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Meet the Young Architect Who’s Helping Design NYCHA’s Future

New York City Housing Authority's first-ever design fellow is tasked with transforming the agency's buildings

"I ended up with an alternative career in architecture," admits Jae Shin, explaining the path from Princeton, where she received a graduate degree in architecture, to her latest gig, a design fellowship with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). At the beginning of this year she joined the agency through the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, which selects young architects to work with organizations around the country to design green, sustainable, and affordable housing. This is the first time NYCHA is hosting a fellow, and Jae’s three-year tenure coincides with the agency's launch of a 10-year strategic plan, NextGen Neighborhoods.

Between Princeton and NYCHA, Jae served as an "on-call urban designer" for the city of Newark, New Jersey, working on a number of initiatives for which she sought community input. For example, one job required developing tools to explain how a new zoning law would affect residents. "It's on-the-ground work, and it’s key to have support from the community," she explains. "You just have to know how to go and talk to people." By focusing her career outside of traditional architecture firms, "I’ve spent a lot of time learning and engaging with the community and public policy," she says.

That experience may be particularly helpful given what’s ahead for NYCHA. The NextGen proposal calls for more residential developments—half of which would be deemed "affordable"—on so-called "underused" land in public housing, such as parking lots and playgrounds. The added income will, in theory, help address $17 billion worth of unmet capital needs. NextGen will also address the design of current public housing buildings, improving things like facades or public spaces, as well as building out ground-floor retail and community facilities. NYCHA hopes to develop two to four sites a year, the first of which will be Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side and Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill.

The implementation of NextGen promises to be an uphill battle, given community hesitation toward the proposal and NYCHA’s longtime budget struggles. NYCHA residents have already expressed concerns of change and gentrification; many come to the process with existing hesitations toward NYCHA. "A challenge of NextGen is overcoming the deeply-rooted distrust of residents [toward NYCHA]," says Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who heads the public housing committee. "It’s a deeply dysfunctional bureaucracy." And in a city with an ever-growing wealth gap, many residents aren’t exactly embracing the idea to bring market-rate apartments to historically affordable developments.

The challenge is changing the public perception that public housing is not a black hole—it’s worthy of the public investment.

Then there's the looming $17 billion capital funding gap, NYCHA’s chronic operating deficit, and the lack of federal funds to support the agency. You must also take into account the sheer scope of its purview—NYCHA is a landlord to 328 developments, with more than 400,000 residents across all five boroughs, making it the largest public housing authority in the country. Finally, there’s the often negative public perception toward housing projects and the criticism that the dense building schemes feel quarantined from its surroundings. "The challenge is changing the public perception, right up [to] the the political elite, that public housing is not a black hole … it’s worthy of the public investment," says Coucilmember Torres. But, he adds, "NYCHA has a damaged brand."

Under Shola Olatoye, appointed chair of the agency by Mayor de Blasio in 2014, there’s been a whiff of innovation and creativity in the air for NYCHA, which the Enterprise Rose Fellowship contributes to. "NYCHA is a large, very bureaucratic organization," says Katie Swenson, a vice president at Enterprise, which was founded in 1982 and started pairing early-career architectural designers with local community organizations in 2000. "But there’s a young, creative energy there right now, and a vision has been created around the future and the ability to change." In searching for a fellow to team up with NYCHA, Enterprise considered the existing challenges facing NYCHA and looked for a young architect "who could help shift that direction and point it in a more positive way," Swenson says. "The best fellowships are when the leadership of an organization has a vision of transforming," she adds. "We’re looking for a wickedly skilled fellow who can be an asset of change for them … in that regard, it’s not about the fellow, it’s about the fellowship."

NYCHA Next Gen Fellowship
Jae Shin

Through a rigorous process that narrowed down 25 different finalists, Enterprise and NYCHA chose Jae for the fellowship based on her realism—"she had an idea of how hard this was going to be," says Swenson—along with her optimism and ambition. "She’s forward-looking," says Bruce Eisenberg, Deputy Director of the architectural unit at NYCHA. "It gives [NYCHA] a fresh approach, helping with outreach to the design community and creating a better dialogue with NYCHA and other design professionals."

Jae was taken on specifically to help NYCHA implement its NextGen plan, and this first year is dedicated to "setting up conditions in which we can bring innovation," she says. The second year, ideally, will be a time to put those innovations into practice, while the third year is to see the changes in action. She began her fellowship brainstorming design guidelines for the NextGen process to move forward—guidelines that could be used as as "an intimate tool" for approaching design in public housing projects, rather than wish list or a textbook. "It’s a matter of doing what makes sense—it’s not an abstract idea of change," she says. "They’re practical and specific moves informed by each built environment."

Jae’s earliest design considerations included improving common outdoor areas, activating ground-floor spaces with retail and community facilities, and fixing up laundry rooms. But even small improvements could be overwhelming: "We’re not just redesigning the entrance to one building," Jae says, "We’re considering the entrances on hundreds of NYCHA campuses." And for each change, she knows, public input will be key. Eisenberg echoes her sentiment: "Resident engagement is a big part of NextGen … it’s much more interactive than it has been in the past."

Six months in, she's made serious progress. She plans to release her first set of design guidelines, which cover the rehabilitation for existing buildings, this August. (She has yet to tackle design considerations for new market-rate construction.) Her guidelines have taken NYCHA’s sustainability agenda, released this spring, heavily into account. And while such guidelines will offer broad tactics in regulating NYCHA’s approach toward building rehabilitation, Jae is also thinking on a micro scale. She is studying creative, site-specific ways to better design building entrances, fences, storefronts, and the like within complexes. She spoke to an upcoming "peer review" in which local design professionals will review a proposal to expand the community center at Wyckoff Gardens, one of the housing sites slated to get new market-rate development.

Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill

The dialogue at NYCHA, at least for now, tends to veer away from designing new, market-rate apartment units within public housing projects and rather toward design changes that address concerns of existing residents and better integrate NYCHA housing with its surrounding neighborhood. This May, NYCHA released a one-year report on NextGen’s accomplishments that include capital repairs, sustainability and resiliency measures for new construction, better customer service and improved on-site security. While no details have been announced for market rate development, over the year NYCHA engaged 600 residents over 36 meetings at both Holmes Towers and Wyckoff Gardens.

Until specifics come out, it's been hard for some to throw their support behind the proposal. "NextGen feels like a mission statement," said Councilmember Torres. "It’s light on plan and light on details … at this point it’s unclear if it is as holistic as it claims."

At the very least, putting forth a vision is seen as a significant first step. "It’s a shift for a housing authority," says Nadine Maleh, executive director of the Institute for Public Architecture. "NYCHA is creating design guidelines and outlining what that means to public housing in New York City, not just affordable housing as a whole." Maleh feels that if done correctly, the guidelines could marry the challenge of managing and maintaining existing buildings with plans for future development—a significant task considering the limited budget.

"That $17 billion number is repeated a lot, and it dictates the way we do things," says Jae. The imposing number has lent a particular gravity to NextGen: "We’ve got to take responsibility to turn this thing around," she says.

The emphasis on design, however, promises more than just new housing development; it gives NYCHA the chance to re-envision what public housing looks like in New York. Councilmember Torres urged NYCHA to exercise its imagination for NextGen—"be bold, be big," he says. Jae is up for the task, but still keeps two feet firmly on the ground, maintaining the balance of realism and ambition. "There’s a saying that's stuck with me," she says, "And that’s to hitch imagination to regulation."


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