Bronx beacon: MLK Plaza by Magnusson Architecture and Planning

In the Bronx a team with experience of designing affordable housing meets project constraints with thoughtful elegance from the inside out

Words by Erin Hudson

The 13-storey MLK Plaza conspicuously towers over its surroundings in Mott Haven, a southern neighbourhood in the Bronx. Named after American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, the 167-unit rental housing complex is visible from the nearest subway stop blocks away. The building is striking, but not flattering. On an overcast day, the metallic sheen of the building’s flat brick exterior seems foreboding compared to the lighter brick on surrounding streets, even despite a sunny golden ribbon of metal that wraps around part of the facade.

Up close, the building’s immediate neighbours are a hodgepodge of industrial warehouses, autobody repair shops and pastel-coloured clapboard houses. The sound of drilling and traffic pulsing on the adjacent Bruckner Expressway is a constant soundtrack.

The dark-brick mass of the building is interrupted by a golden ribbon of aluminium composite metal (ACM). Credit: Imagen Subliminal

The dissonance speaks to the changes Mott Haven and the Bronx at large have been experiencing for years. After the borough’s largely white residents began decamping for suburbs and a series of arsons in the 1970s ripped through the area, much of the South Bronx was left burnt out and deserted until the late 1980s. New York City’s then-mayor Edward Koch jumpstarted housing development in the area with a $5bn plan that allowed renovation and refurbishment to begin transforming the Bronx.

A local artist's mural of Martin Luther King Jr in the lobby. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

More than three decades later, nearly $3.5bn (£2.7bn) poured into real estate development in the Bronx last year alone — the highest since 2009. About 75% of those funds went toward residential projects, many of which are classified as affordable housing (though a wave of market-rate luxury condos and rentals is coming). To build affordably, developers are tapping into local government programmes for tax breaks, subsidies or other incentives, like building higher or changing land use, in exchange for setting aside units with lower-than-market-rate rents for low-income residents. The schemes have been in place since the 1970s in order to encourage the construction of housing at all price points.

Floor-to-ceiling glazing makes the lobby a welcoming space. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

To build MLK Plaza, Radson Development tapped two city housing agencies to help finance the $63.7m (£48.6m) project. The arrangement means most of the building’s 25 studios, 57 one-bedroom, 60 two-bedroom and 24 threebedroom apartments will lease for rents ranging from $464 to $1,289 (£354 to £984) per month — a scale calculated to accommodate a range of low-to-middle-income residents. The median annual income in the Bronx is about $36,600 (£27,943) with a poverty rate of roughly 28% — far higher than the rest of the city or country.

According to a city document, 17 units will be essentially market-rate units for tenants earning 110% of the local median income; 68 units will be permanently affordable. A housing lottery — a popular method amid NYC’s citywide housing crisis — was held for the majority of MLK Plaza in autumn 2018, while 33 units are reserved for formerly homeless people.

The approach to the entrance lobby. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

Architecture firm Magnusson Architecture + Planning (MAP) was commissioned by Radson to design the building on the sloping former industrial site in 2015. The two companies had never worked together before, but the developer wanted to do ‘something special’, according to MAP principal Fernando Villa, so it sought out MAP, a firm with a long history of designing affordable housing projects in the Bronx for nonprofit housing builders.

In anticipation of often inevitable value-engineering, MAP developed its design around one non-negotiable concept that got buy-in from all parties: democratic views. ‘You have the visual of the city as an amenity because it’s for everyone,’ says Villa. ‘Everybody was behind that concept.’

Large windows make the small apartments feel bigger. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

Windows seem to puncture every wall. At the end of each floor’s long, double-loaded corridor, a large pane of glass gives a glimpse of the outside world, allowing light to permeate through the building. At each elevator landing, another large opening frames views of the neighbourhood. Along the building’s south-facing facade, almost all units face the distant Manhattan skyline, as does a gym and generous outdoor terrace cut out of the seventh floor. Finally, on the ground floor, the all-white, high-ceilinged lobby has transparent glazed walls.

The concept not only brightens up the interiors, but also serves a bigger purpose: at night, light from inside will pour out to the surrounding area making MLK Plaza into ‘a beacon’, says Villa, illuminating dark areas around the building.

Apartments range from 32 sq m for a studio to approximately 102 sq m for a three-bedroom. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

In order to build higher, zoning laws required setbacks — so the building steps back at its upper floors leaving sprawling sections of the roof exposed. MAP envisioned these spaces as open-air gardens accessible to residents. But some of the project’s funders balked at the idea, allegedly due to liability and safety concerns. So, once the rooftops are planted and landscaped, they will only be on display for residents through adjacent corridors’ expansive windows.

The units themselves feature generous double-pane windows that dominate each room, reflecting MAP’s core project vision of democratic views. Though small — apartments range from 32 sq m for a studio to approximately 102 sq m for a three-bedroom — the framing of the outside world makes each room feel bigger and appealing, irrespective of whether the view is of the Manhattan skyline, a green roof or the freeway.

Next to the communal gym on the seventh floor is a double-height outdoor terrace with panoramic views. Credit: Imagen Subliminal

The hardwood floors inside the units imbue a sense of calm — and variation in the layouts from floor to floor makes it hard to predict what size (or price point) lies beyond each door. Some units open into corridors that lead to an open concept kitchen and living area, while others open into a small foyer and kitchen. Notably, each kitchen is outfitted with a dishwasher and induction stove, which pleases and surprises Villa. ‘That’s exciting,’ he says. ‘The owner really wanted to give more so I commend them.’ As required, all units were built to accommodate wheelchairs.

MAP also baked ‘active design’ principles into the building. The concept is based on a government-led initiative to identify design elements that encourage health. The logic is on display in the double-height windows that fill MLK Plaza’s stairwells, hopefully encouraging more people to walk between floors to get to the gym and terrace; and in the laundry room’s central location adjacent to the ground-floor courtyard, allowing kids easy access to the outdoor play area while adults take care of chores nearby. The Bronx continues to rank last in the state of New York when it comes to both health outcomes and quality of life; through design, MLK Plaza aspires to change that reality for the 167 households who will call the building home.

Standing in the lobby, between a spacious alcove filled with mail boxes and a local artist’s mural of King, Villa says he hopes the architecture will bring the residents hope: ‘We were really trying to do something different than just stuff apartments in a building.’


This article was originally published in Blueprint issue 364. Buy a copy here, or subscribe to Blueprint

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