New life for odd lots?
As an architect designing for low-income communities in the 1990s, Jonathan Kirschenfeld found himself frustrated by the lack of a professional network that shared his values and experiences. In 2012 he founded the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA) to help create career pathways for others interested in socially engaged work.
This year’s eight-week IPA residency was inspired by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's pledge to invest $30 million in 1,500 affordable live/work spaces for artists over the next decade. The eleven fellows were asked to select a research topic that could shed light on the needs of “artists and entrepreneurs,” then develop design proposals to meet these needs.
Over the next few months, Soft City will explore several of the resulting projects.
New York’s artists need affordable space. Could empty lots be part of the solution?
Architect Jieun Yang spent this summer exploring this question during her IPA fellowship. A conversation with Emily Weiner, an artist whose apartment gallery was recently written up in the New York Times, sparked the idea. “She was saying that a lot of artists begin to start this small collaborative gallery or showing of their friends’ work just to get the word out there,” Yang said. “She really enjoys what she does, but she wishes she had more space. The fact that she had to flip the living space into the gallery for a day or two actually caused her to pause her work for some time.”
This led Yang to think about one of her architecture clients, a Brooklyn church struggling with the opposite problem — too much space. She decided to spend her fellowship thinking about ways that resources like this could provide live/work space for artists.
Initially wanting to focus on underutilized buildings in Brooklyn, she quickly became discouraged by the difficulty of identifying them in the first place. Empty lots, on the other hand, were very easy to spot. And while most lots in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods would clearly be targeted by developers sooner or later, others seemed small or awkwardly shaped enough to remain out of the commercial fray.
Yang’s research turned up 106 lots in Brooklyn with a street frontage of between 30 inches and 12 feet — wide enough for a person to pass through, but too narrow to build on. Fifty-four of these lots are owned by the city. “I began to look at these things and thought about, what can we actually build there?” she told me. “If we look at zoning, what’s preventing us from doing anything there? If there’s some kind of leeway that the city can give us, what can we do with it?”
Drawing on information about artists’ preferences gleaned from an informal survey of people in her network, Yang set about investigating live/work possibilities for several sample lots. On one Crown Heights site, she found that while the narrow footprint would prohibit permanent construction due to zoning rules, modular units such as stacked trailers could allow enough room for a ground-floor commercial gallery with two floors of live/work space above.
Another lot with a narrow alley entrance and a wide space in the back could accommodate a building up to 70 feet high. While the residential zoning would preclude a commercial gallery, a building here could theoretically include a noncommercial venue in addition to apartments and studio space.
As the IPA live/work effort concluded, the fellows met with New York’s Department of City Planning to share their ideas. Unsurprisingly, although the planners expressed interest in the ideas, “they did note that it is impractical to think that the work can be done by the City,” Yang said. “There has to be a private funding source.”
She agrees that finding a private owner willing to allow a prototype building on her otherwise unusable lot, then partnering with a coalition of artists or an arts nonprofit to help organize and finance the project, would be the most viable way to test the idea. “There is obviously a top-down approach that needs to happen in terms of policy and giving leeway for certain restrictions, but I think the bulk of this sort of work ends up being bottom-up.”
Top image: Brandon Keim, CC by NC SA 2.0