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.
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?
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.”
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.