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Modernism 2.0: A Tower in the Park Even Jane Jacobs Could Love

No one plans to get old; it just happens. Real-estate fantasies, however, tend to be ageless. To misquote the late Nora Ephron, we’ve been having the same real-estate fantasy for decades. And though we’ve varied it a little—what we’re wearing—Greenwich Village, with its organically evolved and artificially preserved mix of row houses, local businesses, and effervescent street life, remains an archetype of good urban planning.

Penn South
The Penn South co-op in Manhattan, built by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in 1962, became New York's first NORC in 1986. Courtesy of Interboro Partners.

But as we approach 2020, when about one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 60 or older, design will need to adapt to serve an aged demographic. According to the AARP, nearly 90 percent of seniors say they want to age in place—that is, receive support services like meals and transportation help in their own homes instead of moving into retirement communities. The question facing architects and planners is, how will cities meet the needs of these aging boomers?

Vladeck Houses
Vladeck Houses, Manhattan. Courtesy of Interboro Partners.
To that end, some New York architects are revisiting an ill-reputed housing type from the city’s modernist days: the tower in the park. Beloved by Le Corbusier for dismantling the messiness of pedestrian life and despised by Jane Jacobs for the same reason, many of these towers are now home to a disproportionately large number of the over-60 set, thanks to a unique set of economic circumstances.

Though they weren’t built with seniors in mind, towers in the park have evolved into something of a model for aging in place: they have wide hallways that accommodate wheelchairs, elevators, access to stores just around the superblock, and (for longtime residents) already established social ties. In New York State, buildings with a large population of seniors—usually between 40 and 50 percent of residents—can be designated as naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, and get funding for support services such as health-care management and social work programs. Since the first NORCs received government funding in 1994, the number in New York City alone has reached 37, part of the state’s total of 52. “The tower in the park was this modernist ideology, and it was planned to be sort of universal,” says Georgeen Theodore, principal of the Brooklyn architecture and planning firm Interboro Partners. “It wasn’t universal in any way, but ended up being great for a particular group.”

Spring Creek
Spring Creek Towers, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Interboro Partners.
Theodore and two colleagues, Interboro principals Daniel D’Oca and Tobias Armborst, began a study of NORCs in New York in 2010 and are turning their research into a book, A Guide to NORCs in NYC. This fall, D’Oca and Theodore are each teaching a class—D’Oca at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Theodore at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture—on age-friendly design in cities and suburbs (look for more on suburban NORCs in the future at Dwell.com).

Sheepshead Houses
Sheepshead Nostrand Houses, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Interboro Partners.
The rise of NORCs transforms the tower in the park from a design criticized as isolating to one that helps keep the social fabric of the city intact—an outcome Jacobs could cheer. “At the heart of her approach, it was not only about architecture; it was about livable and human size, and people being able to relate to one another,” says Anita Altman, deputy managing director of government relations and external affairs at the UJA-Federation of New York and a longtime advocate for NORCs. Indeed, the evolution of NORCs speaks to the flexibility of design, even in intentionally rigid schemes like Le Corbusier’s. “As an architect, you design housing and things change after you leave the scene,” observes Theodore. “Understanding how projects adapt and change over time should be an important part of the design process.”

Morningside Gardens
Morningside Gardens, Manhattan. Courtesy of Interboro Partners.

A Brief History of the NORC

Though NORCs occur in rental buildings in New York, many of these communities owe their existence to post–World War II affordable housing initiatives. Some of the projects were built with urban renewal funds, while others were sponsored by labor unions as moderate-income housing co-ops. These limited-equity co-ops, such as Penn South in Manhattan and Co-op City in the Bronx, are essentially a recipe for aging in place. Owners could buy in at below-market prices but were also required to sell at a low price if they ever wanted to move. And as market housing prices in the city climbed, the greater the appeal of staying in the co-op. “One reason seniors are in them is they’ve never had any incentive to leave,” says D’Oca.

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