Oculus - Winter 2014 - (Page 34)
Just Another Messy
Remarkable simply for being normal, Melrose Commons
flourishes where the Bronx once burned
BY JONATHAN LERNER
hanks both to New York's skyrocketing real-estate market and a mayor
who promised to do something about it, affordable housing is a topic of
the moment. The focus is often on below-market-rate units in high-profile
new buildings (and, sometimes, on separate entrances for those units' occupants).
But a different affordable-housing model has been maturing in the
South Bronx for two decades. It possesses absolutely no glam factor. It has
altered the skyline, but mainly by reestablishing a version of the closely knit,
stylistically unexceptional, low- and mid-rise urban fabric that existed before
the project area was decimated by poverty, drugs, and crime. It has certainly
transformed the local streetscape, though. Into 30-some blocks now designated
Melrose Commons, where it was once impossible to lead a normal
life, a neighborhood has been reestablished with about 4,500 new low- and
middle-income residential units and plenty of new retail operations. The lessons
of this redevelopment project, which are really more about constructing
community than erecting buildings, should be an operating manual for the
reclamation of other damaged parts of the city.
"Develop it organically"
Melrose Commons lies within a larger area called Melrose, which had a population
of 53,000 in 1920; by 1990 only 6,000 people remained, amid burnedout
blocks and empty storefronts, with a median income of $12,000. The city
floated a wholesale "new town" urban-renewal plan for Melrose Commons
that would have razed and replaced buildings that were still standing. It met
resistance from people living in them, who wanted renewal without themselves
being first removed. Enter Magnus Magnusson, AIA, and his partner
Petr Stand, APA, who met weekly with a community group called Nos
Quedamos/We Stay, which coalesced in reaction to the city's initiative. They
drafted a master plan adopted by the city in 1994 that, Magnusson says, aimed
to "develop it organically."
One thing community members knew they
didn't want were towers like the dreary public
housing a few blocks away; they insisted on an
eight-story height limit. Magnusson's plan called
for these mid-rise buildings to be located along the
principal avenues; responding to another community
desire for mixed-use, they typically incorporate
retail and institutional spaces at street level.
Smaller-scale infill went in on side streets. Adventurous
design was not on the community's agenda.
"They didn't understand modern architecture, so
we created a Bronx palate," he says, taking cues
from the area's original early 20th-century building
stock, "incorporating things that were familiar."
Most of the new buildings are primarily red and
tan brick. Many have modest Art Deco motifs. The
large ones are generally relieved in scale by variations
in massing and in exterior finishes and color.
New construction was slotted in where buildings
had already been demolished or were unsalvageable.
With only three significant sites now left to be
filled, the result is a neighborhood that feels intact,
human in scale, and much like parts of New York
that never experienced the trauma of disinvestment
At the time Magnusson Architecture and Planning
(MAP) was developing its Melrose Commons'
scheme, Magnusson was unaware of the simultaneous
founding of the Congress for the New
Urbanism. "But since then we've felt that Melrose
34 Oculus Winter 2014
Changing Skyline/Evolving Streets
©Magnusson Architecture and Planning
©Seong Kwon Photography
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Winter 2014
First Words: Letter from Two Presidents - Vision and Transition
Letter from the Editor - Tall Is as Tall Does
Center for Architecture - Center Highlights
One Block Over - Not All High Line Highlights Are On the Skyline: As a “museum of architecture” rises along the lush, elevated park, some streetscapes are coming to life
Opener: Of Sidewalks and Skylines
Hello, We’re at a Place Called Vertigo - 57th Street is sprouting residential supertalls. With great height comes great expectations. What aspects of these buildings earn so much of the sky?
Tower at the Crossroads - One Vanderbilt sculpts its top and bottom to trade additional floors for street-level amenity
The Mid-block Move - Side streets aren’t just for background buildings anymore
In Step with the Neighborhood - The new BAM South development is designed with equal attention to Downtown Brooklyn’s skyline and streetlevel civic space
LULU Hits the Streets - A sanitation garage shows how to make a Locally Undesirable Land Use...desirable
Just Another Messy Urban Neighborhood - Remarkable simply for being normal, Melrose Commons flourishes where the Bronx once burned
New Practices New York 2014 - Farms, think tanks, sausages, and nomadic operations – just some of the things these young design firms are focusing on
In Print - How Paris Became Paris: The Inventio
80-Year Watch - Le Corbusier’s first sight of Manhattan’s skyscrapers evoked a controversial yet prophetic response
Last Words - Hit the Road
Index to Advertisers - Alphabetical & Categorical Index
Oculus - Winter 2014