Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines launch event

Photo: Sam Lahoz

On February 25, we launched the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines for Retail and Other Ground-Floor Uses in Mixed-Use Affordable Housing Developments, in partnership with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). 

The Architect's Newspaper Editor-in-Chief William Menking led a conversation on how these guidelines can help architects and developers in building robust, flexible, and cost-effective ground-floor space. So that it's leasable to a variety of tenants—such as grocers, pharmacies, and banks; community services such as health clinics, senior centers, and childcare; and cultural and recreational centers. Otherwise vacant or non-existing storefronts detract from the quality of neighborhood street life, and waste an opportunity to increase local employment. 

The panel included the NYC HPD Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability Eric Wilson, Design Trust board member Curtis + Ginsberg Architects' R. Darby Curtis, our executive director Susan Chin, and our project Fellows Fiona CousinsPenny Hardy, James Slade, and Hayes Slade.

Check out what everyone had to say on the topic and stay tuned for our upcoming events!

William Menking: How are those decisions made as to certain streets are residential and certain ones have retail corridors?

Eric Wilson: For the vast majority of our publicly owned sites, we’ll engage with the community in advance of issuing a Request for Proposal for the site. We’ll also look at the zoning and coordinate with the NYC Department of City Planning. Together with community input, we’ll define the vision for the project. 

That vision is a combination of what we want to achieve in terms of community goals, citywide goals, goals for the HPD, and other objectives that we try to fold into the mixed-use development.

We’ll incorporate all those goals into the Request for Proposals. It’s not so much our decision as much as it is the influence of many different factors that shape the competitive process of the selection of a development.

William Menking: Do you think that at times there might not be a need for retail?

Eric Wilson: Many of our developments are mid-block, so in those cases they emphasize residential use. But generally whenever our developments intersect with an evolving commercial corridor, we really strive, and will strive even more with the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines, to incorporate active mixed uses on the ground floor.

William Menking: And that includes community services as well…

Eric Wilson: Yes, I do want to include community services in that as well. Part of what Laying the Groundwork enables us to do is encourage, and in fact require in many cases, flexible space. And if that space is not really marketable immediately for a retailer, maybe it is more appropriate to have community use, or maybe that is a community priority to have a community facility use.

We’re creating buildings that will be here for hundreds of years. So the goal is to have flexibility in ground floor use and have it be occupied by many different uses as the neighborhood evolves.

William Menking: I imagine there must be huge demand for retail in Chelsea, but what about areas like Livonia Avenue in East New York?

Eric Wilson: In many of those locations, retail is challenging proposition. Our competitive process is designed to encourage the most creative proposals from the private and nonprofit sectors that truly know the neighborhood, and that have the ability to figure out how to create quality amenities for our residents.

William Menking: How do you decide in terms of this mix of retail? Or is it the client?

R. Darby Curtis: Often it is the client. And that client will vary a lot; it may be a developer, it may be a not-for-profit, it may be a combination. Often there is a mandatory community use that has to be a portion of it, but we’ll try and encourage the decision-making by doing research in the neighborhood.

William Menking: What do you mean by "encouraging the decision-making"?

R. Darby Curtis: Meeting with the developer and saying, “Look, this neighborhood seems to be lacking X, Y, or Z, or there’s potential for this.”

Flexibility is very important. We really don’t know in the end what we’ll actually use the space for. Many buildings that started out as commercial became daycare spaces, or vice versa. So you really do need to design for flexibility for that to happen, since you don’t necessarily know this at the design phase.

William Menking: Do we always want retail on the street?

R. Darby Curtis: We don’t always want retail on the street. We have some neighborhoods that are oversaturated. There are some neighborhoods that have very little, but because they’re so isolated neighborhoods, it becomes difficult to get a commercial tenant in the space. And that is when community use becomes larger. 

Larger-scale HPD developments, which are very different from single smaller-scale lots, bringing in that additional housing and commercial space, help to encourage more tenants to commit.

William Menking: How do you decide what is appropriate for a retail corridor from the design perspective?

Hayes Slade: Working on these guidelines we had the unique challenge of creating the envelope that architects could work with. It was very much creating something that is very flexible that could accommodate a whole host of uses.

James Slade: This is the opposite of what we think of as a design problem. There is no client. There is no site. There’s no budget. We’re just trying to create this very generic thing that is almost un-designed but has all the spatial requirements that you need.

