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Home > Best Practices > Bronx, New York: Innovative Design of Via Verde’s Affordable Housing Development

 

Bronx, New York: Innovative Design of Via Verde’s Affordable Housing Development

 

Via Verde (“the green way”) is a 222-unit mixed-income and tenure housing development in the South Bronx area of New York City. The winner of the New Housing New York Legacy Project (NHNY) design competition, Via Verde is an incubator of sustainable design features that promote resource efficiency and a healthy, active lifestyle for residents. The LEED Gold-certified building includes many innovations in design and construction technology that offer important lessons for affordable housing developments across the country.

Background and Context

In 2003, the city of New York announced the New Housing Marketplace Plan (Housing Plan) in a mayoral-led response to the citywide shortage of affordable housing. The $7.5 billion plan responded to the city’s rapid population growth during the 1990s and early 2000s (between 1990 and 2010, the city added more than 850,000 new residents) and subsequent housing shortage with a comprehensive strategy to create and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing over a period of 10 years (2004–2013).1 The city’s commitment to increase the housing supply has been supported by efforts to improve its quality with respect to design, environmental sustainability, and long-term affordability. In 2006, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), in partnership with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, (NYSERDA), Enterprise Community Partners, and JP Morgan Chase Bank, sponsored the NHNY design competition in an effort to “…raise the bar for design excellence and innovation in affordable housing in New York City and beyond” through a juried design competition.2 The competition was more than a conceptual exercise to solicit bold ideas; the winning interdisciplinary team of architects and developers was charged with executing their design proposal to create a new standard for excellence in affordable housing.

The competition centered on a narrow, triangular-shaped lot adjacent to the Melrose Commons neighborhood in the South Bronx. Comprised of 40,000 square feet of land and an additional 20,000 square feet of air rights, the dimensional constraints of the site were exacerbated by soil contamination, which led to the property’s designation as a brownfield. After years of public investment in the South Bronx — including the creation of thousands of housing units in the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area — the property was one of the few remaining vacant city-owned parcels.3 The characteristics of the site necessitated bold, creative ideas and the residents of the adjacent Melrose Commons neighborhood have a long history of advancing innovative concepts. In the 1990s, the community helped craft an inclusive, forward thinking revitalization plan for the neighborhood grounded in principles of sustainability. The goals of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan included a mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood with a housing density that could support public transportation and with architecturally significant and resource-efficient buildings. Notably, the plan supplanted city-led renewal efforts for lower-density development patterns that many longtime Melrose residents feared would result in their displacement and forever change the character of the neighborhood.4

Many of the goals of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan were included in the parameters of the NHNY design competition. The city requested proposals that served a range of income groups and that integrated an environmentally sustainable and innovative design with strategies that promote active, healthy living for residents. The focus on healthy living was a direct response to community concerns over asthma and public health in the neighborhood.5 The winning proposal, Via Verde, was submitted by a project team consisting of Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects, together with developers Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Houses of New York.

Innovative Design and Program

Via Verde’s design includes many building form, programming, and technology innovations that create a model for the next generation of sustainable, affordable housing. Several of these innovations are realized through building massing and the ascending, “tendril-inspired” form, which responds to the narrow, triangular shape of the site as well as the neighborhood context.6 The project consists of three building types that wrap around the perimeter of the site. From the site’s south side, the height of the buildings rise, from 2- to 4-story townhouses, to a 6- to 13-story mid-rise building that steps up to meet a 20-story tower on the north side, which serves as the project’s apex. The wrapping, terraced form gives rise to a vertical network of rooftop gardens that provides the physical and social organizing elements of Via Verde. Totaling approximately 40,000 square feet of open space, the gardens ascend from a ground level courtyard to a 7th floor fitness garden, with a rooftop dining terrace above the tower’s 20th floor. The gardens connect through a series of stairways and include a variety of uses to both engage residents and incorporate green building technologies: an amphitheater (2nd floor), a grove of conifer trees (3rd floor), a fruit tree orchard (4th floor), community gardens (5th floor), and a fitness garden (7th floor). These open spaces are designed to promote physical activity and create dynamic community spaces that encourage both passive and active recreation. The garden on the seventh floor includes access to an indoor fitness center that offers commanding views of the Bronx and Manhattan to the south.7 The upper floors include six additional gardens that are planted with native vegetation. Although not accessible to residents, these areas provide building insulation and advanced stormwater management; the rainwater is harvested to irrigate the rooftop plantings. To ensure the success of the community gardens, the developers partnered with GrowNYC, a local nonprofit organization, to manage and operate the gardens during Via Verde’s first two years of operation. The objective is to educate and train residents so that the gardens are managed and maintained entirely by the Via Verde community after this initial start-up period.8

