Living (and farming) over the shop?
In 2012, architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld founded the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA) to provide a pathway for designers interested in socially engaged work. Earlier this year, the IPA 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. Soft City is exploring some of the ideas that came out of the eight-week program.
In New York, a city that takes real estate, food, and culture all very seriously, the links between the three are particularly evident. The incredible variety of ethnic restaurants throughout the five boroughs showcase the city’s demographic diversity, while the long lines at buzzy new restaurants attest to the size of its food-obsessed population. Some developers seeking to attract residents and businesses to less-popular streets or neighborhoods use restaurants as bait; Gotham West Market, a massive food hall anchoring a new apartment complex in Hell’s Kitchen, is a commonly cited example.
And yet New York’s food community is “really suffering because of rising rents and people being forced further and further out from where their jobs are,” said architect Emily Arden Wells, who focused her IPA fellowship on the food industry. (Wells also served as the lead designer on Gotham West Market while working at design firm AvroKO.) “Restaurants are losing talent, losing their employees, because it’s just so expensive to live here.” Conditions are particularly dire for workers at the low end of the pay scale, she said, with many forced to juggle multiple jobs while making long commutes to neighborhoods with cheaper rent.
Astronomical real estate prices have also forced many food businesses out of their spaces. Facing the need to relocate his popular Union Square Café due to a rent hike in 2014, Danny Meyer wrote a New York Times op ed bemoaning the fate of Manhattan’s culinary entrepreneurs. “In the past year, all kinds of pioneering restaurants that helped set the table for their respective neighborhoods — including Mesa Grill, in the Flatiron district, and WD-50 on the Lower East Side — have each lost out to untenable rent escalations.”
So what could de Blasio’s proposal do to improve this situation? After diving into the relevant literature and interviewing dozens of people working in and around the food industry, Wells and fellow IPA fellow Zachary Stevens found strong support for the idea of a building typology incorporating both residential and commercial spaces and designed for long-term affordability. They developed this idea into a scheme they called Seed Housing, which brings apartments under the same roof with facilities supporting the entire food cycle, from crop production to dining and composting.
This arrangement could offer multiple layers of benefits, they reasoned. Living in affordable apartments over the shop would eliminate long commutes and reduce financial stress, greatly improving workers’ quality of life. Harvesting crops next door to the restaurant serving them would cut down on carbon emissions associated with trucking food to the city center and allow farmers to keep earnings currently spent on transportation. Cost savings would also accrue to small businesses able to share kitchens and equipment rather than pay for them alone. These savings would trickle out to the local community, giving area residents better access to high-quality food at affordable prices.
Social factors also come into play. Bringing a broad spectrum of food workers and consumers together in one building could have transformative results for those individuals and businesses — not to mention the neighborhood beyond. “There’s a lot that people can learn from one another,” Wells wrote in an email. “When you put a lot of different people with similar needs in one building, there is bound to be organic interaction between the different groups. And... if you anticipate some of those spontaneous interactions, you can create spatial relationships that would encourage more interaction that will ultimately better serve and support the community.”
While building and maintaining such a facility would cost a small fortune, Stevens and Wells identified a number of municipal programs that could offset some of the expense, from green infrastructure grants for green roofs through the city's Department of Environmental Protection to zoning incentives through the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program.
The crucial next step: finding financial partners interested in the intersection of food and community. “We hope that developers and investors will see the potential for creating a hub for food-production entrepreneurship that will benefit all facets of independent business, from the owners to the employees,” Wells wrote me.
Top image: Detail of rendering by Emily Arden Wells and Zachary Stevens