Gibson Plaza has a crime problem. The 217 family apartments in Washington, D.C., seem plagued by violence.
"It is not a weekend unless bullets fly at the corner of Seventh and O streets," according to neighborhood bloggers at offseventh. org writing about the development.
The problems at Gibson Plaza, originally built under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sec. 236 program in 1972, can be traced to bad design, according to Scott Knudson. He is a vice president for Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners, an architecture firm based in Gaithersburg, Md., studying the properties.
Fortunately for Gibson Plaza and other towers like it, these problems can be significantly improved by a careful redesign, said Knudson.
The key is to take control of public space, especially in high-traffic areas, so that these spaces are visible at close range and at all times by people who have a personal stake in keeping their community safe. Years of operating data show how these ideas have made a clear difference at Parkledge Apartments, another old affordable housing high-rise.
Parkledge was originally built in 1971 on the side of a freeway in Yonkers, N.Y., without any kind of controlled public space between its two 10- and 19-story towers, only an open plaza and a rugged path to the tower doors, according to Brian Poulin, a principal with Evergreen Partners, LLC, an affordable housing developer based in South Portland, Maine.
So Magnusson Architects and Planners (MAP) designed an enclosed, brightly lit lobby for the Parkledge that stretched between the two towers and the project's driveway. Large windows make it easy to see in and out of the lobby, while a windowed laundry room just off the lobby encourages neighbors to keep their eyes on the public space.
A 24-hour concierge also watches over the cars and people that enter and leave the development from a round outpost at the end of the Parkledge's new glass awning, just in front of the lobby's front door.
These changes, in addition to modern technologies like electronic key cards and video cameras, allowed Evergreen to get the biggest impact out of the $15 million it budgeted for hard construction at the development's 310 apartments. That's just $48,000 per unit. In the years since the relatively light renovation was finished in 2005, crime has fallen to a fraction of what it was at the towers, making a huge difference to the tenants that live there.
"A lot of people entering or living in affordable housing have experienced some form of trauma," said Petr Stand, principal with MAP. "They need to feel safe."
The new HOPE VI
The HOPE VI redevelopment of Prospect Plaza will bring the same thinking to a public housing development in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Construction is scheduled to start this year on MAP's plan to add more than 200 new units of housing to Prospect Plaza. The project will cover the site's oftenempty parking lots with townhouses and change the 368-unit, high-rise public housing project into a 578-unit mixedincome community.
Most HOPE VI redevelopments tear down public housing towers and replace them with townhouses that fit fewer apartments onto an acre. But public housing is so scarce in New York that even distressed towers targeted for redevelopment are too valuable to demolish, according to a spokesperson for the New York City Housing Authority.
So rental townhouses, each with their own private entrance, will ring the public housing towers at Prospect Plaza. All those front doors will bring new activity to the sidewalks, and the townhouses will replace the huge, underutilized, and often dangerous parking lots, said MAP's Stand.
Big changes for Gibson Plaza
The owner of Washington's Gibson Plaza, local real estate developer H.R. Crawford, is working with Wiencek to put some of these principles of public space into practice.
Wiencek's plans call for planting gardens and building out Gibson's lobby to fill more of the 20-foot space between the sidewalk and the high-rise and to give the doorman in the lobby a better view of that space.
"It's kind of a no man's land out there," said Wiencek's Knudson. "We're thinking about how to socially manage that space through architecture."