Does This Brooklyn Housing Development Know the Secret to Long Life?
Rendering: Dattner Architects.
July 28, 2023
New York Times
By Jane Margolies
A project in East New York aims to adapt the ethos of Blue Zones — healthy, close-knit communities where people live to 100 — to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Ever since researchers identified a handful of places around the world where people lived remarkably long, healthy lives, there have been efforts to replicate the magic recipe.
The inhabitants of these Shangri-Las known as Blue Zones — where people were said to live to age 100 — shared certain customs thought to contribute to their longevity. They stayed physically active, maintained lasting friendships and ate mostly plant-based meals, among other things.
While some of these lifestyle practices may seem obvious today, the idea of borrowing ideas from Blue Zones — which tend to be small, remote communities that evolved organically, like those on the Japanese island of Okinawa — has gained traction across the country.
But can their fountain-of-youth promise be transplanted to one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the densest cities in the United States? That is the proposition of a 2.5-million-square-foot affordable housing development going up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.
The $1.2 billion project, which is mostly financed by New York State and will include about 2,600 apartments, is expected to echo the features of Blue Zones, with a network of walking paths, recreation areas and facilities intended to foster community, as well as a farm for fresh vegetables.
“We looked at that as a source of inspiration,” said Spencer Orkus, a partner at L+M Development Partners, one of the developers of the project.
Local politicians seem to be optimistic about the project, though some are not entirely sold on what the Blue Zone formula adds.
“We don’t have to look to Okinawa,” said Charles Barron, the councilman representing Brooklyn District 42, which encompasses the site. “We know how to build healthy communities. There’s nothing new and magical about that.”
The development is going up on 27 acres of state land on the southern edge of East New York, formerly the site of a facility housing people with profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. One by one, the old dormitories of what was known as the Brooklyn Developmental Center are being demolished.
In their place, buildings are already rising for the new development, named Alafia, which its builders say is a Yoruba word that means peace, health and well-being. (Though according to a spirited online debate, it might also have something to do with throwing coconuts.) So far, two of the project’s planned 14 buildings are under construction: a 15-story building with 452 apartments, a medical clinic and retail space, and another building of six floors with 124 apartments. The project is expected to be completed in 2030.
Alafia grew out of the state’s “Vital Brooklyn Initiative,” begun in 2017 and intended to address the fact that residents in the central part of the borough had limited access to health care, fresh food and opportunities for physical activity.
In 2018, two state agencies — the Urban Development Corporation and New York State Homes and Community Renewal — issued a request for proposals from developers interested in purchasing and redeveloping the vast East New York site after the Brooklyn Developmental Center was shut down in 2015 as part of a decades-long drive to deinstitutionalize people with developmental disabilities. In their solicitation, the agencies called for a “wellness-oriented development.”
The predominantly Black and Hispanic population of East New York has high rates of poverty and health ailments including obesity, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Life expectancy is 78, among the lowest in the city — a fact that would seem to make the neighborhood a particularly challenging Blue Zone candidate.
But these health concerns were precisely what drew the developers to the Blue Zone concept, said Mr. Orkus of L+M, which fashioned the winning proposal in partnership with Apex Building Group and the nonprofits RiseBoro Community Partnership and Services for the UnderServed.
The idea of Blue Zones originated with the author Dan Buettner and other researchers who discovered five places with impressive numbers of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians, and they sought to find out what they had in common. (The name was coined after a researcher circled one of the sites on a map in blue ink.)
In addition to Okinawa, where people formed tight-knit social circles called moais, the group included Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea populated by people who tended their own vineyards and drank herbal tea; Sardinia, Italy, where shepherds spent their days on the move over mountainous terrain; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, where meals revolved around beans, squash and corn, and generations of families shared homes; and Loma Linda, Calif., which had a high concentration of Seventh-day Adventists, many of them vegetarians.
Mr. Buettner went on to spread the Blue Zones gospel in books and in a company that offers a certification program to communities that are willing to restructure themselves for healthier living.
