High School Students Look Behind the Curtain at Cortelyou Road

image00033In lighter news, back in February before remote learning became the new normal, ESKW/Architects Senior Project Manager Ruth Dresdner took a group of her Bard High School Early College Manhattan students to our 1921 Cortelyou Road project as part of her seminar “Reading the Built Environment,” which teaches students to develop a critical approach for evaluating buildings and infrastructure. The partly sunny, not-too-cool day made for a fun experience of considering the construction industry along with its social value and environmental impact.

“I wanted the students to understand that building a building is very complicated, and many people work on it,” Ruth said. “And they did.”

The project is an interesting mixed use of Housing and Assembly. The land was owned by the Baptist Church of the Redeemer, which then partnered with non-profit housing developer MHANY Management Inc. to re-develop the property to more fully serve the community and the congregation. This blend of development and innovation is not unique to New York City, but we certainly have a broad collection of development types, so for high school students to get an up-close look at one such project is definitely “learning outside of the classroom,” which we fully endorse. 

The tour began on the ground floor where students first saw the church portion of the project, including the entrance and open sanctuary space. From there, the group took the construction lift to the top floor of the residential portion, working their way down to see how the building comes together. Students saw everything from plumbing and insulation to flooring and finishes in the span of an hour.

“I have always had this rosy idea that constructing a building was a somewhat easy job,” wrote one student in their written report. “That image has drastically changed.”

“The absolute enormity of the task of balancing all these factors while still making the building economical is absurd,” wrote another, before describing an anecdote that involved a plumber having to move piping 4 inches to the right while on-site, so that it didn’t interfere with insulation being installed. “This to me signified the millions of assignments that architects are tasked with, and how simple it is to make one little mistake that could hypothetically ruin the building.” We assured him that with a great team like ours, it’s pretty rare that a building gets ruined. 

After students encountered the tangible materials and structures of the building process, they began thinking in more abstract social and environmental terms. On the 6th floor, the building’s continuous insulation and exterior wall system especially captured their interest. By the ground floor, they asked about who would actually be living in these units. One student wrote:

I was impressed that these small studios are offered to homeless women. One of the things that I noticed in each room is that they all had at least one large window. Having this large window highlights how much light is valued in this design. I was also thinking about how these big windows can personally affect its tenants. Knowing that some of its tenants are homeless women and having a non-profit apartment building means bringing in the less fortunate, I think having these huge windows allows them to feel like they are seen and acknowledged by the “outside.” These people might have been stuck in the dark due to several reasons, and giving them the chance to see more of the outside at night from the safety of their room is such a beautiful idea.

The tour concluded with each student receiving a swag bag from the project’s general contractor. The students were all smiles wearing Mega Contracting Group-branded hats, stuffing water bottles and other items into their bags. But their excitement belied the strenuous coursework each of them takes on.

Ruth explained that the school is very selective, only accepting about 1 in 15 applicants, and that by the time each student graduates, the accelerated curriculum has prepared them to pass the regents exam while also earning many an Associate’s Degree (or about two years of college credit). She got involved there because her son was one of the first to attend and graduate, and Ruth got to know the principal as a kind of architectural consultant advising on maintaining the school’s aging facility.

“At some point I pitched a class about these things, and they had me write and develop a syllabus,” she said. “Which took about two years!” And the level of thought Ruth put into the syllabus is rubbing off on her students, if this last excerpt is any indication:

As the tour continues, I have accepted the fact that the only Vitruvian principles for a perfect building that are valued in this project are Firmitas (Durability) and Utilitas (Convenience). This idea brings me back to our discussion in class about whether apartment buildings are beautiful. We argued that most buildings exist without Venustas (Beauty), and usually focus on the utility of stacking people on top of each other. However, as we continued to walk I remembered that Vitruvius defined Beauty as “appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste.” I kept remembering the fact that homeless/unfortunate people will live here, and I smiled. Then, I turned to the large window again and had an even bigger smile on my face. I realized that the appearance of the work is more than pleasing because of who this hard work is for. I believe that this building is beautiful. Therefore, since it accomplished all the Vitruvian values such as Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas, I believe that this a perfect building.

