Oct 26, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

Harlem Children’s Zone

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We had “designed the question” by articulating the clients’ goals as design imperatives: for Harlem Children’s Zone, to build a school on time and on budget with strong community integration; for NYCHA, to reopen the superblock with a city street, to minimize the building’s footprint to preserve open space; and for City Planning, to support the goals of an area-wide rezoning and bring increased vibrancy and mixed uses to the neighborhood.

Now we had only a month to design the answer. Our promised product was a consensus site plan, which the school’s architect would take over and use to design the school. We sketched with the team, built models, met again and again with the stakeholders. Every sketch would have political input; the project was now a top priority with City Hall. And every configuration of the school would have immediate financial impacts that would then reverberate to financial commitments already in place from the city and private sector donation. The design kept changing as we tried to meet our stakeholders’ goals. Finally the design was ready.

Now the urban design process entered the implementation phase. As urban designers, our role diminished to presentations and revisions. We held public meetings and kept everyone moving forward with visual communication. Of course there was dissent, some of it angry. Nothing happens easily in cities. People who oppose charter schools in general attacked the project in specific for its street, for its bulk, for its cost, trying to kill the school before it could be born. There was screaming at hearings, but the voices of parents and students desperate for a chance at a good school in their neighborhood eventually overcame the entrenched interests. Approvals in hand, the only thing remaining was to fill a budget gap. The city could give no more, so Canada reached out to his board and to the private sector. In a matter of weeks, he had raised millions from Google, Goldman Sachs, and some of the city’s wealthiest philanthropists. The project was a go.

We opened 129th Street to connect the project to the city’s street grid and lined it with new trees and benches. We put the new school’s building height along the new street, bringing a thousand new “eyes on the street” that would eliminate the gangs’ influence over public space. And we preserved most of the central stand of trees, landscaping the area as an amenity to the residents and a backdrop for the school.

At the groundbreaking we felt a sense of success. The plan was a result of an urban design process. We were not on the podium, we were not called out by name, but the shovels were transforming the city to accomplish our goals, the ones we distilled from our clients, the stakeholders. The simple urban design act of putting a city street back into the superblock of the public housing project was a statement that the isolation of public housing was a thing of the past. Placing a school on that street reconnected the children to the opportunity around them. Construction was on schedule, and Canada was satisfied with the process of urban design.



Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer at the New York Department of City Planning, has been at the forefront of mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to remake the city. His experience in politics, finance, and design began as a government staffer for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

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