By Brian J. Pape, AIA
When activists like Jane Jacobs and Rachele Wall first conceived the West Village Houses in the early 1960s, they envisioned a more intimate low-rise community-based co-op of rowhouse architecture for moderate-income households. But first, they had to stop the destruction of their industrial waterfront area—a rough fringe far from the subways—which was part of Robert Moses’ effort to alter the makeup of Greenwich Village with the construction of proposed towers.
The government knew how to build public housing towers, and how to subsidize market-rate housing towers, but low-rise housing for the middle class wasn’t on any policy agenda. The project went through financial convolutions while being designed by the distinguished architectural firm Perkins+Will. But, by the time they started opening in 1974, the houses were reviled by Jacobs, and by most critics, for having lost all the architectural features first proposed.
The grouping of 42 six-story walkups contains unadorned, plain, dark brick buildings with small windows topped by flat roofs, except for landscaped courtyards shared by residents. Donald H. Elliott, the City Planning Commission Chairman at the time, instructed Alexander Garvin, a well-known urban planner, to arrange a capital subsidy for the project, since the project’s lack of elevators made it ineligible for a federal mortgage. Yet, they failed to attract enough buyers, so the “unloved failure” was acquired by private owners in 1976 as a 420-unit Mitchell-Lama-subsidized program rental.
Mr. Garvin, citing a 1999 Ken Burns documentary, New York, said, “every single mayoral administration since then has had to live with the errors of this development. But this doesn’t mean [Jacobs] wasn’t right about neighborhood scale.”
Many residents say Jacobs’ vision of community endures. “This is a very alive building,” playwright Suzanne Stout said of her unit on Washington Street. “We know one another, and if a calamity occurs, we take care of one another. Jane Jacobs was right. She understood community. Her ideas work.”
Rising construction costs and bureaucratic delays are blamed for the project’s failure. Yet, even with today’s complex bureaucracy and ever-rising construction costs, low-rise rental projects are being built.
In skyscraper-filled Long Island City, 38 four-story duplexes are being developed as rentals by GDC Properties. The Hunters Point neighborhood is rather tightly zoned, where turn-of-the-century row houses bump up against warehouses, so these new homes come close to maxing out the allowed density and height on the block. Lower duplex units offer finished basements with private backyards, and upper duplex units have a penthouse roof level. The entire development will have access to a gated internal courtyard. (Newman Design Architects designed the project.)