Story at a glance:
- Body Lawson Associates designed Home Street Residences in the Bronx, a 63-unit building made specifically to meet seniors’ needs.
- The firm is also working on a large project called The Peninsula with WXY Studios in Hunts Point.
- Victor Body-Lawson is committed to designing affordable housing that empowers residents.
Victor Body-Lawson has a passion for designing buildings that give back to the communities around them. As the principal architect and founder of Body Lawson Associates, he creates affordable housing projects in neighborhoods like Hunts Point and Harlem that keep the diverse culture of New York City thriving.
His projects reduce gentrification by providing residences for local people and encouraging autonomy, educational growth, and healthy living. In addition to providing modern homes that support people’s personal and economic growth, his thoughtful designs increase the community’s curb appeal. We talked to Body-Lawson about defining affordable housing, his firm’s recent work, and the changing needs of communities.
Let’s start by asking the simple but perhaps often misunderstood question: What is affordable housing?
Affordable housing is typically defined by the AMI, or average mean income, and it varies depending on area. Essentially, in New York City affordable housing is encouraged by the city to provide housing for people so they are not completely displaced.
For example, we did a project in Mount Vernon where the idea was to provide workforce housing. It’s for teachers, nurses, police officers, and city workers. In certain areas in New York City affordable housing is built for the formerly homeless, elderly, veterans, people with special needs, and low-income families.
We also do mixed-use projects. What I mean by mixed-use is the developer might not want to do 100% affordable. It could be 60/40 or 80/20, where you have 60% of apartments at market rate and 40% affordable. We’re currently working on a project on 124th Street in Harlem that’s 169 units. It’s part of a larger complex where the entire development will have about 400 units, but one building—the one we’re responsible for—will be 100% affordable and the other will be a market rate rental and condo building.
How do affordable housing designs compare to market rate designs?
We try to design our projects to feel, look, and perform like market rate projects. We do stone countertops and stainless steel appliances. We try to reach LEED Gold standards so the building is just as good as any other building.
In terms of materials, we want to make buildings feel like something you’d find in a market rate priced house. They are defensible spaces (residential environments whose layouts allow people to feel safe and secure), so when people actually get into this building they feel like they own it. They become part of it and make sure the buildings are taken care of as well as if they were their own homes and they weren’t just paying rent to live there.
Are there key features you include when designing affordable housing?
Community spaces are part of the program for most affordable housing projects. You would normally try to create a community space like a recreation room so residents can meet there. They could have birthday parties or tenant meetings, so that’s something we like to provide.
Sometimes we do mixed-use buildings where there may be a church or a grocery store on the ground floor. That starts to attract the larger community into the building. By making a mixed-use building you’re tying it to the community at large. Those are things we tend to do because it doesn’t isolate the building as a separate entity; it inserts it into the community.
How can community spaces adapt to meet residents’ needs?
Now with COVID-19 we’re starting to look at the public spaces within our affordable housing projects. Is it possible that instead of being a recreational room—which cannot be used at this time because it’s a closed indoor space—we could use that as an isolation center for residents who may be sick? Then we’d look at installing a better ventilation system—maybe getting HEPA filters in those spaces and making them much more robust for things like isolation for a short-term stay.
We’re also looking at the possibility of subdividing the recreational spaces with movable partitions so residents can do Zoom calls. We’re laser-focused on some of the community spaces in affordable housing projects, and the objective is to figure out ways to make them better, make them more empowering for people who live there, and adapt to needs as they change.
How do these projects affect communities in large cities?
If you look at cities you realize the value of real estate has been growing constantly. As that happens you see a lot of gentrification. You also see people who don’t have the resources to live in that environment—the teachers, nurses, police officers. Without affordable housing or without the cities, states, and federal government lending a hand to create affordable housing for newly graduated students, it would be almost impossible to live in large cities like New York City. A lot of cities recognize that and have been building affordable housing to accommodate the workforce to create a more diverse environment.
Tell us about Home Street Residences in the Bronx.
It’s a 63-unit building specifically for seniors. It’s completed and essentially occupied now, and the benefits that the residents are getting from living there are something that really makes me happy. Whenever I go there I find that most of the residents are happy.
It’s a mixed-use building with apartments on the second to eighth floors, and the ground floor has a large open space that is being occupied by a group that trains students as part of a gaming community called DreamYard. It’s really a building that has seniors on the upper levels and young people on the lower level and occasionally they come together—at least they used to before the pandemic. The connection between the two benefits both demographics. From a psychological standpoint the mix is good. The building is now a resource for learning.