Affordable Rental Units

# of Units*

Income
Restrictions

Income
(Family of Four)

17

<30% AMI

$23,040

13

<40% AMI

$30,720

120

<60% AMI

$46,080

Cooperative Ownership Units

# of Units

Income Restrictions

Income
(Family of Four)

5

<80% AMI

$61,450

39

<150% AMI

$115,200

26

<175% AMI

$134,400

* 1 unit is reserved for building superintendent
HUD Public Affairs Notice 12-105, 18 June 2012


The innovations at Via Verde extend to the façade where advanced building technologies are used to further the goals of environmental sustainability and affordability. The terraced, south-facing walls harness the unobstructed southern exposure with six arrays of photovoltaic (PV) panels mounted to the building’s exterior.9 Combined with additional arrays on the roofs of the fifth and seventh floors, the project includes a total of 288 photovoltaic panels capable of producing 66kw of electricity, or the equivalent of $12,000 in electricity savings annually, based on the energy model developed for the building.10 In addition to the wall mounted solar panels, the building envelope includes technology to prevent water damage and promote building longevity. Via Verde’s exterior includes a prefabricated rainscreen cladding that is engineered to minimize water from infiltrating the exterior wall and damaging the building materials.11

Via Verde’s buildings accommodate different housing types to meet a diversity of resident needs. The project includes 222 housing units, 151 low- and moderate-income rental units and 71 moderate- and middle-income co-op units.12 The 20-story tower is comprised of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartment rental units.13 The mid-rise building includes a combination of rental units in the northern section of the building and co-op units in the southern half. The mid-rise is comprised of two-bedroom units consisting of two stories with a central access corridor on every other floor. This duplex-style design was necessitated by the building’s narrow footprint and relatively shallow depth (approximately 48’). Each unit has a first floor that is half the building’s depth (split by the access corridor) and consists of a kitchen, bathroom, and living room. The second floor has two bedrooms and a bathroom that spans the building’s depth, but is only half the width of the unit’s first floor. This pattern repeats throughout the building and is used to maximize the number of units and living space.14 The project’s townhouses include a combination of one-, two-, and three-bedroom garden and walk-up style units. The majority of these units were designed with windows that maximize the use of natural light and ceiling fans that provide an alternative source of cooling and cross ventilation.15 The project’s sustainability features have earned Via Verde a LEED Gold certification for new construction, including EnergyStar®-rated appliances, energy-efficient lighting and mechanical systems, condenser clothes dryers, and plumbing fixtures designed to reduce water consumption.

Efforts to promote healthy, active living extend from the vertical gardens to the interior of the buildings. A pilot of the New York City Active Design Guidelines, Via Verde is designed to achieve a LEED Innovation Credit for incorporating design elements that promote a more active lifestyle for residents. For example, the use of stairs is encouraged by locating stairwells in highly visible and accessible areas and by placing windows in stairwells to bring in natural light. Signage encourages the use of stairs and highlights the health benefits (calories burned) of residents’ daily climbs. Centralized bicycle storage facilitates encourage the use of active modes of transportation and a medical clinic on the first floor provides health services for residents.16

Financing and Planning

The successful completion of the $99 million project would not have been possible without the strong support of both city and state government. The project’s affordable rental component was financed with a combination of local, state, and federal resources totaling over $66 million dollars. The financing package included $25 million generated through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and $7 million from the New York State Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (SLIHC) program. HPD contributed an addition $12 million in financing through the HOME Investment Partnership Program and City Capital funds. The Federal Home Loan Bank of New York provided $1.9 million through its affordable housing program.17

Via Verde benefitted from state programs designed to facilitate investments in brownfields, energy efficiency, and clean energy production. The developer invested $2.6 million in site remediation, supported by tax credits provided by the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.18 The project also received over $500,000 through its participation in the NYSERDA Multi-Family Performance Program, which provides technical assistance and financing to owners of multifamily properties to implement an energy savings plan that targets a 15 percent improvement in building efficiency.19 In addition to the various funding sources that made Via Verde possible, the project’s financial viability was strengthened by an exemption from providing the 36 parking spaces required by zoning code.20 The mayor’s office granted this exemption, in part, because of the availability of parking throughout the neighborhood and Via Verde’s proximity to public transit. This exemption eliminated the need for a subsurface parking structure that would have significantly increased project costs.21

Experience Gained

Via Verde includes many innovations in the design and programming of affordable housing that provide important lessons for future projects. The development is rooted in a community-based planning process that dates to the early 1990s, when local residents helped establish a revitalization plan for a mixed-income community that promotes environmental and social sustainability. These same principles have informed Via Verde’s planning process, in that the NHNY design competition relied on community input to help shape the project’s design.

