exterior tan brick building across from elevated train track by RAMSA

In Brooklyn, a Supportive Housing Development gets the Big Firm Treatment

Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) provided the design for Edwin’s Place, a 125-unit affordable and supportive development, but getting the project built took a village.

Edwin’s Place, a new housing development with 88 supportive and 37 affordable units in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), opened in 2021—but getting to this point took over three decades. “In the 80s, at the start of the HIV crisis, I wanted to do a project that would address housing for men and women who had chronic illnesses,” says Matthew Okebiyi, the founder and CEO of the African American Planning Commission (AAPCI), which co-developed Edwin’s Place with New York nonprofit developer Breaking Ground. But Okebiyi felt that public sentiment was set against the project, as were many of the institutions whose support would have been necessary to make it happen. Over time, though, as attitudes and policy started to shift, working with New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to find and develop a lot started to become a possibility. There was only one obstacle: AAPCI had never developed a ground-up project before. They needed a partner.

That’s when Breaking Ground came in. “We approached them because they have a history of building beautiful low-income and supportive housing buildings,” Okebiyi tells me. Breaking Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to providing permanent supportive housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, operates almost 4,000 units of supportive housing across New York City.

View overlooking garden from top of Edwin's Place Building by RAMSA

Unlike affordable housing, in which units are typically offered to the public and only individuals and families with incomes within certain brackets qualify, supportive housing is reserved for the formerly homeless, the disabled, and other people considered “most vulnerable.” And, crucially, it includes on-site services to support people who are often transitioning to living inside for the first time in years. “The goal is long-term stability for the tenants,” Brenda Rosen, the president and CEO of Breaking Ground, tells Metropolis. Part of that long-term stability comes from the design of the building itself creating a feeling of home, so Breaking Ground sought out RAMSA, with whom they’d previously partnered on a well-received supportive housing project in Willimantic, Connecticut.

exterior view of tan brick building by RAMSA
An airy entrance lobby with security guard, ramp, and clerestory windows design by RAMSA

The design and development process for Edwin’s Place was not simple. Its $75-million budget was put together through a combination of sources: a low-income housing tax credit program through the New York State Department of Homes and Community Renewal, a supportive-housing loan program through New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, funding from New York State Homeless Housing and Assistance Corporation, in addition to other loans and grants. Each of those entities have their oversight and managing requirements, which can make developing such a project take as much as three times as long as it would take to develop for-profit market housing. “It can be frustrating,” says Andrew McIntyre, senior associate at RAMSA, “because we want to see more of these going up faster, but the oversight helps to catch a lot of issues early and results in a well-constructed building.”

The project’s multiplicity of funding sources also means that units are different in nature — 60 percent are supportive housing and 40 percent are affordable housing for people earning 40, 50, or 60 percent of area median income—so RAMSA sought to produce a design that would mix unit types (studios, and one- two- and three-bedrooms) on each of the building’s six residential floors in order to produce a holistic sense of community. Outside of these constraints, the site’s primary challenge, according to McIntyre and RAMSA partner Grant Marani, was its adjacency to the elevated train tracks that turn along the corner of East 98th Street and Livonia Avenue. Simple design moves—a blank wall facing the tracks is patterned with subtly extruded bricks, and windows are fitted with four panes of double-laminated glass—give the building a highly considered aesthetic quality and take the decibel level when a train is passing from 87.2 outside to 45 inside; that’s comparable to the noise level in a public library. Inside Edwin’s Place, the ground floor sits half a story below grade, a clever decision that resulted in that level not counting toward the building’s allowable floor area and subsequently allowed RAMSA to fit an additional level of housing units. Glass apertures visually connect the elevator lobby on each floor to the communal spaces below, a wayfinding element integral to the comfort of residents just acclimating to living in apartment buildings and keep the lobbies airy and well-illuminated.

facade of tan brick building with shade louvers behind elevated railway

Marani, McIntyre, Okebiyi, and Rosen are all overjoyed with how Edwin’s Place has turned out, and so far the feedback from residents has been extremely positive. A well-designed building with all the comfort and consideration of a luxury tower built entirely for low-income and formerly homeless residents feels miraculous. And with 47,000 applicants for its 37 affordable units and a development process that took nearly a decade—Breaking Ground first approached RAMSA about the project in 2014—living in it might just be.

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