Case Study

New York’s Lambert Houses May Again Be An Urban Renewal Template 

8 min read

The Lambert Houses in the New York City borough of the Bronx were considered cutting-edge solutions to inner city housing problems when they were constructed in the 1970s. Fifty years later, the redevelopment of the houses, benefiting from some unfortunate lessons learned, may again be held up as a template for urban renewal. 

Adam Weinstein, president and chief executive of Phipps Houses, the current developer, can take the long view on the project. That’s because Phipps Houses was also the original developer of the project, which opened in 1973, and Phipps has operated it ever since. 

While he wasn’t personally involved in the original development, Weinstein has been with Phipps for more than three decades and is intimately acquainted with its strengths and weaknesses, which he discussed with Tax Credit Advisor. 

A 1983 New York Times article on the tenth anniversary of the Lambert Houses proclaimed it, “The Project That Transformed a Bronx Neighborhood.” 

“Countering the argument that low-rise housing underutilizes valuable land, the six-story Lambert Houses buildings were designed by the architectural firm of Davis, Brody and Associates to make public housing more livable. The design, which received an award from the New York Society of Architects, includes five clusters of buildings with parking space, a commercial area and a community center,” according to the article. 

But by 2016, that enthusiasm had waned, according to another Times article. “If the Lambert Houses once seemed futuristic—the design was a response to the architecture of Brutalism and tall towers popular in the 1960s—the complex is coping with outdated building methods and problems, like a sewer system that backs up, sending backwash into first-floor hallways,” the newspaper reported.  

Weinstein gave TCA a comprehensive story of the project, from its beginnings as an answer to the “tower in the park” model to the re-densifying that is happening there now. When finished, Lambert Houses is set to more than double the number of units, to 1,665, including 279 in Phase II of the project, a 16-floor building called 2080 Boston Road, which closed in January on a $188 million construction financing. Those units will go mainly to temporarily relocated residents, with 42 going to the formerly homeless. Dattner Architects is doing the design for the project, which will have the same space footprint as before even accommodating those hundreds of extra units, which range from studios to four-bedrooms. 

“Lifestyles change, neighborhoods change, notions of planning change,” says Weinstein. “Something that seems like a good idea can be obsolescent tomorrow.” 

In the 1970s, “The prevailing wisdom in city planning was to de-densify. That came with the belief in the car and the creation of the highway system,” he says.  

“When my mother grew up in the Bronx, the place was filled with buildings that were much denser than the zoning that was later imposed,” says Weinstein. 

“If you had a 10,000-square-foot lot, you could build a 60,000-square-foot building,” he says. “They (the buildings) took a lot of the lots. There wasn’t much open space on them.” A 1961 zoning change “meant you could build a 40,000-square-foot building on a 10,000-square-foot lot. 

Urban Renewal thinking led to a dramatic downsizing of this kind of density, so the original Lambert Houses were based on a formula of 18,000 or 19,000 square feet of building on a 10,000-square-foot lot. 

“Consider the effect of that on land. The original Lambert Houses had a lot of land and were relatively short, squat buildings,” he says. “The second prevailing idea of the era was that it would be great to have lots of open space. And the Lambert Houses did have lots of courtyard space. The buildings were set back from the street considerably, so you had lots of areaways between the sidewalk and the building. 

“The thinking behind that was that green space is good,” Weinstein says. However, since then, “there’s been a lot of evolution of that thinking. Now the question is, what is public realm, what is private realm and what is semi-private realm?” 

In the case of the original Lambert Houses, that areaway space was fully accessible to the public, and that became a problem. 

“Anyone could wander into the building,” he says. “The original plan didn’t program the open space for use solely by residents. And it wasn’t in the true public world, like a park. It was this netherworld. From the standpoint of crime, it wasn’t a good thing.” 

The third big idea behind the original Lambert Houses was that a philosophy of having “eyes on the street” led to multiple ways of entering the property to spur resident engagement with the surroundings. 