For those involved in the development of Via Verde, the project includes many lessons that can be applied to future efforts. As a result of the competition, HPD has placed a greater emphasis on sustainability in their RFP process for new projects, and the Department is using the design competition platform to solicit proposals to meet other housing needs.22 The project has enabled the designers and developers to explore innovative design and program ideas, including the prefabricated rainscreen technology, wall-mounted PV panels, and the vertical open space network that serves as both a community and a natural resource amenity. The incorporation of rooftop community gardens and the nonprofit start-up management model is being used in other projects involving the Via Verde development team. Via Verde’s sustainable design is expected to help maintain housing affordability while providing immediate savings in utility costs, when the project is compared to a baseline development without similar green features. Total savings are expected to exceed $115,000 annually, representing a 27 percent reduction compared with a baseline building.23

The success of Via Verde is symbolic of the transformation of Melrose Commons, and the partnership between members of the community and the city. Subsequent to adoption of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan in the early 1990s, more than 2,800 new residential units have been constructed in an area that once stood as an infamous symbol of urban decline. When the redevelopment of city-owned land in Melrose is complete, approximately 3,700 new units will be built across the 66 properties once owned by the city. The resulting combination of public and private investment in the Bronx now stands at $5.9 billion dollars, and the city estimates that for every $1 of public funding, $3.41 in private investment has been leveraged.24 The Housing Plan has been instrumental in rebuilding the Melrose neighborhood and in using public dollars to leverage private investment.


  1. City of New York, Department of Housing Preservation and Development. 2004. “The New Housing Marketplace: Creating Housing for the Next Generation.”

  2. New Housing New York Legacy Project, Request for Proposals. June 2006. City of New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 13.

  3. Ibid; Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. 2010. “Highlighting the Drivers of Community Development: Via Verde/The Green Way.” Community Investment News; Email Correspondence with Eric Bederman, Press Secretary, City of New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 18 July 2012.

  4. Eddie Bautista, Yolanda Garcia, and Peter Stand. 1996. “Melrose Commons: A Case Study for Sustainable Community Design,” prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference.

  5. New Housing New York Legacy Project, Request for Proposals. June 2006. City of New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development; Where is New York? Affordability at Via Verde. Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University. 26 March 2012.

  6. Where is New York? Affordability at Via Verde. 2012.

  7. Ibid; Via Verde Floor Plan. Dattner, Grimshaw, Phipps, and Rose

  8. Where is New York? Affordability at Via Verde. 2012.

  9. Project documents provided by Andrew McNamara, Vice President of New Construction, Bright Power, Inc, 10 July 2012

  10. Association for Affordability, Inc. 2011, “NYSERDA Multifamily Performance Program Case Study: Via Verde,” presentation

  11. Where is New York? Affordability at Via Verde. 2012.

  12. Via Verde/The Green Way: Press Pack.

  13. Via Verde Floor Plan.

  14. Where is New York? Affordability at Via Verde. 2012.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Center for Active Design. Case Studies: Via Verde. Accessed 27 June 2012.

  17. City of New York, Office of the Mayor, Via Verde press release, 18 June 2012.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Association for Affordability, Inc. 2011.

  20. City of New York, City Planning Commission Report C 080522 HAX, 7 October 2008. Accessed 27 June 2012; Interview with William Stein, Principal, Dattner Architects 26 June 2012.

  21. City of New York, City Planning Commission Report C 080522 HAX; Interview with William Stein, Principal, Dattner Architects 26 June 2012; Interview with Michaell Wadman, Vice President, Phipps Houses 29 June 2012.

  22. Interview with Bea De La Torre, Assistant Commissioner Planning, Marketing, and Sustainability, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development 27 June 2012.

  23. Association for Affordability, Inc. 2011.

  24. Email correspondence with Eric Bederman.

 
 
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