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Need Housing? Need a Train Line? Stack Them Up.

Studio V’s proposal for a Borough Park rail cut.

Graphic: Curbed; Photo: Google Maps, Studio V
Graphic: Curbed; Photo: Google Maps, Studio V

A sickle-shaped scar curves through Brooklyn, with a single set of railroad tracks running down its length like sutures. Every so often — usually once a day — a freight train rolls off a barge at Sunset Park and rumbles along the bottom of the weedy trench, headed north. Otherwise, all is quiet down there — for now, anyway. Underused tracks in the middle of a populous city stimulate fantasies, which sometimes bear fruit in plans and, occasionally, concrete change. Rail lines can yield green space and bike trails. They also carry the promise of recycling relics into a new generation of public transit. Governor Kathy Hochul has thrown her weight behind the idea of an Interborough Express (IBX), a new light-rail line that would run along that 14-mile corridor from Bay Ridge to Jackson Heights, connecting parts of the city that the subway forgot.

And since a portion of the line runs through the enclave of Borough Park, a neighborhood of big Orthodox Jewish families that’s starved for housing, an enterprising developer there saw sunken tracks as a swath of wasted real estate. Cover the pit with a platform, and you can erect homes above it. On the west side of Manhattan, an immense and expensive version of that idea brought forth the imperial-scale Hudson Yards. In Long Island City, an even vaster and more unwieldy undertaking has generated ambitions but no action. Now a short stretch of the Bay Ridge line, between 14th and 16th Avenues, from 60th to 62nd Street, could soon produce a more intimate and manageable development, packing 267 apartments, 80 of them rent-regulated, into 2.4 acres with nary a tower in sight. It offers roughly half the housing at Hudson Yards on a tiny fraction of the footprint.

The proposed IBX will run directly underneath. Art: Studio V

The project, designed by Studio V and tentatively titled Brooklyn Yards (even though it’s nowhere near a train yard), is a bracingly idiosyncratic proposal that merges pragmatism and inventiveness. A conga line of 11 townhouses, plus a couple of six-story apartment buildings, snakes diagonally through a two-and-a-half-block stretch, repairing the neighborhood that’s riven by a cut. Having pretty much run out of vacant land, New York needs many more of these oddball enterprises and more builders patient and intrepid enough to ferret out gaps in the urban fabric, work with cumbersomely shaped lots, layer housing on top of infrastructure, and find a way for all that awkwardness to make financial sense. For the MTA, which owns the tracks, the Borough Park slice could be an exploratory probe for an unexplored gold mine: miles of development rights that remain unsold and unused.

The real-estate partnership of Meir David Tabak and Meyer Lebovits has none of the corporate flash of the city’s large developers — the men barely have any online presence — but they do have vast stores of persistence. They hired Studio V, which was founded and is led by Jay Valgora, back in 2015; the design is only now beginning the eight-month process of public review. It’s a technical morass. The architects had to figure out how to meet the MTA’s requirements for clearance, preserve the possibility of a future IBX, and even move a jet-fuel pipeline that runs beneath the railbed to JFK — all without disrupting the current freight operations. New buildings would have to sit not on an earthbound foundation but on a platform supported on concrete pillars. That’s the reality of a filled-up city: Visible new construction is just the icing on a century-old subterranean layer cake of infrastructure.

The rail cut is now used for freight about once a day. Photo: Studio V

At first, it seemed obvious that the only way to amortize the expense of the platform would be to plunk Manhattan-ish towers in the middle of a low-rise neighborhood. That possibility would have stirred up so much local ire that it died before it could be publicly floated. Eventually, Valgora’s team realized that elevators cost even more than decking over railroad tracks — and few apartment buildings have them in an area where most residents won’t ride one on the Sabbath. The most efficient arrangement, the architects concluded, would be a row of 11 four-story walk-ups, supplemented by three six-story buildings and one ten-story commercial building next to the elevated D line stop at 62nd Avenue.

The architects responded to the thicket of problems with an elegant composition that keeps the skyline variable and tucks the awkwardness out of sight. When completed, it will look like a handsome and recognizable segment of Brooklyn, with stoops on one side and yards on the other — the traditional brownstone reinterpreted in a modern aesthetic, with one apartment on each floor, bookended by modestly larger buildings. A boardwalk runs at the rear, a welcome vein of public space, even if it only gives out onto a narrow opening for the train trench below. In a couple of spots, open arches interrupt the apartment buildings’ façade and lead through the center of the block, neatly eliding the fact that the development’s spine, following the tracks, skews across the street grid. The mixture of aspiration and constraint reminds me of work by the British architect Peter Barber, who specializes in fitting small but stylish council-housing estates into leftover wedges of land. In London, his traditional values and flexibility offer a mild corrective to all the self-propagating skyscrapers. Valgora’s team hasn’t yet reached the refined level of Barber’s working-class poetry, but there’s time. The details of façade materials, doorways, railings, windows, and roofs are still to be fleshed out, which makes the renderings look provisionally generic.

The architects still have plenty of hoops to jump through. They have tried to address the specific real-estate desires of many Orthodox residents: staying low to the ground, balconies on which to erect a sukkah every fall, abundant bedrooms. Those qualities are so rare in New York that Jewish families have been flowing out of Borough Park at a robust clip, their loss offset by the community’s equally robust birth rate. Even so, neighbors seem to wish for housing without buildings. The local community board recently rejected a proposal for an eight-story apartment house on 57th Street, and a news story about the project quoted one neighborhood resident warning that “this could come to any block in Borough Park if we don’t push back now.”

The proposal, and the site today. (Click to enlarge.) From left: Photo: Studio VPhoto: Google Maps
The proposal, and the site today. (Click to enlarge.) From top: Photo: Studio VPhoto: Google Maps

Brooklyn Yards, too, may court reflexive rejection as an overweening, shadow-casting, gridlock-triggering behemoth. That would be a shame, because the development offers the promise of density without tears, what’s sometimes called the “missing middle”: buildings sized between single-family houses and bulky apartment blocks. To advocates, it’s the key to addressing a housing crisis without turning our suburbs into Seoul. That middle isn’t really missing in Brooklyn, but the circumstances mean that Valgora has an opportunity to produce low-rise apartments so self-evidently excellent that they can help combat a curious nationwide hostility to an ancient form of housing, a practical way of giving a lot of people somewhere pleasant to live.

Need Housing? Need a Rail Line? Stack Them Up.