What should New York City do with its public housing? Demolish it, as public housing authorities in cities like Newark, Chicago and Detroit have done? Sell it, as private-market advocates propose? Or watch it continue to deteriorate as the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) struggles with deficits brought by cutbacks in state and federal support?

These are critical questions for the city because with nearly 180,000 apartments spread over five boroughs, NYCHA is New York's largest landlord. And in a city where housing for low- and moderate-income people is so desperately needed, public housing provides a vital service. Even if the buildings are getting old. Even if the elevators don't always work. Even if the vast superblocks typical of most housing projects are banal in design, barren of amenity and often empty and intimidating at night.

This year, an international team of graduate students from the University of Michigan Master of Urban Design Program spent a semester exploring the redevelopment potential of public housing projects on the Lower East Side, one of the greatest concentrations of such projects in the country.

They proposed that the projects' open spaces (more than 80 percent of their land area) be used for development that 1) retains all public housing in the area; 2) provides new revenue streams for NYCHA that can be used to maintain and enhance its housing stock; 3) creates the kind of economically integrated communities preferred by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in its public-housing demolition and replacement program, HOPE VI; and 4) uses development to increase project residents' social and economic opportunities.

As the Michigan team discovered, there's room in Lower East Side projects for between 4,400 and 8,000 new apartments (both fair-market and "affordable"); a range of 1.6 million to 5 million square feet of commercial development; and from 600,000 to 3 million square feet of institutional space (for libraries, community centers, schools and colleges). Adding other uses, there's the potential of between 13.7 million and 22 million square feet of new buildings. That's a lot of development. And if multiplied over NYCHA's many sites, the approach could help transform not just public housing but whole neighborhoods for the better – and the city itself.

Location, location, location

The Michigan team selected Lower East Side housing projects for a reason. They stretch two miles along the East River between the Brooklyn Bridge and 14th Street, cover 120 acres and contain 11,300 apartments for 26,000 people-a size such that redevelopment will carry substantial benefits not only for residents of the projects, but also for their surroundings and NYCHA as a whole.

With ground coverage averaging only 16 percent, they provide plentiful open space for new development. And along the edges of NYCHA's properties, the Lower East Side has experienced widespread gentrification over the past decade, making the LES projects desirable for redevelopment.

The Michigan team generated redevelopment concepts for the area defined by the Brooklyn Bridge, 14th Street, the bulkhead of East River Park, and the north-south streets of Avenue D, the Bowery and Madison Street. These boundaries usually coincide with public-housing borders but also include city blocks between projects. Also within the area are housing projects originally erected by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, including the Amalgamated Dwellings and Hillman and Seward Park Houses. Built between the 1930s and 1960s as limited-dividend, owner-occupied dwellings, several of these buildings now sell apartments on the open market following the demise of their public subsidies. Clustered south of the Williamsburg Bridge, they divide public housing developments to the north and south and contain approximately 4,500 apartments. They were included in the design concepts to make redevelopment contiguous and to provide them with new income streams for their upkeep and repair.

With the goal of retaining all of the Lower East Side's public housing (and ILGWU projects), the Michigan team generated three design concepts to demonstrate the site area's rich potential for redevelopment. But the concepts have even bigger intent: to illustrate options for NYCHA's capitalization on its greatest dormant asset, its underutilized land, to counteract deficit-driven cutbacks in building maintenance and social services that threaten public housing's very survival. In 2008 that deficit was $195 million. Unless NYCHA gets new sources of revenue, the city's public housing could disappear.

Among the Michigan concepts' major features are an extension of the financial district to the edge of the Smith Houses, where new office towers would enjoy views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. They also envision a college-oriented neighborhood extending from the Rutgers and La Guardia Houses to nearby East River piers that are renovated to become a community college, with the housing projects reshaped as learning/living quadrangles for residents, faculty and students. And they call for a cluster of luxury hotels and condominiums bordering the ILGWU projects at Corlears Hook with views up and down Manhattan and over the low-rise Vladeck Houses.

Other ideas include a live-work district serving as an incubator for tech industries and the related arts to either side of the Williamsburg Bridge and located on ILGWU-project parking lots and under-utilized public-housing land; new residential streets through the Baruch, Wald and Riis Houses from Delancey Street to 14th Street, lined with a variety of dwelling types and encircling community centers, schools, libraries, playgrounds and community gardens; a redeveloped Avenue D and Madison Street bordered by retail and neighborhood services at ground level and professional offices, apartments and lofts above; and, most dramatically, an FDR Drive featuring some of the most desirable offices, hotels and apartments in the city with direct access to new recreation grounds, landscape features, and public amenities along a re-designed East River Park.

To tie these features together and integrate them with the larger city, the concepts propose new light rail, bus and ferry routes that unlock housing projects from their current isolation at the river's edge and make them part of a destination and crossing for Manhattan.