City governments face many challenges, so when they can find solutions that kill two birds with one stone, it’s an especially valuable win. That’s turning out to be the case for the “Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC” competition in New York City.
The competition seeks designs for affordable housing, but only for select locations where the city owns small or oddly-shaped pieces of land that are difficult to develop.
“You have to understand, this competition takes the history of New York City into account,” Matthew Creegan, deputy press secretary for the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), told Smart Cities Dive. By that, he means how the odd pieces of land came to exist in the first place.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the city purchased many parcels of distressed land that suffered from disinvestment. Most of those lots have been developed and the city’s supply of vacant parcels has shrunk. But city employees recognized that “what's left are not the big lots. They’re small [or] odd shaped, [maybe] wedged between older buildings,” Creegan said. “We thought this was a great opportunity to look at lots too challenging to develop… and use innovative designs and architecture to unlock their value.”
HPD partnered with the American Institute of Architects New York (AIANY) on the competition. This model is “the best way to get a really broad view of the possibilities,” AIANY President Hayes Slade told Smart Cities Dive. Contestants from around the world have until March 25 to submit their plans for the design and construction of affordable housing that will maximize the potential of underutilized city-owned land.
“Housing, especially in New York and many urban areas, is one of the most pressing issues we face. As architects, this is an issue we're uniquely qualified to satisfy,” Slade said. “It’s an important moment and topic.”
Stage one finalists will be announced in May. They will receive a $3,000 stipend and will be invited to participate in an exhibition and panel discussion. HPD and AIANY will organize a series of workshops and networking opportunities to facilitate the formation of development teams and help the finalists hone their original submissions into site-specific proposals. HPD will choose at least one of the finalists’ proposals to develop into affordable housing on city-owned land.
"Housing, especially in New York and many urban areas, is one of the most pressing issues we face. As architects, this is an issue we're uniquely qualified to satisfy."
President, American Institute of Architects New York
The competition is unique in that it shies away from letting developers lead the way and instead asks, “How can design lead the way?” Slade says.
In addition to design practicality and feasibility, proposed aesthetics play a role in determining finalists.
“Aesthetics is part of everything… The first thing that shapes how we perceive something is the way it looks. That impacts the way we react to it,” Slade said. “Public housing should be part of the neighborhood fabric.”
“We want to make sure we’re building beautiful assets to serve the community. If something's an eyesore, that’s not really serving the community,” Creegan said. The designs must be both “functional and affordable. They're going to be homes and people deserve great places to live,” he continued.
Organizers would like the final designs to be replicable not just throughout the city, but also in other cities that might face similar land challenges. And soliciting ideas in the form of a competition allows for a greater diversity of participants than simply issuing a request for proposals and receiving responses from firms familiar with the process.
“Any time you open up a competition… it increases the vibrancy and the participating set. It’s great for the profession because you can reach unconventional and small firms… It’s important to open up to other voices,” Slade said. “The impact that addressing these kinds of lots will have is larger than the size of the lot would imply. It’s important that they're shown great care.”