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5 Ways Affordable Housing Will Get Better Retail Space

By Amy Zimmer | February 2, 2016 6:46pm
 The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has new design guidelines for retail spaces.
How the City Wants Affordable Housing to Have Better Retail Spaces
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BROOKLYN — A 5,000-square-foot supermarket space on the first floor of an affordable housing complex in Bushwick has sat empty for nearly a year — after three different supermarkets tried, and failed, to succeed there in six years.

The property — located near the Rheingold Brewery site rising along Flushing Avenue — has been hampered by some fundamental design flaws including an irregularly shaped space with “odd angles and misplaced columns,” according to Scott Short, of Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the nonprofit that built it.

“If I were to go back, we would have done a better job,” Short said, noting that many affordable housing developers as well as the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development — which subsidizes these projects — have historically focused more on designing the largest number of affordable units rather than on maximizing retail space. 

“Retail was an afterthought,” he said.

City officials are now trying to chart a new course as nearly 2 million square feet of retail space is expected to be created as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's 10-year plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing.

They want developers to get their retail spaces right, saying it will help the viability of these subsidized projects as well as improve neighborhoods' quality of life.

Here are 5 ways the city proposes to make that a reality:

1. If affordable housing buildings have viable ground-floor retail spaces, it helps everyone. 

HPD Commissioner Vicki Been wrote in an 87-page document released last week that ground-floor retail has a rippling effect on local tenants — both for good, and for bad.

“When a building is not planned and constructed with quality design in mind, the pool of tenants willing and able to lease a space dwindles,” Been wrote. “This increases the chance for vacancies, and vacancies threaten the viability of our projects, detract from the quality of neighborhood street life, and waste an opportunity to increase local employment.”

The report, written with the Design Trust for Public Space, outlines design guidelines for retail and other ground-floor uses in affordable housing developments, from how to create the most appealing facades to how to stash mechanical systems out of view.

Short, for instance, said if he had the HPD's new guidelines when he was building his supermarket space, he'd have taken "a step back” and reconsidered how his team designed it.

“If you’re going to use public tax dollars, we should make sure it provides biggest public benefit,” he said.

2. Façade design — and taller ceilings — are critical for success on the ground floor.

HPD's new guidelines advocate for transparent facades with large windows, claiming they not only do a better job at engaging passersby, but promote safety. Since you can see in, they're believed to discourage crime, adding more "eyes on the street," as urban theorist Jane Jacobs called them.

Tall ceilings also help create open and inviting environments and improve a store’s visibility from the street. Plus, they give buildings more leeway to accommodate mechanical, lighting and sprinkler systems, noted the guidelines, which generally require a minimum of 15 feet.

The city's proposed new zoning would make it easier for developers to achieve that height.

“One of the main impediments we run into is height limits,” which currently keep ceilings to about 10 feet in many retail spaces, Short said. “What person wants to go shopping or eat in a restaurant where you don’t feel comfortable?”

3. Good design extends to the sidewalk

The guidelines encourage developers to consider the design not just of their property, but also of the sidewalk and street beyond. That includes adding shade trees and storm water drainage; providing bike racks; and adding benches.

“Benches and bike racks sound pretty basic," said Design Trust for Public Space executive director Susan Chin. "It’s about providing basic services to people and how to be welcoming.”

Trash and recyclables should be kept off the sidewalk until trash pickup day — which means retailers should have a place to securely store at least three days’ worth of garbage within an interior or designated off-street location, the guidelines suggest.

4. What’s next?

HPD will incorporate the guidelines into its bids for developers and use them when evaluating proposals going forward, city officials said.

Some guidelines may be encouraged and some will be required, Chin noted, saying her organization plans to track the performance of the buildings using them.

The city says it will pursue the recommendations regardless of whether de Blasio’s controversial zoning proposal, called Zoning for Quality and Affordability, gets approved by the City Council.

The council is meeting next week to discuss the mayor's plan, which allows developers to build five feet taller on ground floors.

HPD officials say no matter how the council votes, affordable housing developers will need to focus more attention on designing attractive retail spaces.

5. Why “flexible, functional and inviting” are the goals.

Much of what’s outlined in the guidelines — like high ceilings, column spacing to create open floor plans and ductwork that’s unobtrusive — aim to create spaces that are “more flexible, functional and inviting,” Chin said.

Landlords then have more options of leasing to a single tenant or dividing the space up for smaller tenants.

“With spatial flexibility you can accommodate not just a big box or dollar store, but encourage small businesses to open there,” Chin said. “Then you can get some small mom-and-pops that give energy and bring pride to the neighborhood.”

While applauded by developers of hard-to-rent spaces, some locals have expressed concern that the expanded size could foster glass-and-steel facades that will be too expensive for mom-and-pop shops.

But Chin added that the guidelines allow customization to make these ground floor retail or community spaces into “something that’s authentic to them."