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Urban Oasis: How Via Verde Provides Healthy Living to the South Bronx

By Jane Kolleeny

AIA-Slideshow

Via Verde-The Green Way

Via Verde in the South Bronx is a new model for public housing in New York City, based on the principles of community and sustainable, healthy living.  Designed by Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects, it is the result of an effort to comprehensively address the intersections of poverty, health, and the environment in low-income communities. All images courtesy of David Sundberg/ESTO.

Via Verde-The Green Way

Prefabricated high performance rain screen of composite wood, cement, and metal panels keep the temperature-raising sun at bay during the summer.

Via Verde-The Green Way

A view of Via Verde from the playing fields of the adjacent high school. The site is a former brownfield.

Via Verde-The Green Way

Photovoltaic panels line Via Verde’s roof.

Via Verde-The Green Way

A shared courtyard provides open space for residents to gather and children to play. The amphitheater in the background is the entrance to the terraced roof-top gardens.

Via Verde-The Green Way

Beyond the amphitheater, a grove of fir trees and an orchard lead to garden plots where residents can plant vegetables and flowers. Balconies allow residents to socialize and cool off during the summer.

Via Verde-The Green Way

Via Verde’s 34,000-square-foot green roof includes multifunctional gardens for active gardening, fruit and vegetable cultivation, recreation, and social gatherings, while also providing the benefits of storm water control and enhanced insulation.

Via Verde-The Green Way

Via Verde integrates into its neighborhood by adding both housing and green space to a former brownfield site. Playing fields and green space lie adjacent to the site, and the busy retail intersection knows as the Hub is accessible one block to the west. The skyscrapers of Manhattan are visible in the distance.

Via Verde-The Green Way

An overhead view of the central courtyard and amphitheater.

Via Verde-The Green Way

The dwelling units provide ceiling fans, operable windows on two exposures, wood floors, and energy and water-efficient fixtures and appliances.

Stacie Seabron and Hilda Betances grew up in the South Bronx, an area north of New York City that suffered massive population loss in the 1970s and ‘80s. A place where raging fires, derelict buildings, and abandoned lots were commonplace, it had become a breeding ground for crime.

To some, such a place signifies destitution, but for Seabron and Betances the South Bronx was and is home. “I lived on 157th Street and Melrose, and grew up in the neighborhood in the 1980s,” says Betances. “Now, 20-some years, later I’m back.” For other residents it served as an inspiration for creativity, spawning some of the best-known lyrics of rap and hip-hop as well as images of modern-day graffiti.

Today, as a part of New York City’s urban renewal campaign, the neighborhood welcomes residents back. Epitomizing these recent efforts is the extraordinary Via Verde (Spanish for the "green way"), a $99 million, 222-unit sustainable, mixed-use, affordable housing development. Proud to be part of this experiment in green living, both Seabron and Betances occupy rental apartments. “I am a traffic enforcement agent—people yell at me all the time but I keep my spirits up—I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I’m grateful,” says Seabron. “I’m super-excited to be living here now.”

The result of a collaboration of public and private partners—including the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the AIA, and the development community—Via Verde was the city’s first juried competition for affordable sustainable housing. The contract was awarded to Grimshaw partnered with Dattner Architects, who impressed the jury with a design both site-specific and duplicable for future generations.

Situated on a triangular 1.5-acre former brownfield, the complex provides high-rise buildings, mid-rise duplexes, two- to four-story townhouse rentals, and co-op housing. It incorporates the kind of abundant sustainable and healthy interventions which any New Yorker would find impressive. It is a unique pilot project: “Via Verde is the result of the commitment of a wide range of leaders to address the intersections of poverty, health, and the environment in low-income communities,” says Jonathan Rose of the Jonathan Rose Companies, who with the Phipps Houses Group developed and manages the properties.

Today, inactivity and unhealthy eating are second only to tobacco as the main causes of premature death in America. New York City’s Active Design Guidelines, developed with the help of AIA New York, provide a manual of strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces. Via Verde is designed according to these guidelines, and also targets LEED Gold certification.

A key to healthy living is walkability and connectivity to services. Via Verde is located near a bustling retail corridor. “There is a shopping center right down the block; subways are close by. The neighborhood is getting better—crime has lessened. It is safe at night and the security in the building is awesome,” says Betances.

Via Verde’s most dominant and impressive feature is a series of green roofs cascading down from the top of the 20-story high-rise onto the midrise rooftops, and then to lower-elevation townhouse roofs. The green roofs then step down to a ground-level courtyard with an outdoor amphitheater designed for play and social gatherings. The terraced roofs feature edible gardens and are linked by stairways. Along with retaining rainwater and combating heat-island effect, the gardens provide fresh food and access to nature.

“In my building, I feel I can breathe—it is airy and spacious,” says Seabron. “The windows open up life to me—I can clearly see the sky. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Yet a building with such aspirations does not come without its challenges. Max Ruperti, Phipps Houses property manager at Via Verde, says his biggest hurdle is developing a program to improve the lives of people used to substandard conditions. “With every pilot program there are bumps in the road,” he says. “The biggest hurdle in green living is adapting to the rules—the products used, the recycling of garbage, residents can’t paint the walls like they want to. It’s a change of life.” He measures success in terms of tenant well-being and turnover rate. Education is a big part of such a project. “I interact with the residents; I train them to be open and honest about their concerns, and not to fear me,” says Ruperti.

Because the project opened this past June, it’s too early to know if it will ultimately succeed. Certainly residents have a deep appreciation of Via Verde and feel it aspires to worthy goals. “I think we need more of these spacious living environments that offer tranquility,” says Seabron. “I work hard and others work hard too: Why should we not live in peace?”

A former editor at Architectural Record and GreenSource magazines, Jane Kolleeny is retreat and business development director at the Garrison Institute, Garrison, New York.

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Back to AIArchitect November 16, 2012

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