Why Waterfront Micro-Neighborhoods Are so Popular

Hill West Architects Founding Partner David West provides insights on how waterfront developments are reshaping New York City boroughs.

David West, Founding Partner, Hill West Architects. Image courtesy of Hill West Architects

David West, Founding Partner, Hill West Architects. Image courtesy of Hill West Architects

At the end of last year, Brookfield Properties broke ground on a $950 million mega-project that spans across more than 4 acres in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood. Hill West Architects is the designer behind the mixed-use development that is set to include more than 1,350 apartments in seven towers along the Harlem River. Known as Bankside, the waterfront project is part of a design trend that is redefining neighborhoods across New York City and other coastal markets.

Multi-Housing News talked with Hill West Architects Founding Partner David West to find out details about Bankside, a project believed to be one of the largest private investments in the borough’s history. West also revealed how waterfront developments are establishing micro-neighborhoods in areas that where previously used only for manufacturing or shipping. 

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Please tell us more details about the particularities of Bankside and the current status of the project.

West: There are seven towers on two adjoining blocks, separated by the Third Avenue Bridge. This project stands out because it is the first major project of this scale in the Bronx in decades. The rich fabric of the industrial neighborhood is reflected in the selection of sand-finished masonry and brick, dark metal accents, generous glazing and raw concrete to achieve a sophisticated and timeless yet contextual design.

The entire complex will be framed by a new public waterfront esplanade. Internal courtyards open out into the public domain and also serve as semi-private entrances to the various lobbies serving the 1,379 rental units. The site plan derives from an interplay between the street grid and the broadly curved Harlem River shoreline. Phase I is in construction and phase II will break ground later in 2020.

Why do you think micro-neighborhoods in New York City’s waterfront areas are so popular nowadays?

West: Traditionally, the city’s waterfronts were used for manufacturing and shipping. They have since become obsolete, leaving behind underutilized land. These are the last areas of the city that are unencumbered by existing communities. For this reason, they are a logical place for new housing and other forms of development. In some areas, major zoning initiatives have contributed to this trend and access to ferry transportation has been a significant contributor. Captivating views and other attributes to living on the water make these areas great places to live. 

What are the main trends when it comes to multifamily design in 2020?

West: We are seeing large multi-building projects, designed to create new neighborhoods. These projects are replete with amenities, commercial space, access to transportation and ample public and private outdoor spaces. We are also seeing the continued advancement of both quantity and quality of amenity spaces and beautifully designed outdoor spaces. Large new buildings are being built further afield, away from the central business districts, in locations near the ocean and waterfronts.  

How does location influence the design of a multifamily project?

West: We always consider numerous location specific conditions when designing projects, including views, sun angles, microclimates, the existing context and community and geographical features of the area.

What outdoor design features are most sought-after nowadays?

West: Outdoor swimming pools, sun terraces and barbecue terraces are extremely popular. Green roofs, green walls and other sustainable features are very in vogue.

What are the most common design challenges behind waterfront developments?

West: Challenges include flood resiliency and climate change. The buildings tend to be hardened at the bottom and lifted well above sea level. All mechanical is above the ground floor rather than in the cellar. Another challenge is parking. Open parking lots are not appropriate in urban environments, so parking is concealed behind active floor area or beneath landscaped roof terraces. The exterior envelope needs to be designed to withstand strong weather.

However, waterfront developments offer many wonderful attributes, including spectacular views, access to open space and, often, productive reuse of otherwise underutilized land.

Please name some waterfront developments that you designed or are in the process of designing in New York City.

West: Within our office, which has been mostly focused on multi-housing developments, many projects in recent years have been positioned on the water. These projects include Ocean Dreams in Coney Island, 363 and 365 Bond in Gowanus, Seaport Residences in Manhattan, Bankside in the South Bronx and other projects that are currently in design in The Rockaways, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. These projects are producing thousands of units, generally rental with a component of affordable housing.

Do you intend to expand your portfolio to other types of properties in and outside New York City? 

West: We are seeing more commercial projects in New York City, in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. We have every intention of including these types of projects in our portfolio. We now have significant work outside of New York City, all around the Tri-State Area and spanning across the country. 

What are your predictions for multifamily design going forward? 

West: I predict more multifamily designs near transportation hubs, further and further from business hubs. This is ideal housing for people who work in metropolitan areas. These projects also provide a counterpoint to overburdened metropolitan areas. I also predict a continuation of the co-living trend, allowing people to enjoy luxury amenitized buildings at lower price points.

I predict more efforts to incorporate affordable and low-income units into projects. We are also seeing more sophisticated design and higher quality materials along with refined interior design, even in smaller projects, which is a growing standard in all market sectors. We are also seeing rapid advancements in sustainable technologies being incorporated into residential projects.

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