In 2012, architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld founded the Institute for Public Architecture to provide a pathway for designers interested in socially engaged work. Last year, the program hosted a fellowship focused on New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to invest $30 million in 1,500 affordable live/work spaces for artists and entrepreneurs.
From warehouse to art studio, art studio to luxury apartment—over the decades, the SoHo model of industrial-zone gentrification has become familiar around the world. Artists seeking cheap, plentiful space move in, creating a bohemian atmosphere that attracts more residents, businesses, and visitors. Eventually competition for space increases, prices rise, and only the wealthy can afford to remain.
Designers Amritha Mahesh, Thad Pawlowski, and Despo Thoma spent their Institute for Public Architecture fellowship considering ways to interrupt this cycle, allowing New York City’s manufacturing neighborhoods (known as M1 districts) to absorb new kinds of people and activities without triggering a bidding war.
From movies to mission-driven development
The project started off with a very different focus. The group began by thinking about cultural industries that would be a good fit for live/work arrangements in gentrifying M1 neighborhoods. They soon settled on the film industry, which has made inroads in Brooklyn’s fast-changing Gowanus district.
“We found similarities between what the film industry needs and what a healthy neighborhood needs,” Thoma said, “from hairdressers to restaurants, food, accommodation.” Equally importantly, the group liked the fact that film employs a wide range of people, from blue-collar technicians to wealthy actors.
In researching the industry’s impact on New York neighborhoods, they came across a promising model. Instead of bringing trailers for actors and hiring caterers to bring food onsite, one Jodie Foster production rented rooms in local hotels and distributed restaurant vouchers to the cast and crew.
But after trying to extend this line of thought, the designers found it too limiting. “The next question we asked was, if there is a way to make this happen, why is it not happening more?” Thoma told me. They decided that the root of the problem lay not in the film business, but in the physical and regulatory structures that shape how people act within a given environment. From there, “we turned our focus into, what makes economic development or industries shift from just money-driven to mission-driven?”
A model neighborhood
The proposal that grew out of this question focuses on capturing increases in property value in gentrifying neighborhoods for a broad spectrum of people who live and work there rather than letting them accrue to a handful of large landowners. A rising financial tide would thus lift many more boats, the theory runs.
The group proposed to achieve this through a new development model and building typology. In this model, mission-based nonprofits would be the only entities permitted to develop and maintain buildings in a designated area. Maximum sizes for lots and minimum unit counts for buildings would prevent monopolies from forming and encourage buy-in from a variety of small businesses. (An exception to the sizing rules would be made for a limited number of anchor employers.)
The proposed building typology is geared toward flexible live/work arrangements, with commercial units on the ground floor and residential and studio spaces above. Public gathering areas and private back-of-house zones would facilitate activities ranging from socializing to shipping goods.
Precedents at home and abroad
The model’s most obvious precedent is the New York coop system, in which owners hold claim to shares of the building rather than their physical apartments. But Thoma said that the six years she spent in Athens also influenced her thinking. In the Greek capital, “the lots were subdivided into very small lots and each lot had multiple owners,” she told me. “That way people could continue to be invested in their lot and have a more community-driven approach to their immediate neighborhood.”
New neighborhoods, new art?
Although the project moved far beyond its initial focus on the cultural industries, Thoma believes that it has a great deal to offer New York’s arts community. Beyond the promise of sustainable live/work space, she believes that new kinds of neighborhoods could lead to new kinds of art.
“Take the example of the SoHo loft. The flexibility of space that they offered, also the flexibility in economic development, led to the rise of new types of creativity and culture,” she said. “The flexibility of the program and the model we’re proposing could foster different kinds of creativity that we do not know yet.”