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Top the industrial commons the industrial commons

Despo Thoma with Thad Pawlowski, and Amritha Mahesh

As part of their Residency at the Institute for Public Architecture

Urban Design Research

August 2016

New York


Jobs are growing in New York. So is the cost of living. Communities are displaced, identities are uprooted.  But does growth have to mean displacement? Is there a way to encourage job production while distributing the value increase in the cost of land to the working people in the neighborhood? Current zoning policies and real estate forces produce a very specific pattern of development: a monoculture of profit-making engines for the ones who can invest in them. Is there a way to grow with greater equity?


Increase in jobs vs increase in land value. Does growth have to mean displacement? © Despo Thoma

What would the physical forms and regulatory norms for small businesses and local wealth generation look like? explores the idea of contemporary industrial commons and the potential of new building typologies and zoning regulations that can support the growth of small businesses in areas facing rapid growth.


Who benefits from the increase in land value? © Despo Thoma is a design research project that focuses on the ways design can empower local communities to become stakeholders of their future. Focusing on the Gowanus, proposes a new way of governing and implementing through a new model for development: a zoning district and consequent building typology.


Gowanus in Brooklyn, one of the last industrial areas with blue collar jobs. © Despo Thoma

The new zoning district aims to shift the future of neighborhoods from profit-driven development, to mission-driven growth. Every new construction would have to be developed and maintained by a mission based non-profit entity, that would allow small businesses to own a stake in the success of their community.


Introducing development through local nonprofit entities. From money-driven to mission-driven development. © Despo Thoma

Prevent big, embrace small: proposes a maximum lot size to discourage assemblage of large parcels and allow more players to share in the inevitable increase in the value of the land.

Don’t accumulate, share: By requiring a minimum unit count intents to diversify and distribute wealth to a number of business owners from the beginning.


Introducing the industrial commons: with shared service corridors and public courtyards © Despo Thoma

Moving away from the notion that zoning itself should mandate use or performance, proposes a local use regulation by the non-profit. The entity is responsible for the permitting and monitoring of uses within their property, adjusting to the needs and the flexibilities of the specific community.


Prevent big, embrace small: maximum lot size. Don’t accumulate, share: minimum unit count. © Despo Thoma introduces the industrial commons: public circulation + service core-t-yards. A public circulation system would be provided in the front court.  A second means of egress, utilities chases, and a winch for the hauling of goods would be provided in a rear service core. The contiguous easements would form a service alley, which would be shared and managed by agreement of the owners.


Live or Work. Local use regulation © Despo Thoma

Understanding the importance of scale and the need for support, each block in the district would be allowed to have two anchor employers that need not comply with the minimum lot size and unit count.  The anchors will benefit the smaller businesses by providing potential markets.


Mix and match and grow! Allow to grow over time © Despo Thoma

This model of development would provide a diversity of unit types for small businesses.  Units on the ground floor would be great for retail while the upper levels would be great for artists. The front courts would provide a dynamic public space where small businesses and artists could have both a permanent home, a collaborative community, and a built in market.  The back service areas would provide a shared, private space reserved for loading, unloading and other back of house operations that make businesses work in the city.


Fundamental ideas of development based on the idea of, © Despo Thoma

Bridging Gowanus, a recent planning effort led by the local Councilman’s office, urges designers and policymakers to protect industrial jobs while maintaining and adding affordable housing. suggests that these goals are both possible and entirely compatible, if we rethink the laws of growth in our city.

Live or Work. Section through public courtyards and service corridors, © Despo Thoma

Live or Work. Section through public courtyards and service corridors. , © Despo Thoma

Live or Work. Section through public courtyards and service corridors, © Despo Thoma

Live or Work. View of the public courtyards, © Despo Thoma

Live or Work. The new industrial commons for the neighborhood, © Despo Thoma

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