We are honored and tend to agree with this student, but are mostly thrilled that a new generation of New Yorkers are thinking so deeply about their built environment. We’re also glad that the students had a chance to see the construction site before remote learning and social distancing became the norm. We wish them all well with the remainder of their school year and hope that their peek behind the “construction curtain” was a highlight of the semester.

1921 Cortelyou Road and Baptist Church of the Redeemer in the NYT

Today, 1921 Cortelyou Road and Baptist Church of the Redeemer was mentioned in The New York Times in a story about the development of faith-based sites.

In increasingly challenging times for houses of worship, it’s important that the development market reacts sensitively and respectfully. We are proud that our Cortelyou Road / Baptist Church of the Redeemer project is doing just this. The church is expressed physically, distinctly, and honorably, while the housing above provides for the city’s underserved population. We are thankful that this development is welcomed in Flatbush.

To learn more about this project’s intricate history and how it came to life, see our post from March 2019.

MHANY and Friends Celebrate 1921 Cortelyou Road

By Kimberly Murphy, AIA, Partner

This week, ESKW/Architects was honored to attend long-time client MHANY Management’s annual benefit in support of their mission of developing affordable housing for low- and moderate-income New York families. This year, MHANY’s event celebrated the innovative development partnership at 1921 Cortelyou Road. In addition to the wonderful company, there was great music, bowling, and plenty of tasty food.

While speaking to the collected group, Executive Director Ismene Speliotis explained that while every development has its own interesting story, 1921 Cortelyou Road’s is especially remarkable. She invited some of the key players to share a bit of our own stories related to the project. The mini speeches were beautiful, and they inspired us as the architects to share a bit more here.

ESKW/A’s introduction to the Baptist Church of the Redeemer at 1921 Cortelyou Road was through a limited design competition in 2008. Our scheme was selected as the winning design (see below right), and our team was poised to bring a new church combined with affordable and supportive housing into reality. At the event this week, Reverend Sharon Williams shared her perspective from 2008: “A vision without action is an illusion.” Unfortunately, the development team at the time was unable to take solid action so the project paused.

So let’s back up. The phenomenon at work is this: Many churches around the city, and specifically Brooklyn (the “borough of churches”), own properties that need significant repair and maintenance. As congregations age, care of the facilities becomes challenging. With the real estate market being as competitive as it is in NYC, developers look for creative opportunities to purchase or partner with individuals or organizations such as churches that can benefit from a development team’s expertise. The concern in this scenario is to protect the church organization from predatory development. Enter non-profit organizations such as LISC NYC who assist in pairing developers, property owners, and attorneys who help protect the interests of the churches.

In the case of 1921 Cortelyou Road, the Baptist Church of the Redeemer needed a match. After making a connection with the Church through the success of the design competition, ESKW/A Partner Andrew Knox went to work to help find that match. He found it in Ismene and MHANY Management along with Brooklyn Community Services and Turning Point Brooklyn. The shared goals and personal chemistry among the groups and the Reverend was exactly what was needed to jump-start the project.

To say “the rest is history” is a bit simplistic for any development, but overly true for this project. MHANY and their team along with ESKW/A set out to do something special in the mixed use of residential and church uses. The intention was always for a successful partnership between the two and that each could support the other. The Church has a long history of community support and inter-faith advocacy, and they run a weekly soup kitchen program. When the Reverend learned more about the missions of Turning Point and Brooklyn Community Services and that theirs is the only NYC program dedicated to housing homeless young women between the ages of 18-24, she wanted to support even further. Out of her portion of the development funds, she decided to dedicate church space for Turning Point Brooklyn’s “We Care About You” Shower Program for the homeless. March is also Women’s History Month and this project was unusual for typical development in that a majority of the team members and leaders are women. Rev. Williams gathered them all for a photo at the groundbreaking.

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The project story is also one of preservation and history. The existing 1920s neo-Romanesque church building had been unused for many years. Its handsome exterior was past the point of repair; however, many interior elements were intact and could be salvaged for reuse.

