What’s Inside a Neighborhood in a Box?

CityLab – July 20, 2017

Written by Dan Glass

The peaked wooden eave jutting from the facade of the charcoal glass tower is trying to tell you something. So is the neon sign over the entranceway that says “home sweet home.” But it takes a beat to realize that the light-box sign reading Urby is not for an upmarket extended-stay hotel. You’re supposed to live here.

The new mixed-use residential development on Staten Island’s crane-studded north shore is the first in a proposed chain of apartment projects from New Jersey-based Ironstate Development, which has a record of building large luxury developments on the “Gold Coast” of the New Jersey waterfront. Other locations in the works include Jersey City (one of three towers completed), Harrison, New Jersey (now renting), and Stamford, Connecticut (underway). Each complex comprises ultramodern living units, ground-level retail, amenities such as heated outdoor pools, fitness centers, and keyless entry via phone app. …

David Morris, co-founder of the pro-localism think tank Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has some other concerns: What about another community—the existing residents who are now living beside this 900-unit Staten Island property? Urby stands in stark juxtaposition to the humble and somewhat run-down main street of Stapleton, just a block away.

The main drag of Stapleton, Long Island. (Dan Glass)

It’s a similar scenario in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Urby is part of an even larger Ironstate-created neighborhood around the commuter train station. When completed it will have over 2,200 apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail space in a 1.2 square-mile town. “The overall scale of the development will dwarf anything within a quarter of a mile, if not half a mile,” says Morris of the Staten Island complex. “That makes me wonder about what happens in the shadows of it. Normally gentrification happens incrementally. Here, they’re sort of cutting to the chase.”

Such one-stop revitalization/gentrification engines often appeal to local governments, since luring one big developer is a lot easier than trying to fill dozens of vacant storefronts. But they can be perilous: Morris says city leaders might not have the expertise to negotiate with big developers and often hand over excessive subsidies and tax breaks. Towns might also be tempted to use the revitalization argument to seize private property through eminent domain, as happened a decade ago in Long Branch, New Jersey, where Ironstate built its Pier Village complex.

Another concern is the community’s retail mix, which tends to overwhelmingly favor the bars and restaurants that young singletons prioritize. “A key sign of this being a positive and rooted development is whether they’re going to have a hardware store,” says Morris. “A laundry would be a wonderful place to be communal, even better than a communal kitchen.” For necessities, instead of the mom-and-pop bodegas that vend toothpaste and toilet paper, Urby has “Bodega”—an elegant artisanal eats dispensary modeled, loosely, on New York City’s iconic convenience stores.

It’s not a bodega. It’s “Bodega.” (Dan Glass)

The degree to which you find this either charming or ridiculous probably predicts your willingness to embrace the conceptual haziness at the heart of the Urby model. “It’s unclear to have a development whose brand is a sense of place and community and rootedness when it is targeted to people who will be there temporarily,” says Morris.

Of course, for the younger people who choose to live in these city-like spaces, the idea of home may be morphing into something less permanent—a set of social amenities instead of an actual place. It’s a platform where those who may be tiring of stuff can instead consume socialness. One of the most telling descriptors of life in New York City, and in cities in general, is that word “grit.” Grit is not an aesthetic choice; it’s a signal that no one is trying to sell you a story. Replacing that rough and dirty stuff with a fine-tuned design theme could make Urby a great place to live, but not a great neighborhood. A great neighborhood asks not to be defined, but explored, participated in, and contributed to. And it’s that genuine connection to a place and its people that make a neighborhood a home.

Read the full story here.

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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.