What was the site like before?
There was a church on the site that unfortunately became dilapidated after members left and they didn’t have anyone taking care of it. It was boarded up, had a fence around it, and—for lack of a better word—it was an eyesore. One of the things they initially talked about was to try to re-create the church. I don’t think they were able to get enough interest to get members to come back so they decided to pull out of the deal. That’s how DreamYard came to take the space.
When we decided to move forward with the project we felt the building had to be demolished, but we wanted to keep as much as we possibly could. We took one of the cornerstones of the site and embedded it in one of the sitting areas in the rear yard. We also took church pews, restored them, and put those in the lobby. There was some wainscoting from the church. We took that, restored it, and made it part of the community room. We also took the Manhattan Schist of stone—the idea of that was what inspired the color of the building. We wanted to create a sense that this building that was formally there was now here but with a new design. And now it would be friendly because it has windows and eyes on the street.
How did you see the building fitting into its community aesthetically overall?
The building site was also something we took into consideration. It’s bounded by three streets so we wanted the building to look as if it was a church in a piazza, but a modern one. I considered the space in front of it as if it was a piazza, even though it is traversed with cars, and the building itself like a church even though it’s an apartment building.
When you see it, you see something that’s somewhat dominant. It’s not like a typical New York City building you look at obliquely on the street. There’s a frontal relationship from Home Street to the building, which was there when the church was there as well.
What are the accommodations like?
It’s an apartment building that is 100% affordable, and 30% of units are geared toward formerly homeless people. There is an onsite management company that helps to support them. They are typically one-bedroom or studio apartments, and there is a two-bedroom apartment for an onsite super. There’s a nice, open space in the back. There are a couple of roof terraces, a landscaped roof terrace, and an associated gym that’s next to the roof terrace. That’s something we are very proud of. There’s a recreational room on the ground level that’s opened to the rear courtyard for residents to use.
It’s also in what we call a transit zone. There’s a subway right next to it, which gives you access to the rest of the city and region. There are post offices, grocery stores, and a park that’s a 10-minute walk. It’s a walkable environment that’s really centrally located.
What’s the art like in the common spaces? Is it true there are a few Victor Body-Lawson originals?
One thing I’ve always enjoyed is painting. It gave me great joy to create paintings for each of the floors of Home Street. The paintings became wayfinding art on each floor. Each painting is different so when you get out of the elevator you get a sense of ‘This is my floor.’”
What else is your firm working on?
We’re currently working on a large project called The Peninsula with WXY Studios. We’re quite passionate about that because of the effect the project will have on the community. It’s creating a lot of jobs for people—in construction, in security, in all various aspects. It’s going to be a game changer in Hunts Point.
We designed The Peninsula to be a mixed-use complex on almost five acres with five buildings being built in phases. The second to 14th floors are residential, and they surround an open space that’s connected to the rest of the community. The base of the building has public spaces like a grocery store and school. It’s got an urban health center where people from the community and from the development can actually go. It’s got a venue for possibly recording videos. It’s got a bank. It’s got a brewery and a dance studio.
It’s a project that will change a lot of lives. It will make the community a much more powerful neighborhood. The site used to be a relatively notorious detention center, Spofford Youth Detention Facility, and when we started the project we interviewed the neighborhood and they categorically wanted us to demolish the building and the memory of the detention center. Essentially we are replacing it with a much more environmentally friendly, socially friendly, and economically friendly complex that will benefit the people who live there.
How does work like this and at Home Street reflect your mission?
We have a social obligation: How do we empower people? How do we move them from point A to point B? We want our buildings to be delightful experiences for whoever interacts with them.
I think that’s our mission—to give as much as possible to people so they feel empowered and like part of the community, that they are part of the city. The city needs that level of diversification, to show it’s not only a city for high network people; it’s a city for everyone—for middle-class people, for people who don’t have resources, for people who are formerly homeless, for people who may have mental health issues. The richness of the city comes from its diversification.
We feel like when you give people more, they become stronger at the end. When they live in that building, it acts as the vessel that moves them from one stage to the other. You want them to be psychologically balanced. You want them to be economically strengthened so that by the time they move to their next stage they have benefitted from living in that building. It’s not just a place for living, where you just rest your head, it’s a place that acts as a partner in empowering the person through their life.