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City seeks designers for housing on oddly sized lots

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“This is a chance to prove that, when it comes to architecture, small is beautiful”

A 17-foot wide lot in the Foxhurst section of the Bronx is among 23 unusual lots included in the city’s new design competition.
Christopher Bride/PropertyShark

The city is turning to the design world to transform slivers of vacant land into below-market-rate housing.

On Monday, the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) announced that it is kicking off a design competition, asking architects to come up with proposals to build housing on 23 unusually sized lots throughout the five boroughs.

“With this competition, we’re tapping into the creativity and expertise of the design community—the best and the brightest—to spark big ideas for some of the city’s smallest and most challenging to develop lots,” said HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer in a statement.

The two-stage competition, Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC, partners with the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANY) to select designs for lots as tiny as 663 square feet and as narrows as 13 feet wide. Lots of this size are typically left over wedges from developments, or a result of zoning oddities or building code quirks that make them undesirable to private developers.

New York City owns 5,027 undeveloped parcels across the city—including wetlands, community gardens, and unusable slices—but of those nearly 1,800 are small properties that are less than 1,900 square feet, according to Department of Administrative Services spokesperson Nick Benson. The competition comes as legislators are renewing their push to bring long-vacant lots back into productive use and crack down on private owners who have allowed the land to fall into disrepair.

There is no entry fee for the contest, which initially asks entrants to focus on a derelict 17-foot-wide, 1,665-square-foot Harlem lot on West 136th Street. Proposals will be judged by a panel of nine jurors made up of urban planners, architects, and private developers. In the second phase, contestants are asked to propose budgets and site plans—that portion is slated for fall 2019. The competition is an opportunity for designers get innovative with their petite projects, one judge said.

“This is a chance to prove that, when it comes to architecture, small is beautiful,” said Claire Weisz, the co-founder of WXY Architecture + Urban Design.

Finalists in the first stage of the contest will be awarded $3,000 by the AIANY and have their designs exhibited at the Center for Architecture. Afterwards, the city will organize a series of workshops to develop teams for the next phase where HPD will pair proposals with certain city lots. The second design phase must focus on those lots, but must also include how the project could be translated to develop housing on the 22 other sites.

HPD mostly anticipates plans for two- or three-family homes for buyers who will be selected through the city’s affordable housing lottery, though below-market-rate rentals are also being considered. Income limits have not been set yet for the prospective housing.

Planners have until March 24 2019 to submit their initial designs and finalists for the first stage will be announced in May 2019.