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Green, affordable housing for seniors, designed by RKTB, opens doors on former site of iconic church

Following years of planning and community engagement, Pope Francis Apartments of Loreto, a new supportive affordable housing community for low-income senior citizens and previously homeless New Yorkers, has opened its doors on the former site of a beloved Catholic church in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. RKTB Architects, P.C., the design firm behind the energy-efficient, eco-friendly eight-story multifamily residence, recently joined with nonprofit developer-operator Catholic Charities of Brooklyn & Queens to announce the substantial completion of work and celebrate residents moving in.

The 83,000-square-foot Pope Francis Apartments, with 135 affordable apartments plus supportive services, community spaces and on-site laundry, represents several innovations for design and development of affordable housing. RKTB, which had previously worked with the same nonprofit to develop an adjacent site, drew on its decades of experience with housing for the New York Metro Region to consult on zoning strategies that would help make the project financially feasible.

The architects also prioritized sustainable design methods, including integrating rooftop solar panels to reduce reliance on electricity from the grid. Perhaps most importantly, they collaborated closely with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn & Queens and Brownsville residents to ensure a sensitive treatment of what had been a sacred site and to deliver a result that enhances and strengthens the community.

“Our Lady of Loreto church previously occupied the site,” says Nelson Vega, associate principal with RKTB and one of the project leads. “After the Brooklyn diocese closed its doors in 2009, people rallied behind various efforts to save the church. Brownsville lost an important part of its local heritage when demolition proceeded a few years ago. We considered it part of our mission to help redevelop the site in ways that would help heal the community.” 

Affordable and green

No stranger to the neighborhood, RKTB understood the challenges facing redevelopment – the firm had previously completed the Monsignor Anthony J. Baretta Apartments next door (with a design based on the firm’s own highly sustainable Affordable Infill Prototype) for the same client group. To ensure that the site would benefit Brownsville and reknit a fractured community, the architects understood that they first had to help Catholic Charities to devise a solution that would be financially viable.

Refocusing the development on senior housing, Vega and RKTB’s design principal Carmi Bee, FAIA began to design a much bigger residence than originally conceived to take advantage of a recent New York zoning rule modification, the Affordable Independent Residences for Seniors program. “Combining these allowances with reapportioned rights from the adjacent ‘Phase 1’ Baretta Apartments site we were able to maximize developable floor area from just 25,000 to over 80,000. This made the project feasible for Catholic Charities as they envisioned it, with lots of affordable units and on-site services for the community,” says Vega.

“We were also able to get an exemption from parking requirements in the zoning regulations by retaining existing ground-level spaces,” says Bee, who adds that the city’s zoning rules requiring underground parking for affordable housing development need to be changed. “It doesn’t make sense, especially since many developers and architects building affordable units are aiming for more green, environmentally sustainable projects like Pope Francis Apartments.”

Bee points out that the new residence meets Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, a comprehensive green building framework specifically for affordable housing. In addition to rooftop solar energy installations, Pope Francis Apartments at Loreto also features a thermally high-performing envelope to reduce energy and costs for heating and cooling, as well as water-saving and energy-efficient fixtures with LED lamping, and low- and zero-VOC materials and finishes. 

Serving community

According to Bee and Vega, the real satisfaction comes from knowing that in important ways the Pope Francis Apartments fills the huge void left by the demolition of the beloved Our Lady of Loreto church. In accordance with the wishes of the diocese, the ground floor features two community rooms, one for residents of the building and another for the greater community. On-site services operated by Catholic Charities include 24-hour security and case management services for senior supportive residents, and shared amenities include a laundry room, bike room, and lobby lounge.

The design also features aesthetic choices intended to restore and enhance neighborhood pride. On the outside, the façade is articulated in segments that reference the adjacent Baretta Apartments, creating a reassuring consistency and using a materials palette that complements the architectural context of the block. To tie back the project to its literal roots in the community, Mural-size photographs of Our Lady of Loreto grace the side of the building at street level as well as the elegant lobby, while the grand statue of “Our Lady” that previously graced the church entrance has been preserved and reinstalled on the site.

Additionally, the architects strove design spacious layouts and specify materials and finishes that would give the affordable resident units something close to a “market-rate feel.”

“You don’t want the apartments to feel low-cost, even if they are,” says Bee. “In the end, you have to give people an environment that will be uplifting, and function well. Residents who are able to take pride in their home extend that feeling of pride to the larger community.”

For more information or for interviews with the architects, please contact C.C. Sullivan

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