According to the photographic record, the land at 443 East 142nd Street in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx was once occupied by a quaint (if unremarkable) Queen Anne-style townhouse, indistinguishable in almost every detail from those on either side. It therefore appears in the tax archives from 1940; by the time of the 1980 edition, the building—and indeed the whole row—was gone, leaving nothing in its place except a rubbish-strewn dump. The two images constitute a kind of capsule history of the whole neighborhood – or at least the received history of the South Bronx, the oft-told story of a bustling working-class enclave that descended into urban chaos after mid-century. .
But there is always more to the story. Mecca of cinema in the 1910s; housing craft workshops in the 1930s; and, even after its decline in the 1970s, a key redoubt to the city’s immigrant community and the cradle of contemporary street culture: the southernmost area of the borough has never lacked vitality. The trick now is to preserve it. “Obviously the South Bronx has seen an influx of people and investment lately,” Patrick Bonck, assistant vice president of the affordable housing provider InnovateTold A. “It’s a good thing. But not if it means displacing people who have always lived there.
Breaking Ground’s latest project is an attempt to prevent that. Enter the Betances, the new senior living building that now sits on East 142nd Street, a 152-unit subsidized housing complex built as a collaborative effort between Bonck’s nonprofit organization, the New York City Housing Authority and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Just opened this month, the project offers former Bronxites low-cost apartments as well as on-site care facilities and programs, all in a building with a surprising degree of design and a special sensitivity to its surroundings. historical. “We wanted something that would make the people who live here feel like they were really part of the neighborhood,” said Jared Gilbertassociate partner at COOKFOX Architects.
The firm’s collaboration with Breaking Ground comes at a key moment. The setbacks of those seeking accommodation in New York are well known; less so are the challenges faced by elderly residents, some 200,000 of whom were on waiting lists for federally subsidized housing as recently as 2020; the number likely increased during the pandemic. The problem is particularly acute in the South Bronx, where pre-pandemic data not only shows that senior poverty rate are higher than the average for the city, but also that they are increasing from year to year.
At the same time, Mott Haven and the adjacent Port Morris neighborhood are currently witnessing the most intense gentrification in the borough’s history, with the billion-dollar Bankside luxury apartment complex currently completing its construction on the Harlem River waterfront. For older Bronxites, many of whom lived through the area’s toughest years, the influx of bars, restaurants and shops could be a long-awaited boon, but not if there’s no more room. for them. “If a neighborhood changes, people want to stay there and enjoy it,” says Samuel Stein, housing advocate at the New York Community Service Society. “Unless you have affordable housing, people will be very skeptical of these kinds of improvements.”
The Betances represent a concerted effort to keep the Bronx’s most tenured residents in the borough. On the 20,126 square foot site, which stretches from 142nd (also known as Piccirilli Place) to 143rd Street, the project follows a barbell plan, with two 8-story towers on each facade, connected by a narrow cross connector. This gallery-like volume, containing a small reading room and surmounted by an accessible green roof, extends along the eastern perimeter of an interior garden, preceded to the south by a space for community events and to the north by an on-site health facility. On the exterior elevations, the upper floors clad in dark metal panels rest on a brick base, while on the interior elevations, strip brick runs the full height of the surface. Individual accommodations, mostly studios but also one-bedroom units, are comfortable and elegantly appointed, with sweeping views of Queens and the Midtown skyline on the south side. More important is the sense of connection to the immediate urban surroundings of Les Betances: the backyards of the neighboring houses are visible from the garden, the welcoming landscaped entrance rises to the front door and the mottled brick facade completes both the Old Law tenements and the new two-story infill buildings surrounding it. Everything seems designed to keep seniors from feeling boxed in or boxed in. “Even the elevator vestibules are lit by daylight,” notes Darin Reynoldssenior partner at COOKFOX, who led the project.
On a recent visit, residents had just started moving into their new apartments, slowly walking up and down the sloping interior driveway that leads to the 24-hour doorman and dedicated parcel room. “I wish my building had that,” Gilbert said. Indeed, there’s plenty to envy the Betances, which boasts a host of features one would expect from a much more upscale address. Topped with solar panels on the south tower and featuring serious insulation and all-electric appliances, the building has been awarded the coveted Passive House seal of approval, putting it at the forefront of energy efficiency; the rating is a point of pride for the designers of the project, but it also brings a tangible benefit to its inhabitants: “We were able to offer the inhabitants very good indoor air quality [and] to create very quiet living spaces,” says Reynolds, pointing to sophisticated filtration and circulation systems as well as double-glazed windows that keep out street noise.
Perhaps COOKFOX’s greatest design achievement is how well this low-cost, nearly neat housing development resembles either of these things: the finishes and fixtures in the hall below -floor would not be out of place in a boutique hotel, and even the acoustic paneling in the gallery is transformed into aesthetic effect, setting up a pleasing rhythmic procession through the hallway. As the South Bronx undergoes another of its serial transformations, the Betances are a welcome sign that this time, with any luck, the old neighborhood and the new could co-exist.
Ian Volner has written articles on design and urbanism for the new yorker, The Wall Street Journaland Atlanticamong other publications, and contributes to the writing of Architect and architecture today (UK); he is the author or co-author of numerous books and monographs, including the most recent Jorge Pardo: Public projects and commissions 1996–2018 (Petzel, 2021).