can be a little frustrating at times. Names of streets and avenues are not included on the maps, no doubt to reduce clutter and accentuate the impact of the Pantone pink/orange on the page; that reduces the maps to solid/void diagrams about emptiness instead of allowing them to be useful tools for others. Similarly, given that most commercial corridors in Manhattan are on north-south avenues, it would have been helpful to include cross streets next to the addresses under the photos; Manhattan's convoluted "system" of avenue numbering makes it difficult to locate an empty storefront, if so desired, without using Google Maps. And given that the maps are, again, devoid of street and avenue names, locating the photographs on the maps is doubly difficult.

The second part of the book sees "vacancy as an opportunity," especially in regard to housing, as spelled out in a chapter with that title. Although storefront spaces are traditionally — and legally, in terms of zoning — limited to dining, shops, commercial services, and community spaces — the greatest need for space in New York City is housing, particularly affordable housing. Each mayoral administration this century has tried to address the housing crisis, creating affordable housing through a variety of means, but given a reliance on developers the pace of supply cannot meet demand. Not even close. In turn, an obvious opportunity is found in the empty storefronts that landlords are in no rush to fill. Just as other cities have possessed apartments left empty for overly long durations to turn them into affordable housing, it's not out of the realm of possibility to foresee empty NY storefronts shifted to other uses to address need.

But how to fill those spaces? The Vacant Spaces NY team targeted just a few of the empty storefronts they documented earlier in the book, analyzing them in terms of various contextual factors to determine what they should be occupied with, and looking at their physical characteristics to come up with the most basic of designs. Many of the spaces are turned, not surprisingly, into housing, but not always simply one, two, or however many apartments can comfortably fill them. In the example illustrated here, a line of empty storefronts on Frederick Douglass Boulevard just two blocks from Central Park is transformed into collective housing with "a collective art residency for artists" that could become "a place for experimentation and other models of living." Although one of the four storefronts has since been filled, per a quick glance at Google Maps, the consistent facade treatment on the remaining three spaces indicates that such a transformation — turning three or four spaces into one — is feasible, given the right combination of creativity and political will.

Most of the case studies are, like the one illustrated and discussed above, singe instances in larger areas, but the authors end the book by focusing on one neighborhood, Chinatown, and developing more than a dozen proposals within a few blocks of each other. Chinatown is an excellent location for a multitude of proposals, given the neighborhood's pre-pandemic gentrification, the racism and violence targeted at residents during COVID-19, and the predominance of older buildings with smaller footprints. The various designs are specific to their context but are also more widely applicable, especially since a lot of buildings in NYC still retain the single-lot footprints that so many new developments obliterate. So, in the end the book is a critique of New York City's rampant, zoning-enabled, developer-driven, tear-down-and-build-up mentality, instead saying that there are enough buildings but their spaces need to be filled in in better, more equitable ways. Though out of step with "big real estate's" insatiable thirst for luxury housing, it's an approach that is in step with the times and will most likely see more and more support as time marches on.