Designing Affordable Housing in NYC, Borough by Borough: Q&A
- Nov 13, 2020
In the summer of last year, Eli Meltzer decided to switch his career from philosophy to architecture, following in his father’s footsteps. Some would say that was a bold move, but he says there is an important connection between the two. Growing up in Manhattan and having a father who has vast experience in architecture and design, Meltzer gathered a lot of insights into the multifamily sector in the metro, especially in affordable housing.
Now a principal at Meltzer/Mandl Architects, Meltzer talks about the architectural particularities of each of New York City’s boroughs and which one was hit hardest by the pandemic. Additionally, he talks about the most important lessons passed on from his father, Marvin Meltzer.
You shifted from philosophy to architecture. How can you implement what you learned while studying philosophy into housing, more specifically into the New York City multifamily sector?
Meltzer: Philosophy teaches you how to think. It’s an intellectual discipline. Architecture, on the other hand, is about brick and mortar, so, in a sense, they are really opposites. But the truth is, you can’t have one without the other. The true test of any philosophy is how it applies to action. Does it achieve the desired results? And, on the other hand, architecture or building, without any thought, without a vision, ends up lifeless. So, you really need both.
When it comes to the practice of architecture, in our office we have a strong philosophy about the value of buildings—specifically apartment buildings— and it drives our entire process, from business development to design and project close-out. Essentially, we view these as places where people live and raise families and grow as people, not as shiny objects to admire from afar, and that guides everything that we do. It’s really important that they get built, so our personal fantasies about form or material or space cannot get in the way of that objective by compromising the budget, timeline, political climate or regulatory approvals.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from your father about designing multifamily projects in New York City?
Meltzer: He generated, or, more accurately, developed, our “philosophy” over close to half-a-century working in this business. So, the high-level chain of values we discussed above has affected me a lot. When it comes to building design, he knows how to maximize the value of even the most difficult sites, and he has tons of little tricks that he pulls out along the way. I like to call them zoning hacks.
From squeezing in extra floors to get all of the floor area to quickly recognizing how many units you can fit along a street frontage, we really have an efficient method to turn quick design schemes around and demonstrate their potential. And as a business owner, he has survived—now with the pandemic—five economic crises, so he has an innate instinct to identify and mitigate risk, which nicely balances my innate instinct to seek it out!
You’ve worked on projects all over New York City. Are there any architectural challenges specific to each borough?
Meltzer: We’ve done probably more than 5,000 units of housing in the Bronx. We like to say we built the borough. The name, the Bronx, actually refers to the large hills that traverse it. Specifically, in the South Bronx, you have bedrock very close to and even above the surface, so many of our projects there have had to manage that condition. In one case, for Phipps Houses’ Roscoe Brown Apartments on Third Avenue, we actually cut a series of bearing walls through the 40 feet high rock outcropping and just built right on top of it. It’s a very dramatic streetscape and it worked so well that we got all of the floor area and even went back to city planning for a variance to add more.
You specialize in affordable and market-rate housing, despite many other architecture companies and developers focusing on Lifestyle assets. What drove you to this segment?
Meltzer: First of all, it goes back to our values and our philosophy. We know that New York City has an insatiable appetite for housing that people can afford, which means our buildings really get used to their maximum capacity. Even though these are real estate deals, just like what you call Lifestyle assets, the basis of the deal rests on this assumption that these apartments have to get filled quickly by a New Yorker.
So often they get subsidized by the city or the state because they also have an interest in this particular goal and the developers and builders who work with them understand that their success also rests on providing a sufficient number of units in a reasonable time span, within budget. Everyone is on the same page, which helps smooth over some of the difficulties that we face in getting affordable housing built.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March PAUSE order halted all development, except infrastructure, utilities, health-care facilities, affordable housing and homeless shelters. How much have these challenging times impacted your projects and timelines?
Meltzer: As you mentioned, affordable housing, as an essential business, never stopped, so that helped us a lot just in terms of business continuity, with projects in construction continuing. New projects that developers had already committed to by lining up financing or locking up site control for the most part also continued in design, because the timeline for finishing them—typically 18 to 30 months—likely pushes them past any economic restart.
Over the summer this happened more slowly as everyone adjusted to remote working, but now we have things humming again pretty well. The biggest challenge has been to feed the pipeline at the earliest stages. Rents are in flux, so it’s hard to properly valuate land for market-rate deals and the mayor’s office cut out a huge slice from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s budget which totally ground the affordable space to a halt. Now that he’s put the money back in, we’re hoping to see brisk action on this front because it’s so needed. In fact, we recently submitted a new project into the queue there for 107 affordable and senior units in the Bronx, so things are moving again.
Which of the boroughs were hardest hit by the pandemic? How do you see them recovering?
Meltzer: In terms of lives lost, the outer boroughs, specifically the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn were hit the hardest. These areas also typically include more working-class neighborhoods, so job creation is essential for these folks to get their lives back on track. Oddly enough though, the streets in the boroughs are still bustling and you can feel the typical pulse of the city. Manhattan is a totally different story. Over the summer it was really a ghost town and it still doesn’t feel right. Most of the exodus from the city happened in Manhattan and it was already losing ground to the boroughs, in terms of where young folks really want to be.
Now with offices closed there’s just not much going on, since not many people actually live there. I think we have to focus on making Manhattan an attractive place for people at all income levels and ages to live and this will also help the commercial and retail sectors there. I’m interested to see how the SoHo rezoning plays out because of this issue, and I’ve also been pushing for the city to take another look at the garment district in midtown as another possible spot for redevelopment.
READ ALSO: Queens Multifamily Report – Summer 2020
Newark is slowly becoming an extension of New York City. What can you tell us about this trend?
Meltzer: It’s sort of the inevitable. I went to architecture school there, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and I really fell in love with the town. It has so many intangibles that we look for when evaluating potential for future development. It has mass-transit connections to midtown and downtown Manhattan which get you there in about 20 minutes, plus a subway and light-rail system within Newark itself.
Downtown Newark has classic prewar office buildings that are attracting tech companies who want to connect with the universities and the city, and some of them are getting converted into classy apartment buildings. Plus, it’s a really diverse city. The Ironbound has one of the largest Portuguese-speaking populations in the Western Hemisphere outside of Brazil and now it’s filling up with young folks. We’re actually just wrapping up our first Newark project in the Ironbound, where we took a multifamily rehab through the variance process at the zoning board’s first virtual Zoom meeting.
What should we expect for New York City’s multifamily industry in 2021 and beyond?
Meltzer: New York has always been a competitive place to do multifamily, and I think 2020 has only raised the bar higher. Developers, contractors, architects and everyone have to keep doing business and continue building because their professions and their careers depend on it, so deals will get done. You’ll see that some really talented people will find creative and innovative ways to thrive, and over the course of 2021 those standouts will emerge as standard-bearers in the market, which I expect to get pretty hot again by the end of next year, once everything has shaken out.