The company found takers: More than 70 communities — from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Fort Worth, Tex. — have participated in the program at a cost of a few million to as much as $50 million, depending on their size. (Usually a large local employer or hospital system foots the bill in the hope of reduced claims from a healthier population.)
Mr. Buettner has an upcoming book purporting to feature a new development built according to the Blue Zone playbook — which is what Alafia appears to be attempting, albeit unofficially.
Alafia’s developers said they have no plans to seek Blue Zone certification. They are also quick to emphasize that they are not laboring under the illusion that Brooklyn residents will take long midday naps as they did in Ikaria or drink red wine every evening, the custom in Sardinia.
The Alafia development is in an area that was once marshland on the edge of Brooklyn and considered to be where “the city came to an end.” Dattner Architects, working with the landscape design studio SCAPE, have laid it out as a walkable campus with more than four acres of open space in addition to the farm, which will cover another acre.
The farm and a smaller indoor growing facility are planned to be run as a cooperative, managed and owned by Alafia residents after they participate in an urban agriculture training program, said Scott Short, chief executive of RiseBoro, which has been involved in urban farming and cooperative businesses in central Brooklyn. Produce grown in Alafia will be sold to residents on site, he added.
Situated off the Belt Parkway and across the street from the suburban-style Gateway Center shopping plaza, the development also stands out for its focus on sustainability: The buildings will use geothermal heating and cooling, and have rooftop solar panels. SCAPE said its landscape design takes rising sea levels into account.
But some neighborhood residents remain wary of Alafia, no matter how creatively planned.
Long considered beyond the reach of the gentrification that has transformed other Brooklyn neighborhoods, East New York has seen a surge of development in recent years. Side streets are still lined with rowhouses and small apartment buildings, but larger projects are going up. A portion of the neighborhood was rezoned for higher density housing under Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a move that sparked local opposition.
Property flipping is said to have contributed to escalating house prices. The median home value in East New York is nearly $600,000, according to Zillow, up from about $336,000 in 2015. During the same period, rents have jumped from an average of $1,250 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,750 today, according to the real estate website Zumper.
After the Brooklyn Developmental Center closed, the state sought to capitalize on the unusually large parcel for affordable housing, said RuthAnne Visnauskas, commissioner of Homes and Community Renewal. Portions of the site north and south of Alafia have already been redeveloped with another affordable housing project. But the size of the remaining acreage, Ms. Visnauskas said, presented an opportunity to think about how to design a community holistically.
Nearly 20 percent of Alafia’s apartments will be set aside for supportive housing, with programs provided by Services for the UnderServed and other organizations. The rest of the apartments will be awarded through a lottery.
Rent levels for Alafia units will be calculated based on what households earning 30 to 80 percent of the area median income, or A.M.I., for the New York City region can afford, although apartments in the first two buildings will be for those in the 40-to-80-percent range.
The formula might prove to be a sticking point in some quarters. Because the metro area encompasses extremely affluent neighborhoods, like the Upper East Side and Tribeca in Manhattan, its area median income is much higher than that of of Community District 5, which includes East New York. Apartments in Alafia that are considered affordable for the metro area may be too expensive for many East New Yorkers.
“We need to be building below 50 percent A.M.I.,” said Alexa Sloan, who was working as a community organizer with the Coalition for Community Advancement: Progress for Cypress Hills and East New York, a nonprofit made up of area residents and organizations. Rent and utilities for a two-bedroom apartment at 30 percent of the area median income would be set at just under $1,000, whereas rent for a two-bedroom at 50 percent is nearly $1,600.
Ms. Visnauskas, of the state’s Homes and Community Renewal, defended Alafia’s income levels. She also said the development’s focus on health was reflective of the evolution of thinking about affordable housing: Whereas the goal used to be to build as many units as possible, now the projects “can do so much more,” she said.
“It’s really about transformative change,” she added.
But as Ms. Sloan suggested, some neighborhood residents may be more focused on just being able to afford an apartment, never mind the Blue Zonesque features that might come with it.