Fiona Cousins: That’s really the longest conversation we had. Are we designing 10,000 square feet of a supermarket, or are we designing 2,000 square feet spaces with a mom-and-pop store in each one; what happens if one of them is a restaurant? As James said, it’s the opposite of a design problem. We had all of these constraints without actually having any constraints. We were really trying to get flexibility without spending too much money. All of that really came to the biggest question in the project: How do you get all these things solved at the same time?

Susan Chin: Designing a framework for messiness. It can be lively and vibrant and have that mix and zest. So how do you even begin to envision that, and have a huge agency like HPD or NYCHA have the trust that this framework is actually going to encourage architects and developers and even retailers to take a risk?

Eric Wilson: It is like a leap of faith that we’re making at HPD. Because we don’t really know who the retail tenants are going to be at the end of the day. But the idea is that we’re creating the space, and encouraging the space to happen. These retail corridors that I talked about, these neighborhoods that we work in, are so fragmented. It’s so important that as we’re piecing them back together, we’re creating opportunity for those things to happen.

At the end of the day, we’re not going to micromanage which tenants end up coming in. It will be informed by community input. We encourage our developers to take all that into account when recruiting retail tenants into the space. We’re not going to know who is going to be occupying that space, until they’re actually there.

William Menking: We all remember the battle in East Harlem at 125th street when they built that supermarket and what that caused. And now with what’s going on in Astoria with public housing, encouraging development along the street, people are feeling like this last bit of affordable housing is being gentrified. It becomes very complicated trying to fit in retail in these residential corridors. Do you have to deal with this on a daily basis?

Eric Wilson: Many competing demands for city property.

William Menking: Are there communities that don’t want retail?

Eric Wilson: I actually haven’t encountered communities that don’t want retail. As New Yorkers, everybody loves vibrant street life. I think the debate is about how to get there. And what makes up that vibrant street life.

We’re entering spaces that haven’t had that kind of sidewalk activity in a really long time, sometimes 40 or 50 years. So what does that look like for these communities? Those are the challenging conversations that we’re having.

William Menking: Are you convinced by a lot of the things in the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines that are really important for HPD?

Eric Wilson: Oh yes, this is a very helpful tool for us. And colleagues that are here today can attest to that.

HPD at its core is a housing finance organization. It has been truly focused on providing housing for folks that need it, and that continues to be our core mission. 

We’ve realized that it’s about more than just the housing. As we’re rebuilding these neighborhoods, we have to be thinking about gentrification. So this is our prime policy document for the ground floors in the public realm.

R. Darby Curtis: This gives us a tool as architects to say when we’re arguing with developers, “No we really need to add a foot or two to the ground floor.”

William Menking: It’s not just housing that creates communities; you need dry cleaners, laundromats, parks, and all that. You forget that sometimes. All right, let’s open it up for questions.

Q: Developers are basically obliged to guarantee the commercial return for commercial properties that they put on affordable housing. That sort of works against them doing too much commercial. If they put in 10, 15, 30, 40 dollars a square foot, in perpetuity they are obliged to produce that for the project. Is there anything in the process that will get developers to be less conservative about this?

Eric Wilson: We have three main challenges when approaching retail in our affordable housing developments: the design challenges, the financing challenges, and the developer experience challenges. Laying the Groundwork provides us with a fantastic opportunity to address the design challenges. Some of the financing challenges remain, which we will continue to work through.

Susan Chin: Also, the cost-benefit analysis tool we have available on our website will serve the architecture community in balancing – ok, if I raise the height in the ground floor, it will cost me x, and if I add this other factor, then it might cost me x, but in the end, when I pencil out the deal, I’ll have a more highly leasable space. So with this tool you’re able to make a more informed decision before you go into designing something that will never pay off.

Eric Wilson: We did a financial analysis of the nine critical success factors, and we found that eight of the nine actually are cost neutral, which will enable us to pursue them with developers. The one that makes a big difference is the floor to ceiling height. We’ll have to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis.

James Slade: Financing is the key. Because we can give you design guidelines, but there has to be a way for the builder to build it. And it really helps to justify the economics. It’s very easy for a developer to say, “It’s going to cost too much, I can’t afford this.” So you really have to back up your argument.

Q: My question is in relation to the title of the project: Laying the Groundwork. Maybe there is a whole groundwork that needs to be laid before this groundwork, and that is the whole strategic feasibility that we’ve been nibbling around the edges – of how the corridors actually work.

