The newest sign of the ongoing upswing in the South Bronx, once a national symbol of urban decay, is the dynamic exterior of Via Verde, a just-completed 222-unit apartment complex for households in the low- to middle-income brackets. It has a 20-story tower anchoring one end and terraces that step down toward the other. Projecting sunshades punctuate the street-facing elevation, which is made up of warm-toned wood, matte fiber cement, and silvery aluminum rainscreen panels.
Upon first seeing this project and its lively exterior, many people are surprised to learn that it is subsidized housing. However, its designers think this is an odd response. “There shouldn’t be a different lens for evaluating affordable housing,” says Vincent Chang, a partner in the New York office of London-based Grimshaw Architects. “Quality should exist at every market sector.”
In early 2007, Grimshaw, the New York firm Dattner Architects, and development partners Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies won the $70 million Via Verde project as part of a two-stage competition—the first juried competition for affordable and sustainable housing in the city's history. The competition emerged from a collaboration of the local chapter of the AIA, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and a volunteer steering committee made up of 20 experts in housing design, finance, and development. In the competition’s final phase, the jury selected the Via Verde scheme over proposals by four teams that included the New York architects Cook + Fox, Kiss + Cathcart, and Rogers Marvel, as well as Stuttgart, Germany–based Behnisch Architekten.
That Via Verde isn’t immediately identifiable as affordable is just one indication of the competition’s mission. “It wasn’t a beauty contest,” says Lance Brown, the steering committee’s founding member and a professor of architecture at the City College of New York. The ambition was to establish a financially viable and replicable model, he says.
With residents just now moving in, it is too soon to judge how well the built Via Verde satisfies all the aspirations behind the competition. However, the complex has proved highly desirable: The developers received about 7,500 applications for the 151 rental units, and 80 percent of the 71 cooperative apartments—priced from around $79,000 for a one-bedroom to $193,00 for a three-bedroom—have sold.
It is easy to understand the appeal, especially if you walk into Via Verde’s inner courtyard. Here the inventiveness of the Dattner-Grimshaw solution becomes apparent: The stepped profile that begins with the street facade continues with the building hugging the edges of the 1.4-acre trapezoidal former brownfield site. The roofs descend in a series of terraces, eventually meeting the ground in a set of bleacherlike steps.
Within this courtyard, elements conspire to create a sense of shelter. Although the facades defining the court are made up of the same types of rainscreen components as those facing the street, and all were assembled off-site in 25-foot-long sections (a time-saving and quality-control strategy), these inner elevations contain more of the colorful wood panels.
And of course, there is the greenery that provided the inspiration for the building’s name. Although Via Verde was completed only in April, by mid-May the courtyard’s triangular lawn was already a thick carpet of grass. The tops of the complex’s staggered terraces—many of which are accessible to residents—were also sprouting plantings. These roofs include a grove of about two dozen evergreen trees, a small apple orchard, and plots for growing vegetables.
All of the grass and foliage makes for an inviting series of outdoor spaces. However, the landscape was conceived to do more than just look good. “It also has got to do something,” says Lee Weintraub, principal of the eponymous Yonkers, New York–based landscape architecture firm that designed Via Verde’s roofscape and courtyard. This “something” includes providing a supply of fresh produce and benefits like stormwater management and heat-island mitigation. In addition, Weintraub predicts that the outdoor spaces will offer a less tangible benefit—a sense of community. With the help of GrowNYC, an environmental organization that builds and supports community gardens, residents will decide how to distribute the orchard’s fruit and determine a system for sharing and tending to the garden plots. “Culture will evolve around the open space,” says Weintraub.
The roof gardens and the courtyard that they spiral around are not the development’s only shared amenity: A seventh-floor fitness room overlooks one of the green roofs; a ground-level laundry room faces the courtyard’s play area, allowing parents to keep an eye on their children while washing clothes; and a community room occupying a privileged spot on the tower’s top floor offers an adjacent terrace that commands views of both the rapidly transforming South Bronx and the Manhattan skyline.
Paradoxically, it is Via Verde’s affordable status that allowed the design and development team to place the shared elements of the program in what would be considered prime revenue-generating locations in a market-rate development, explains Ari Goldstein, a senior project manager at Jonathan Rose Companies. “Since all the units are essentially the same price,” he says, “we can put the community room on the 20th floor, instead of putting a penthouse there.”
The individual apartments—a mix of duplexes, simplexes, live-work units, and townhouses—are as intelligently laid out as the rest of the complex. About 90 percent have dual exposure, providing cross ventilation and access to daylight while also minimizing the need for faceless corridors. Oak floors, bamboo cabinets, and subway-tiled baths make the interiors feel clean and modern, but not slick.
Arguably, just as important as the finished product is the process that produced it. Although HPD has not conducted another competition, the agency has made some changes to the way it awards projects, modeling it after the Via Verde process. For example, requests for proposals now clearly rank the selection criteria—such as design, sustainability, and financing—according to importance. This new transparency allows applicants to make more informed design decisions “and leads to higher quality proposals,” says Beatriz de la Torre, an HPD assistant commissioner.
For their part, the architects say that designing and building Via Verde was a rewarding experience. Contractually, Dattner was the architect of record with Grimshaw as its consultant. However, “from the very beginning, we viewed the project as a full design partnership,” says William Stein, Dattner principal. According to Chang, who calls the relationship “synergetic,” the firms have already identified their next collaboration—another urban, mixed-use project they will compete for within the next year.
Size: 294,00 square feet
Construction cost: $70 million
Completion date: April 2012
1385 Broadway, 15th Floor
New York, New York 10018
637 W 27th Street
New York, New York 10001