Reaching Toward Human Sustainability in Harlem

A look at the multi-purposed projects of housing developer Carlton Brown

When you think green, you may not think of Harlem, but Carleton Brown is trying to change that.

A co-founder of Full Spectrum of NY, a development corporation with a focus on underserved markets that will be recognized next week with an achievement award by the New York Housing Partnership, Brown argues for a wider definition of green building. He explains that “Some people reduce green to a sort of technological discussion: ‘We’re going to stick on some really magnificent photovoltaic cells that follow the sun around, and that’s cool, and that’s really great.’ We try to look at a more holistic approach towards green and stretch it towards sustainability.”

Sustainability, for Brown, extends beyond designing for energy efficiency and low emissions. The developer, who has worked in New York since 1986, is concerned with what he calls “human sustainability.” “How can we sustain humans,” he asks, “in ways that empower people but don’t damage the Earth?”

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Full Spectrum has developed two major residential projects side by side in Central Harlem. 1400 on 5th, completed in 2004, was hailed as a groundbreaking green, mixed-income development. The building deployed the latest in environmental technology—energy efficiency combined with geothermal heating and a structure composed of 70% renewable materials—in a complex that used market-rate units used to subsidize apartments for working people. The same strategy will be used in the Kalahari, the residential tower going up next door, which Full Spectrum is constructing in partnership with L&M Equity, a more traditional developer.

The neighborhood needs more income diversity, to support better amenities, states Brown. His vision of Harlem has a median income comparable to that of “more desirable neighborhoods,” but it’s unclear how the area will remain accessible to those in the lower range. Full Spectrum’s middle-income units are still targeted well above the median income of the area.

Mary Petillo, who for years has followed community development on Chicago’s South Side, has argued that a mixed income approach represents a “non-structural policy intervention.” In other words, it offers the short-term benefits of added resources to the neighborhood, without addressing the root problems that would sustain poor families. And like in Chicago’s developing areas, changes in Harlem have raised fears that lower-income residents will be forced out as rents rise.

Brown argues that a lasting solution demands significant shifts in government policy. Ultimately, he argues, higher density and greater government aid could work to house everyone. But right now the funds are not available.

New Yorkers, he notes, are needlessly tied to the idea of green as a luxury product. As he sees it, green buildings do not have to be much more expensive than standard construction.

Back in his architecture and engineering school days at Princeton’s School of Architecture, Brown’s challenge was to build the strongest bridge with the least possible amount of steel. Now, as a developer, he sees building green working much the same way. “The task is really to do it in a way that you don’t use a lot of money, you don’t use a lot of resources, but at the same time you build a good product. I don’t see that as a limitation so much as it is an opportunity.”

Ultimately though, human sustainability may demand a more innovative solution that Brown and other developers have yet to find. Expanding a sustainability option to lower-income households will demand more than smart development alone can provide.

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