A decade ago, the New York City Housing Authority emptied out 22 decaying tenement buildings on the south side of 114th Street in central Harlem, sending residents to public housing elsewhere in the city. Those long-vacant buildings, part of Randolph Houses, have now been renovated and filled with residents, and workers have begun revamping 14 brownstones on the north side of the block.
Boston-based developer Trinity Financial and local non-profit West Harlem Group Assistance manage the 19th century buildings, which have been dramatically transformed over the last two years. But they almost became another symbol of NYCHA’s poor planning and multi-billion-dollar budget hole. Residents lived with vermin, flooding, and crumbling walls for decades, until the housing authority decided to redevelop Randolph Houses in the mid-2000s. They waited another ten years before the first phase of construction finished.
“There were rats coming into people’s apartments,” said 72-year-old Robertus Coleman, who has lived in Randolph Houses for 40 years and heads its tenant association. “A lot of the ceilings were leaking. Some had holes that were patched and never repaired. So it wasn’t a very healthy or happy place to live at the time. But we had a place to live, we weren’t homeless, so we made the best of a bad situation.”
Kenya Smith, the construction manager who oversaw the overhaul of Randolph Houses, explained that the buildings on the south side of the block were in rough shape after sitting empty for more than a decade. “The roof wasn’t holding water anymore,” he said. “A lot of the buildings had had fires in the past, so a lot of the floors were falling. We basically gutted out the building to the party walls and put new joists in the floors.”
With the help of $95 million in public financing, Trinity renovated what had been 307 units on the south side of the block into 168 new apartments. The development team cut down the number of apartments so they could create larger units that met modern building codes and included more closet space, according to Thomas Brown, a senior development manager at Trinity.
Workers demolished dividing walls to combine 22 walk-ups into two buildings, with 147 public housing units and 21 affordable units rented through the housing lottery. When Trinity completes the second phase of renovations in 2018, Randolph Houses’ 452 tiny apartments will have been reconfigured into 283 modern units.
On the south side, the developer installed elevators, new appliances, and a state-of-the-art HVAC system. The buildings are heated and cooled by an energy efficient variable refrigerant flow (VRF) system, which means no more busted boilers or wasteful window air conditioners.
Tenants are thrilled with the apartments, most of which remain public housing. “So many of the residents passed away before the completion, so I’m overjoyed and very grateful,” Coleman explained. “It’s simply beautiful.” She and her four grandchildren live in a four-bedroom apartment so large, she says, it feels like two apartments.
The rehabilitation added 3,000 square feet of amenities, including a library, computer rooms, community spaces, laundry rooms, and a landscaped inner courtyard. Coleman has been working with a new program director to figure out what kinds of classes the residents would like to see in the basement community rooms. Right now the development offers yoga classes, but Coleman envisions activities for seniors, like bingo and trips to nearby shopping centers, and job training, cooking, and parenting classes for younger residents.
The construction team also painstakingly restored the ornate façades of the 120-year-old buildings, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. “Some of the details were actually sculpted in place by professional sculptors,” said Smith. “We actually came and looked at what was left, made a whole new drawing, and then they used artificial stone and carved the elements back into the façade.”
But the sparkling new details belie the project’s long and unusual history, which started out as a three-year renovation and morphed into a 12-year-long debacle.
The five-story Old Law tenement buildings were constructed in the 1890s between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards to accommodate European immigrants, who commuted to factories on the West Side using the new elevated trains. By the 1970s, the Renaissance Revival tenements on West 114th Street were abandoned. The city purchased the 36 buildings on either side of the block and converted them to public housing.
By 2000, NYCHA realized Randolph Houses had decayed so dramatically that only 109 of its 452 units were occupied. The city spent six years relocating 159 families from the south side of the block to apartments on the north side or to other public housing developments. Meanwhile, 130 households remained in the brownstones on the north side, waiting for the housing agency to repair their decrepit apartments.
Initially, NYCHA thought that revamping the moldy tenements would cost too much. By 2007, it had decided to demolish all 36 buildings and develop new housing. Later that year, the New York State Historic Preservation Office declared that the city couldn’t tear down the historic walk-ups. NYCHA spent three years negotiating with the state about how to redevelop the site without destroying its 19th century details. In 2010, officials tapped a team of architects and preservation experts to draw up a plan for renovating the properties and restoring the historic elements.
Two years later, the city awarded Trinity Financial a contract to redevelop Randolph Houses. The firm broke ground in 2014 and opened the first phase of the project last year. Residents, most of them former Randolph Houses tenants, started moving in during the first few months of 2016. Apartments range from studios to four-bedrooms.
In November, workers began demolishing the interiors of the 14 brownstones on the north side of the block. Their 145 apartments will be rehabbed into 115 below-market units, ranging once again from studios to four-bedrooms. They will rent to tenants who make no more than 60 percent of the Area Median Income, or $54,360 for a family of four.
The redevelopment of Randolph Houses is expected to cost a total $198.5 million. Using money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, NYCHA funded $41.5 million of Phase 1, which cost $95.5 million. The second phase will be financed by a mix of public and private sources, including tax credits for low income housing and historic restoration, for a projected $64 million.
Overall, NYCHA and affordable housing advocates tout Randolph Houses as a success. The new apartments and amenities are attractive, and most of the tenants who were relocated decided to move back last year. The cost of revamping the development will end up being rather high, at roughly $750,000 per apartment. It’s worth considering how much cheaper construction would have been if the city had kept up the buildings, or moved forward with renovating them when it began relocating tenants all those years ago.