Top Notch Affordable Housing

Guest Blog by Lauren Mandel, green roof designer, author of Eat UP!

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Watch out America, there’s a new breed of affordable housing in town.  Nestled in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, the Arbor House is reshaping the way cities envision low-income housing projects.  The eight story apartment building opened its doors to New York City’s low-income population in February 2013 with designers, developers and policy makers watching with anticipation.  What’s so unique about this development?  The LEED Platinum-certified building is topped with a 10,000 square foot (0.2 acre) hydroponic farm.

The 120,000 square foot building, designed by New York-based ABS Architects and developed by Blue Sea Development Co., includes 124 apartments designated for low-income households earning less than 60% of the area median income, or $49,800 for a family of four.  Twenty-five percent of the units are reserved for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents.  Unlike the neighborhood’s sea of two-story public housing buildings built by NYCHA in the mid-1950s, Arbor House rises tall and contains building features generally associated with high-end development.  In addition to the rooftop farm the building features a living wall, air filtration systems, local and recycled construction materials, low and zero VOC finishes, indoor and outdoor exercise areas, and art and music clad stairwells to promote walking.  The building lies in one of New York City’s worst districts for asthma and obesity, so exercise and fresh food access were project priorities.

Rooftop greenhouse construction || photo by Jeff Warschauer

Arbor House’s hydroponic rooftop farm yields enough produce to feed 450 people per year.  Chemical-free vegetables, herbs, and fruit are available to building residents and local community members year-round through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) distribution.  CSA members buy what’s called a “share” from the farm in exchange for a box of roof-fresh food each week.  The remaining produce – around 40% – is distributed to the community through local outreach to schools, hospitals and markets.  Vuala.

The building’s handsome, even-span greenhouse conforms to the roof’s geometry to maximize rooftop acreage.  Colorado-based greenhouse industry leader Nexus Corporation designed and built the climate-controlled structure, which captures rainwater for use within the hydroponic system.  Nexus is similarly responsible for Gotham Greens‘rooftop facilities throughout New York City, and a slew of other fascinating rooftop projects - both agricultural and non-agricultural – around the country.  The farm itself is operated by Sky Vegetables, a Boston-based urban farming company.  In an NYCHA interview with Sky Vegetables President Robert Fireman, Fireman stated that, “Sky Vegetables is proud to partner with Blue Sea Development and city and state agencies to build one of the most forward and innovative projects in the nation.”  He went on to say that the project will create “a national model for sustainable food production.”

Hydroponic greens || photo by Marcus Santos

In an era of corruption and questionably effective affordable housing precedents, how did this high-reaching vision actually materialize?  Arbor House reached fruition thanks to a public-private partnership between NYCHA, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Blue Sea Development.  The $37.7 million project is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, a multibillion dollar initiative to finance 165,000 affordable housing units for half a million New Yorkers by the end of the 2014 fiscal year.  As such, the development was eligible for and received significant savings through local, city, and state subsidies, Reso A funds, tax credit equities and tax exempt bonds.  Blue Sea Development Co. saved additional money by purchasing the Arbor House lot from NYCHA at a below market rate.

Thanks to collaborative, cross-industry efforts, the Arbor House proves that fresh food access is finally within reach for some low-income New Yorkers.  The project’s beaming success is sure to inspire future affordable housing developments and may prove to reshape our housing skyline.

Lauren Mandel, ASLA, is a green roof designer and author of EAT UP | The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture (New Society Publishers 2013), the first full-length book about rooftop food production. 

Top photo by Jeff Warschauer