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Many of the neighborhoods that journalist and activist Jane Jacobs saved from Robert Moses' heavy hands have flourished as thriving commercial corridors and vibrant streetscapes. The success of these neighborhoods and the value of the urban characteristics she championed are evident today. As we move forward with new housing throughout the region, it is important to consider all of the factors that help create active neighborhoods. What’s the role of design in helping create these characteristics?

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to preserve and create 200,000 affordable housing units across New York City in the next ten years have come closer to reality with recent NYC City Council approval of zoning amendments for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability. How do we ensure that these new housing developments, with nearly 80,000 new units, also help to create healthy neighborhoods? Is there a way that design can help attract businesses that serve the new housing (which is often built in underserved neighborhoods) and activate the neighborhood? Local restaurants, small businesses, pharmacies, banks, day care facilities, senior centers, health clinics, and supermarkets all contribute to creating an active street life, a lively safe neighborhood and they serve residents. These questions about community are the same as those Jacobs asked 50 years ago.

Bedford-Stuyvesant, a hip enclave of Brooklyn, was far from it in 1997, when the community development corporation IMPACCT Brooklyn, then called Pratt Area Community Council led by Deborah Howard, developed five store fronts on two blocks of Fulton Street between Bedford and Classon Avenues, which had 41 vacancies. Deborah and her team worked relentlessly with the local retailers to make their stores successful in the distraught vicinity that didn’t have much commercial activity because of all the vacancies. Also at the time, the nearby Franklin Avenue shuttle train was in danger of shutting down. 

Then luckily it was saved and did become a very active station, which certainly helped the foot traffic for the storefronts in the neighborhood. Over the next eight years IMPACCT provided see-through gates, new storefronts, signage and awnings for 11 additional retail spaces on Fulton through the New York City Department of Small Business Services’ storefront improvement grants and the New York State’s Main Street program, so the businesses could function properly and attract customers. Bed-Stuy has developed a lot since then but similar challenges still remain and IMPACCT is busier than ever these days trying to convey the importance of design for energizing street life to other developers and retail tenants.

Laying the Groundwork: Design Guidelines for Retail and Other Ground-Floor Uses in Mixed-Use Affordable Housing Developments, recently released by the Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, is considered by many including Deborah Howard, a life-saver for anyone striving to have successful commercial corridors and active street life. A broad range of city agencies, architects, developers, business improvement districts, and community development organizations provided valuable feedback. They participated in an extensive peer-review process throughout the creation of the guidelines. An integral component of the guidelines, a cost analysis tool available online, assists developers and architects in making more informed decisions for creating retail and ground floor spaces. To encourage architects and developers to build leasable ground-floor space that is spacious and flexible, the guidelines strive to be as cost-neutral as possible.

Matthew Bauer, Madison Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) President, who participated in the review process for the guidelines as part of the NYC BID Association's Zoning Working Group, finds the project’s holistic approach helpful. What attracts him on the street is not only what is inside a store, but also the exterior. Exterior lighting and peripheral amenities such as benches and bike racks are among the critical success factors that form the core of the guidelines. 

Bauer believes that these guidelines will create an environment in which retailers feel confident in investing, knowing that their neighbors will install a storefront that will compliment their own, but also express the vitality and individuality of each tenant or business owner. Spaces designed with these and additional factors in mind, such as maximum façade transparency, well-defined retail presence, distinct retail signage, height clearance, convenient column grid spacing, and sufficient mechanical-electrical-plumbing service, can attract local businesses of a variety of sizes that meet the needs of residents and employees in the community, creating more inviting streetscapes, increasing leasability, and generating job opportunities.

Jacobs championed neighborhoods that support a rich tapestry of activities that evolved over a long period of time. How can new developments be planned to create a foundation for flexibility over time as the needs of residents develop? Well-designed ground-floor space that can accommodate a variety of amenities is key to vibrant neighborhoods. This is frequently hard to achieve, with planning, zoning and cost considerations presenting challenges to architects and developers of mixed-use affordable housing. As a result, vital services are often scarce or absent in New York City’s low and moderate-income neighborhoods, and storefronts are vacant, blighting the streetscape and missing opportunities to meet the community’s needs. It is hard to predict who the retail tenants will be before the construction of a development is completed. Even then, a ground-floor space designed for retail might be used as a daycare facility, or vice versa. Designing for flexibility allows these types of change of use to occur more readily and encourages leasability.

The guidelines are a starting point for architects and developers. Investing time in smart design of ground floor retail spaces should help increase the occupancy rate of ground floors and provide a greater variety of tenants in new affordable housing projects. The must-have ingredients for a vibrant neighborhood are clear, as they were to Jane Jacobs. Diverse, quality retail and community services that meet the unique and different needs of the residents of each neighborhood are essential.



Fiona Cousins, P.E., FCIBSE, LEED Fellow, Principal, Arup
Engineering Fellow for the Laying the Groundwork project of the Design Trust for Public Space

Penny Hardy, Founding Principal, PS New York
Graphic Design Fellow for the Laying the Groundwork project of the Design Trust for Public Space

Hayes Slade, AIA, IIDA, and James Slade, FAIA, IIDA, LEED-AP, Co-founders and Principals, Slade Architecture
Architecture Fellow for the Laying the Groundwork project of the Design Trust for Public Space

Jacobs championed neighborhoods that support a rich tapestry of activities that evolved over a long period of time. How can new developments be planned to create a foundation for flexibility over time as the needs of residents develop?