The architectural team identified items, reviewed the proposal with the church, and documented pieces for careful salvage by Mega Contracting Group, the general contractor, and their demolition team. Pews were photographed, measured, and cataloged. Stained glass panels were documented, and designs prepared for new interior display. Hymn boards and other easily movable items were prepared for secure storage and reuse. To everyone’s great lamentation, it was not feasible to save everything; the brass pipe organ and 24-inch diameter, 30-foot tall granite columns couldn’t be salvaged.

The design process for the Baptist Church was immersive, pun intended. Architects attended Rev. Williams’ service and spent time learning about their full-immersion baptism ceremony, which is central to their doctrine. Understanding the procession of the service, and the needs for changing rooms and accommodations for all ages who come to be baptized, the architects sculpted the sanctuary accordingly. Sky lights and curved ceiling planes make the new sanctuary welcoming, calm, and modern, allowing the service to be the feature. Physical and virtual models were studied to ensure that daylight washed the sanctuary as intended.

The approximately 15,000 square feet of church space is separate from the housing with only utility service spaces being shared. The 76 housing units are an integrated mix of senior housing, affordable housing, and supportive housing with common spaces for programs and resident use including a community room, an activity room, laundry, and two rooftop terraces. The units are studio, one-, and two-bedroom units each with solid wood floors, solid wood kitchen millwork, and large windows.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 30, 2018, and currently the project is under construction. The existing church has been demolished, the site has been excavated, and new foundations are in place. Early this spring, first floor planks will be set, and soon the corner of Ocean Avenue and Cortelyou Road will come to life as the nine-story building takes shape. And you can bet on the ribbon-cutting ceremony being one that shouldn’t be missed!

We’re excited to share more of the background and progress of this remarkable project, so stay tuned. Congratulations to MHANY Management for bringing us all together and making sure that this beautiful vision didn’t become an illusion.

1921 Cortelyou Road Groundbreaking

IMG-0633Ismene Speliotis, Executive Director of Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) Management, Inc., opened 1921 Cortelyou Road’s groundbreaking ceremony by welcoming the Baptist Church of the Redeemer’s Reverend Sharon Williams. “This is all possible because of her and her congregation,” Speliotis explained.

When completed, the nine-story structure will include a 14,700-square-foot church and provide 76 units of supportive housing. The two uses will operate autonomously with shared service spaces only. However, the supportive housing aspect of the project appealed to the Reverend and her congregation as the type of work they are happy to partner with.

“I am honored that Reverend Williams and her congregation saw something in MHANY and selected us to help them transition a beautiful but outdated building into a beautiful and purposeful center of worship and center for community service and action,” Speliotis said. “I am honored that together the reverend and her congregation had the vision to embrace housing for a wide array of people including seniors, families, and young women who will be living on their own for the first time in their lives.”

When Rev. Williams took the microphone, she was poised to inspire the masses, albeit without a sermon. “You’re about to witness something you’ve never witnessed before, and you’ll never witness again,” she said. “A Baptist preacher is going to speak for less than 60 seconds.” She then told everyone to turn to their neighbor and repeat after her: “Neighbor … you are standing … on holy ground!”

Echoing her sentiment, Molly Park, Deputy Commissioner for Development of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), told a story about a man who now lives in an HPD supportive housing building, having overcome 8 years of homelessness and “the worst period of his life.”

“Safe, affordable housing is the foundation of well-being of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual,” she explained.

1921 Groudbreaking-1

Credit: Vanessa Blake (an Opulent World/Summer Shower Production)

It was a beautiful, sunny morning. All the joy in the air reminded us of our commitment to the work we do together. Mega Contracting Group, the general contractor, set up a striking backdrop of excavator machinery to let everyone present know that we are ready for action!

“What started ten years ago as a vision has become evidence that gentrification is not the only thing going on in our neighborhood,” Rev. Williams said earlier in the day. “Love and determination are making a positive change here, and hopefully, more is to come.”

Thank you to MHANY, the Baptist Church of the Redeemer, HPD and the entire project team for an inspiring morning. We’re also hoping there are many more to come.