The Diego Beekman Houses Design Workshop provided the platform for tenants of the scattered housing development in the South Bronx to address decaying physical, social, and economic conditions and formulate a set of design interventions to revive the quality of life in their neighborhood.
The project publication, Improving Quality of Life Through Design, proposed a re-organization of communal public spaces, more secure elements within the 38 buildings of the residential complex, and improved managerial, maintenance, and social services to combat the deteriorating urban fabric riddled with high crime, drug trafficking, abandoned lots and crumbling infrastructure.
Using our design recommendations as a guide, significant renovations have been made to the buildings and open spaces to make them more secure and comfortable, including the installation of new security cameras, redesigned building and courtyard entrances, and refurbished apartments.
Residents have also assumed ownership of the Beekman Houses in what has been described as, “the largest tenant takeover of a federal housing project in the country,” which has enabled an enhanced level of security services and property management. This shift in ownership complemented by a rebuilt infrastructure has initiated the revitalization of the Diego Beekman Houses and its surrounding urban realm.
In 2012, the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and the Police Pension Fund invested $19 million to fund a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for the Beekman Houses. In addition to the mortgage that will guarantee long-term affordable rents, the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., allocated $600,000 for a complex-wide security-camera system.
Facing foreclosure on a 40-year mortgage due to expiring Section 8 certificates, poor management, and unmet building standards, the residents of the Diego Beekman Houses in the South Bronx formed the group Tenants United for Better Living. The purpose of the tenant-led association was to expose the untenable conditions in their buildings that was a direct result of the landlord’s lack of management.
Tenants United for Better Living contracted the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation as a consultant to assist in their negotiations with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to restructure the management and ownership of the Beekman Houses. Negotiations eventually led to an agreement, which prevented foreclosure and ensured the rehabilitation of the Beekman Houses.
In collaboration with the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and the Tenants United for Better Living, Design Trust Fellow Victor Body-Lawson led a month-long intensive design charrette that addressed public space issues and allowed the residents to develop design guidelines that would help shape future renovations at the Diego Beekman Houses. The tenants' intimate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their buildings and community, as well as their determination to restore a level of comfort, safety, and beauty to their homes, were indispensable to the project. Through the workshop, residents were convinced that well-designed open spaces were an essential complement to their ongoing efforts to reduce crime and drug activity and to reclaim their neighborhood.
The resulting report, Improving Quality of Life through Design, was published in both English and Spanish and submitted to HUD for consideration as part of its planned renovation and refinancing of the buildings. Based on its recommendations, HUD continued to fund Mr. Body-Lawson as a tenant representative on design development.
In what is thought to be the largest tenant takeover of a federal housing project in the country, Beekman’s residents finalized a deal with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to take control of their sprawling development’s 38 buildings and 1,200 apartments.