With the price of real estate so dear, every new building in New York comes with big expectations, but this one more than most. The $84 million subsidized housing complex in Upper Manhattan called Sugar Hill Development has outsize ambitions.
It has been conceived to serve some of the very poorest New Yorkers, who will move into anything but a run-of-the-mill building. Designed by a marquee architect, with no concessions to timid taste, the project aspires to must-see status.
That’s for starters. Sugar Hill also has a preschool for more than 100 children in conjunction with a museum of children’s art and storytelling, which will display artists from the area, along with work by kids. This takes the project beyond even exceptional subsidized housing, like Arbor House in the South Bronx, which has a gym and a hydroponic farm on the roof, or Via Verde, which pioneered links between good design and health care for an underserved neighborhood.
Like Via Verde, Sugar Hill is something of an extravagance and not easily replicable. But it posits a goal for what subsidized housing might look like, how it could lift a neighborhood and mold a generation.
All that makes measuring its success, now or ever, anything but simple — and its drawbacks all the more disappointing.
The building, with 124 units for low-income and formerly homeless residents, rises 13 stories on the crest of Coogan’s Bluff, at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. It’s clad in shadowy gray precast, thickly grooved concrete panels spectrally embossed with abstracted roses that refer to floral decorations on historic buildings in the neighborhood.
Usually, you have to squint to pick the roses out of the dark.
The top five floors abruptly cantilever. Some neighbors say it looks like a prison. An “arty fortress,” was New York Magazine’s phrase.
I like the building’s exterior. Most people I’ve quizzed on the street during a half-dozen visits to the area turn out to like it, too.
The architect is David Adjaye, the gifted British star. Along with getting the commission for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, he has produced expensive private houses with dark, fashionably textured exteriors. “Why is it that this is ‘cool’ for rich people but ‘tough’ for poor people?” he is right to ask, albeit houses and apartment blocks are different in scale.
The new Sugar Hill housing development, designed by the architect David Adjaye, is at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Manhattan. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times
Fearsome in photographs, the development is, in fact, not nearly so imposing when you see it next to some of the public housing towers glowering over surrounding streets. From the east, where the Macombs Dam Bridge crosses into the Bronx, toward Yankee Stadium, the building cuts an almost jaunty silhouette.
Its north and south facades, staggered into saw-tooth patterns, playfully echo an arrangement of several nearby rowhouses. Sugar Hill’s corrugated concrete panels, studded with recycled glass, lighten and glint in the sun. Trees planned for the building’s plaza should soften the entrance.
Broadway Housing Communities is the developer. Ellen Baxter founded and directs the organization, which has six other projects across Upper Manhattan, all in renovated properties. Roughly one-quarter of the tenants in Ms. Baxter’s rent-stabilized buildings are paid to manage the front desks, 24/7, watching out for neighbors, “promoting trust and investment,” as she describes it, “like in a town.” The buildings, some with day care and other services, are among the safest and most admired projects of their type in the city.
Sugar Hill is the first ground-up undertaking for Broadway Housing Communities. Mr. Adjaye was hired and a premium paid for concrete-frame construction, with the goal of adding some 21st-century pizazz to a district of brownstones and postwar housing blocks once home to many Harlem Renaissance luminaries, today lacking even basics like a decent supermarket. Architecture isn’t deemed a frill in this case but as social currency, a form of equity, to be redistributed across the city.
That’s a good, bold venture, but what’s more unusual about Sugar Hill is the emphasis on child- and family-centered programming. Children make up the fasting-growing segment of New York’s homeless population. Broadway Housing Communities estimates that each resident in a supportive housing development like Sugar Hill costs taxpayers $12,500 a year, on average. A cot in an emergency shelter costs twice that; a psychiatric hospital bed, 10 times that.
So, with Sugar Hill, the school and the children’s museum become the foundation for the building. Their entrances flank the apartment lobby on St. Nicholas Avenue. Mr. Adjaye makes a virtue of the project’s tricky site, which falls steeply along 155th Street, by wrapping the school around the north and east ends of the building. Classrooms have views, light, privacy. To the south, the museum spills from a storefront into lofty galleries on Sugar Hill’s lowest floor.
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The other day I dropped by the preschool, which just opened. Parents were ecstatic. Squirmy 4-year-olds ate cereal and did yoga on tiny mats in bright spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows and cheery pea green floors.
The museum, to be finished next spring, is a gamble, intended to become an extension of the school, a community anchor and gathering place. Everything will hinge on the programming.
Which leaves the apartments. Tenants are expected to move in this year. Mr. Adjaye spent a chunk of capital on the killer cantilever, saw-tooth bays and idiosyncratic window pattern. The apartments seem like an afterthought: awkward, with angled walls, quirky layouts that tenants may find hard to furnish, and deep-set, weirdly placed windows of various sizes.
Sugar Hill turns out to be like an A student who crams for the big test and then forgets to bring a pencil.
The health benefits of light and air are well known. A commanding apartment building still has to serve residents who want tranquillity when they pass through their front doors. This complex is designed from the outside in. Providing poor families with small, distinctive but difficult living spaces to accommodate a striking facade throws the whole design into question, betraying the project’s basic mission.
Broadway Housing Communities is pushing the envelope, admirably. Mr. Adjaye has squeezed a lot into the building. But subsidized housing always involves trade-offs.
The housing shouldn’t be one of them.
Via The Architectural Review and NYTimes