Door to Policy
Scales of Architectural Politics
Columbia University, GSAPP
Critic / Andres Jaque (Office for Political Innovation), Ife Vanable
Seminar / Contentious New York Projects, Transscalarities
Protagonist / One Riverside Park
In 2015, promising to build and/or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over 10 years1, Mayor Bill de Blasio renewed the 421-a Tax Abatement Law, giving exemptions up to 35 years to real estate developers on including 20-30 percent units for affordable housing. The same year, private developers at Extell, erected a 33-storey heterogeneous residential tower with 219 market-value condominiums starting at $25 million, and 55 [20 percent] affordable housing units starting at $813 rent per month for a studio. Complying with development regulations, this led to “separate entrances that are now almost ubiquitously labeled “poor doors”.”2
Started in 1971, 421-a gave tax exemptions to private real estate developers for building multi-unit residential property in abandoned and underutilized land. In 1980, understanding the inadequacy of financial capabilities, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development introduced the Inclusionary Zoning Program, compelling private stakeholders to “engage in otherwise economically irrational behavior”3 - develop affordable housing. Establishing the Geographic Exclusion Zone [GEA], 421-a refocused on affordable housing through mandatory inclusion of 20 percent affordable units by giving tax benefits up to 25 years. Capitalizing on 421-a was the first nail in multi-scalar design politics and segregation. Upon compliance, Extell Development received tax abatements and lawfully superfluous buildable area that they intended to utilize in future projects. The program does not specify the zoning relationship between market-rate and affordable units in the larger development. Consequently and manipulatively, Extell chose to starkly segregate them. As market-rate units with the best views and amenities can draw top dollar4, not only do these units rest on affordable entitlements [including low cost of construction], they physically sit on a podium of affordable units, manifesting discrete zoning and receiving views of the Hudson. This, so intended, established spatial political power – the poor underbelly and the rich capitol.
Such split zoning compels the need for separate doors “to make it easier for the units to be separately managed by a nonprofit in the future.”5 What is prominent in these dual points of ingress and egress is the introduction of aesthetics-driven politics, solidifying the ‘real’ dwellers of One Riverside Park. Condo owners enter through a glass revolving door with a concierge from river-facing Riverside Drive, while renters access from a modest ‘poor’ door, commensurate with any New York entrance, from the perpendicular 61st Street. Their size, mechanics and kinetics, physical locations, and materiality strengthen trans-scalar elitism and architectural apartheid – the front and back doors, the main and service entrances. Additionally, if non-profit management is the rationale behind housing bylaws, what happens if the developer builds healthy residential heterogeneity in good faith? Does that challenge the “rationale” and effectively dissolved the need for a law-abiding separate entrance?
perspective / tiers of conflict between condominium owners (blue) and affordable housing renters (red); ranging across scales, tangibles and intangibles, architectural and systemic
Scaling up, the transition of material opacity to transparency maintains the politics of aesthetics. The façade translates from modestly-sized fenestrations for renters with views of 61st street, to full-height curtain walls viewing the Hudson for condo owners. Glass becomes a marker of the rich, while opaque materials apparently reek of the affordable. Additionally, this variance in materiality and the expression of the main and service doors strengthen the duality of ‘permanent’ owners and the ‘temporary’ renters.
And finally, architectural titles and politics even define the intangible. Renters are addressed at 475 West 61 Street, while the rich, despite living in the same building, receive the ‘Riverside’ title and 50 Riverside Boulevard as their address. Two zones, two doors, two addresses, but one building.
Designed in accordance with the Far West Side’s residential ethos, One Riverside Park focuses on mirroring Extell’s real estate and economic motivations. By the end of 2015, anticlimactically, the 55 affordable units received a whopping 88,000 applications, demonstrating that the need for affordable housing and the privilege of quality localities trumps the want for egalitarian access. There is no establishment of a ‘rich door’ but of a ‘poor door’, and renters were oxymoronically willing to be economic minorities in rich neighborhoods at affordable rents.
It is interesting, rather humorous, to see affordable housing responsibilities left to capitalist housing developers. The lack of delineating design constraints of such composite real estate allows private developers to manipulate design and sequence multi-scalar segregation to maintain real estate values. In addition, with applicants having to make 60% of area median income [which is $51,540 a month for a family of four], the program again renders futile by excluding the lower-income groups, threatening the ‘inclusionary’ title.
The poor door stands as a testament to the naïveté of policy and policymakers and the economic motivation of private developers. Ranging from isolation in rich neighborhoods to intra-building zoning, material and address differentiation, and finally to the architectural object, the doors, One Riverside Park, like others, is a display of micro and macro politics in architectural design. The public outcry has remained provincial by only painting a ‘poor door’ problem. The conflict must oscillate between inclusionary entrance doors, the inadequacy of policy in architectural delineation, and trans-scalar design manipulation. Perhaps a disassociation of affordable housing from market-value real estate through ‘affordable only’ tax exemption is a start because a 1600:1 ratio [88,000 applicants for 55 units] is a city crying for homes.
1 _ Charles V. Bagli and Mireya Navarro, “Mayor De Blasio’s Plan Aims to Spur More Affordable Housing in New York,” New York Times (Online), May 6, 2015, accessed June 18, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/07/nyregion/mayor-de-blasios-plan-aims-to-spurmore- affordable-housing-in-new-york.html?partner=bloomberg.
2 _ Justin Wm Foyer, “NYC Bans ‘poor Doors’ -- Separate Entrances for Low-income Tenants,” ProQuest Central, June 30, 2015, accessed June 8, 2019, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/16 92254731?accountid=10226.
3 _ Conor Arpey, “The Multifaceted Manifestations of the Poor Door: Examining Forms of Separation in Inclusionary Housing,” American University Business Law Review, 3rd ser., 6, no. 3 (2017): , http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/aublr/vol6/iss3/3.
4 _ Mireya Navarro, “88,000 Applicants and Counting for 55 Units in ‘Poor Door’ Building,” The New York Times, April 20, 2015, accessed July 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/21/nyregion/poor-door-building-draws-88000-applicants-for-55-rental-units.html.
5 _ Steve Cuozzo, “The Truth about the ‘Poor Door’,” New York Post, December 07, 2014, accessed June 28, 2019, https://nypost.com/2013/08/27/the-truth-about-the-poor-door/.