While that might have worked for a neighborhood like Greenwich Village in Manhattan, with people sitting on their stoops and keeping an eye on each other and looking out for strangers for safety, it just didn’t work in the Bronx. 

That created a building with 42 separate ways of access,” Weinstein says, “and that meant it was really impossible to control access to the building. Compounding that problem, the buildings were interconnected. The connections were fire stairs that could be used to get to any floor.” 

Weinstein contrasts that with a typical doorman building with one entrance: “There is a delineation between strangers, guests and residents.” 

Those three planning concepts of the 1970s have all become outmoded, Weinstein says. 

“We felt they caused enormous problems in operating Lambert Houses,” he says. A security nightmare, for one. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to change it, but those common fire stairs were a real problem.” 

Plus, the problems in execution. “The building was inexpensively built,” he says, which led to problems. The masonry was fired improperly, for example, the floors sagged, and the building had expensive electric coil heating. 

“Though it was quite green, you’d never want to heat it by turning on what amounts to an electric stove mounted on the wall,” he remarks. 

The sewer lines were undersized, he continues. “It was just one headache after another. So, after spending a lot of time and money figuring out how to try to fix it, in 2013 he went to the city with a repair proposal. But, all soon realized an expensive band-aid fix was not the answer. It had to be demolished and rebuilt. 

Analyzing the problem, Weinstein saw a couple of good things at Lambert among the dysfunctional ones. 

“For one, it has tons of land,” he says.  

That can make it a template for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects with large campuses. Repairs on those can address some, but not all, needs, he says, while leaving other problems intact. And NYCHA campuses certainly have a lot of excess land for new buildings for relocating existing tenants to less obsolete housing. 

With Housing and Urban Development RAD Program (Rental Assistance Program) money available (Lambert Houses is not a RAD project, but shares certain features, like a project-based rental assistance contract from HUD), “you should scratch your head and think whether replacing it is better than fixing it.” 

Lambert Houses “is underbuilt, and density is no longer a dirty word,” he says. And with city support and schools and transit nearby, “you can create more housing. And that’s what we did at Lambert.” 

After a three-year process, zoning was changed back to a ratio where 10,000 square feet of land again could support 40,000 square feet of housing and Lambert Houses could accommodate more density. 

That’s when the redevelopment started in earnest.  

Residents were temporarily relocated (Phipps committed to mandates that every tenant be offered a chance to return to finished units) while the first building was demolished and rebuilt as a 163-unit “doorman” building with one entrance. 

“It takes time, because you have to relocate folks, demolish and build the building, then move folks back in,” says Weinstein. “Step by step, you can build increasingly larger buildings. By the time we’re done, we will have converted a 731-unit building on 13 acres to almost 1,700 units. 

The end results? “Creating 1,000 more affordable units, every one of which has a doorman, access control, modern amenities and still has an enormous amount of space. Though in most cases the public cannot enter these spaces unless you program it. It’s not ‘come on in anyone, be in my home.’” 

Weinstein calls this new model “a win-win-win.” It solves the problems of the past, it adds to the stock of affordable housing, and it guarantees a new unit to all previous residents. 

In addition, “It’s significantly more energy efficient, it has much more amenity space and some units will be entered directly from the street, similar to a townhome. And because the central courtyards are so large, each one of them will have a small backyard for their own use.”  

Lambert Houses at a Glance:  

• $600 million total development. 

• 1,665 affordable units. 

• 15-year building timeframe in multiple phases. 

• Phase II Construction Financing: NYC Housing Preservation and Development, NYC Housing Development Corp., Citi and the Urban Investment Group within Goldman Sachs Asset Management. 

• Phase II: 279 housing units, all affordable, with 42 going to the formerly homeless. 

• Private Section 8 assisted housing. 

• Four percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits/new/recycled private activity bonds used. 

• Tax Credit Equity Investor: Goldman Sachs 

• Letter of credit: Citi and Goldman Sachs (also tax credit equity investor). 

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.