The firm I was with back in the 80s did a whole series of corridor strategies for HPD in Brooklyn and the Bronx. A planner and an economic real estate consultant looked at the corridors in terms of the potential development strategy. They identified the strengths, where potential catalyst projects were, where the missing teeth were, what was the right mix, looking at it as a shopping center almost, with anchors, and so on.

Is that something the HPD is continuing to do in areas like Livonia in East New York? Has that been part of the groundwork for this groundwork?

Eric Wilson: You’ll notice that in our most recent Request for Proposal, there will be fairly specific guidance for the proposers incorporating many of the background analyses that you’re referring to in terms of market studies, input, and gaps in terms of retailers that are along the corridor.

We want to empower our proposers with that kind of information so that they can really zero in the kinds of things that are really required to complete in terms of what is missing in those retail corridors.

Q: I’m wondering, now that you’re inspired, is there some way, without Design Trust taking off this work, for us to continue to be design partners with the HPD and make better affordable housing, without all of this necessary momentum up front?

Eric Wilson: We’re really looking to focus on sustainability in affordable housing this year – thinking about the comprehensive carbon footprint of the Housing New York plan.

Q: A strategy where you can actually sell the retail space, once you build it, to a retail owner or operator might help with alleviating the risk to developers.

Eric Wilson: Certainly. It’s a great idea where the retailers leverage each other.

Q: This is really great, but the next step is what do you do over time? The problem with a lot of these studies is that once the book is published, everybody leaves, it becomes a portfolio piece, and then everybody reconvenes in ten years.

Eric Wilson: This document has already proven itself as a tool inside the corridors of HPD. It’s something that our housing finance folks, architects, and planners all use. It is very much a living document.

I don’t have a crystal ball – I can’t say what’s going to happen 10 years from now. But I can say as of right now upon it’s release, the document has been met with a tremendous amount of excitement among HPD because we finally have something in a comprehensive way that helps us envision and advocate for active ground floor uses.

Susan Chin: The Design Trust model is such that after we complete a project we hand it off to our project partner. How do you guarantee that there’s a longer term impact? We’re very concerned about continuing to have impact. We’ll have additional conferences and meetings at the Urban Land Institute and the Citizens Housing Planning Council nationally and also locally, and continue to work at embedding these principles.

We’re so thrilled that HPD is our partner and incorporating these guidelines into their work. There’s only so much we can incentivize developers and government clients to actually take this on. But if we can prove that there is an economic model, and show that there are some real great case studies, we can demonstrate that it’s worth the while. You will be able to lease up more of your space, and have a really vital neighborhood. 

We look forward to highlighting the work that comes out of the administration’s housing efforts and the RFPs to come.


Congratulation to our Project Partner and Fellows on their pioneering work. Thank you to the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY) Interiors Committee for hosting this event.

Many thanks to the Advisory Committee for their guidance over the past year, including. M. Blaise Backer, NYC Department of Small Business Services; Robert Balder, Cornell University AAP; Theodore S. Berger, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Joan Mitchell Fund; R. Darby Curtis, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Curtis + Ginsberg; Ann Harakawa, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Two Twelve; Natalie Jeremijenko, xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU; Zack McKown, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Tsao & McKown; Jeff Merritt, Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation; Larisa Ortiz, Larisa Ortiz Associates; Nancy Prince, NYC Parks; Damon Rich, Hector Design Service; Edwin Torres, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs; Ruth Anne Visnauskas, NYS Homes and Community Renewal; and Andrea Woodner, Design Trust for Public Space Founder and Founder’s Circle Chair. 

And a big thank you to the Design Trust Founder’s Circle and the National Endowment for the Arts for their generous support, with additional support from NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, NY State Council on the Arts, and ARUP.

We’ve realized that it’s about more than just the housing. As we’re rebuilding neighborhoods, we have to be thinking about gentrification. So this is our prime policy document for the ground floors in the public realm.

Eric Wilson, Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Sustainability, NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development

Photos (8)

Photo: Sam Lahoz

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Design Trust's Susan Chin launches the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines

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HPD's Eric Wilson speaks about the Laying the Groundwork project partnerhsip

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Our Fellows Penny Hardy, James Slade, Fiona Cousins, and Hayes Slade presented the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines.

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Attendees congratulate the Project Fellows.

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Michael Blaise Backer congratulates Susan Chin.

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Project Fellows celebrate.

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Brand new copies of Laying the Groundwork were available at the night!