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The Gasometer complex in Vienna. (Photo: Getty Images)

On May 1, the de Blasio administration will roll out its plan to build (“or preserve,” that weaselly escape word) 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade, a number that has struck many as wishful to the point of deluded. I hope that, as the mayor’s planners buff their strategy in the coming weeks, they remember that what gets built is just as important as how much of it gets built. Housing the needy and the middle class is a wonderful and necessary urge, but handled sloppily, it could wind up blockading the waterfronts behind an unbroken wall of glass, clogging the skyline with high-rise clones, and sullying neighborhoods with quickie construction.

During the Bloomberg era, the mayor’s livability crew went idea-hunting in Copenhagen and returned with pedestrian plazas, sidewalk cafés, and bike lanes. If de Blasio is serious about making New York not just pleasant but just, he ought to go on a scouting trip to Vienna, where housing is considered a social good, not primarily a financial tool. In a sleekly modern home for Alzheimer’s patients, each apartment façade is color-coded to make it easier to locate, and hallways wrap around in a continuous circle to prevent dead ends from adding to the residents’ confusion. At the Gasometer complex, celebrity architects refitted a set of immense gas-storage silos with offices, shopping, and affordable apartments. Bike City, another elegantly designed building, is geared to residents who don’t own cars.

These projects emerge out of a 100-year history of high-design, low-cost housing and an apparatus that has placed nearly two-thirds of Vienna’s rapidly growing population in subsidized housing. The city government effectively controls the real-estate market and maintains a housing-research department that puts academic conjecture into practice. The model works because it combines generosity, rigor, and competition. The bidding process fixes construction costs around a modest $200 per square foot, yet teams of developers and architects vie for every project and the city evaluates their plans in terms of sustainability, design, and social justice. “You cannot win a project for housing in Vienna if you don’t meet a high planning and architectural level, and none of it is out of reach in terms of quality for New York City,” says William Menking, a Pratt professor who last year co-curated an exhibit on the subject called “The Vienna Model.” New York’s land and labor costs are higher, but even here, an ingenious design is no more expensive than a lazy one.

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Justin Davidson
New York Magazine

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