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Previewing Harlem's Controversial, Cantilevered Gray Building

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Yesterday morning Mayor de Blasio journeyed to Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood to publicize a new affordable housing project on 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. (It was confirmed that he did, in fact, take the subway there.) The cantilevered gray cubes at 404-414 West 155th Street, designed by Ghanaian architect David Adjaye for Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), caused a stir when its designs were first unveiled, with neighbors calling it a "modernist, high-rise gash." Even upon completion, amateur archicritics thought it looked like a prison.

But yesterday, naturally, the focus was on the 124 affordable apartments in the 191,000-square-foot, 13-story building. Seventy percent of them are designated for families earning below 50 percent of the Annual Mean Income (AMI) in the New York City area, which is $41,500 for a family of four. "A family of five making $28,000 can live in a three-bedroom here for a little over $500 a month," de Blasio said in his remarks. Over 50,000 applicants applied for the lottery, an acceptance rate (below 0.25%) that puts Harvard's to shame. The lottery is currently closed, and candidates are being contacted for interviews between now and November. The building is complete from the outside, as construction continues on the interiors and an art show (with one work being a metropolis made of sugar cubes, of course) is staged there in the meantime.

BHC was also successful in securing 25 units for homeless or previously homeless families. For some, it could be the first time they see their name on a lease. "Permanent, safe and affordable housing is the foundation for rebuilding lives and creating vibrant communities centered around arts and education," said Ellen Baxter, founder and executive director of Broadway Housing Communities. The $59.2 million project received financing from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in the form of HOME funds and tax credits, as well as additional capital support from the City Council.

A 17,000-square-foot space on the first two floors will house the Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling. Its programming will aim to educate hundreds of children (age 3-8) from the community in the arts as well as provide three of the mayor's universal pre-K classes.

There can be no objections to the lofty social goals of the project. Adjaye's involvement in the project was lauded—especially given his sterling credentials, such as winning a competition to design the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.—but unfortunately area residents didn't think his design, meant fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. The design of the building, with its two large boxes stacked, unevenly, atop one another, is not so palatable. It creates a dramatic cantilever that sticks out in the neighborhood—literally—and has been called a sore thumb and an eyesore by those in the neighborhood who treasure the architecture of the rowhouses that contributed to its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Here's the other side: Adjaye's firm, Adjaye Associates, describes the façade as a "textured slab." The "slab," made of pre-caste concrete panels painted graphite, is meant to "abstractly reference" "the intricate masonry ornament and the articulation of the row-house bays of the neighboring buildings." It also has indentations of roses (think Harlem Rose) in the concrete façade meant to "increase the play of light across the surface." On a cloudy day all the talk of reflecting light made the building look even more gray. One Sugar Hill resident said she swore it was golden last week.

The debate over looks aside, de Blasio's presence at the ribbon-cutting turned the city's eyes to this affordable housing development, if only for a moment, which could be one model for his ambitious 10-year, $41 billion affordable housing plan.
—Evan Reeves
· Sugar Hill Apartments [Broadway Housing Communities]
· Sugar Hill coverage [Curbed]