'Active design' for affordable housing

Mayor Bloomberg's "active design'' building proposal encourages architects

Mayor Bloomberg's "active design'' building proposal encourages architects and developers to take a healthier approach in their designs by making staircases more prominent in their new projects. (July 29, 2013) (Credit: Bruce Gilbert)

Piped in jazz, artwork on the walls, a wider staircase and calming lights are used in hopes of getting tenants to use the stairs in a new eight-story "active design" residential building in the Bronx.

The Arbor House's earth-toned tiled lobby has three glass staircase doors and a "living green wall" with plants. Residents searching for elevators will find them down the hall, programmed to move at a slow pace.

One witty slogan posted on a staircase door reads: "If your dog is fat, you're not getting enough exercise." After opening the stairway door, climbers hear music and see a wall of decorative artwork.

"The slogans on the door signs definitely motivate me," said Dahlene Amaya, 24, who moved into a third-floor apartment from the McKinney's Houses, a public-housing project where using the stairs was always avoided.

"They were dark and scary," Amaya said. "The stairs here are clean and nice. I use them all the time. I love it here. It's quieter and calmer and we are only steps away from the projects," she said.

Next to the Forest Houses, an aging public housing development built in 1956, the Arbor House is a glimpse into the future of affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods that promote healthier lifestyles through exercise and eating natural foods.

The design of the 124-unit, $37.7 million building not only encourages using the stairs but offers a free gym, an outdoor fitness park with exercise machines and a flower garden for children, adults and senior citizens. The building also has an indoor garage. Monthly rent for a studio is $696; a two-bedroom costs $908 a month.

On the rooftop is a 10,000-square-foot hydroponic farm where assorted leafy greens are grown to be sold to supermarkets and consumed by residents.

The farm uses a mineral nutrient base water solution to grow the food. Produce also is donated to a local food bank.

"If this building was five miles south in Manhattan it would be a luxury building," said Les Bluestone, co-founder and partner of Blue Sea Development, owner and developer of the Arbor House, which opened in March.

"Affordable housing doesn't have to look like public housing," he said, adding that impersonal looking affordable housing "scares people."

Arbor House's outdoor fitness park sports "a tai chi spinner" for senior citizens who move the wheels with their arms, leg presses and a giant-size chess board with 4-foot tall chess pieces children can pick up and move.

The indoor gym has stationary children's bikes with video games attached to a screen. "The kids can use the games to race against each other," said Bluestone, whose Huntington-based company is developing similar affordable housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Harlem and Melrose in the Bronx.

The properties are built on city Housing Authority land. The Arbor House was built on a 18,000-square-foot plot that cost $1.25 million.

Bluestone, a member of the New York State Affordable Housing Association, said he signed onto the new design concept after the city made him aware of the Center of Active Design, a nonprofit group that helps developers use "active design" building concepts in their plans.

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