When Michael Kimmelman debuted as the New York Times archicritic in fall 2011, he chose as his first subject not the starchitecture beloved by his predecessor but, instead, Via Verde, the green South Bronx housing development designed by Grimshaw and Dattner Architects. Taking a key role in the construction and completion of the project for Dattner was Venesa Alicea, 31, a Curbed Young Guns semifinalist. Alicea, a New York City native, grew up in the worlds of architecture, real estate, and construction?her stepfather is a woodworker and her uncle an architect, and her grandfather worked in real estate. She studied architecture in high school, at Brooklyn Tech, and made it her focus at City College. After working on local projects at her first job, with a small teaching firm in Harlem, Alicea moved to Dattner, a natural fit for her interests in "designing for the public good and civic engagement."
Alicea joined the Via Verde project at the end of the design development phase, but her biggest impact was during the actual construction of the project, explains Dattner Principal William Stein. "She really took more and more of a leadership role during the construction phase and played a very important part in making sure the project was constructed," stepping up after the project architect left the firm to oversee the punch list fixes and city approvals needed to close out the building.
The process wasn't without its challenges, which included getting all of the building's energy-saving systems to work together. But Via Verde was relatively straightforward as far as New York City affordable housing projects go: because the design won a competition sponsored by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the local American Institute of Architects chapter, the project "got a lot of support" from the beginning, and "we were able to keep to the initial design parti and the philosophy of the project," Alicea explains. Better funding is the first item on her wishlist when it comes to improving NYC's affordable housing.
Her interests in civic engagement and the public good extend beyond her day-to-day work at Dattner?where Alicea also worked on PS 276 in Battery Park City and is part of the team for a new supportive housing project?to her involvement with the architecture program at her alma mater City College and with the AIA's Emerging New York Architects group. With those organizations, Alicea has organized several design competitions, and, says Stein, has taken on a leadership role as a mentor to younger architects. For an architect who is inspired by her roots and devoted to giving back, it's no wonder that Alicea, who did a thesis on libraries and whose mother is a librarian, dreams of one day designing a library. "Libraries are community centers," she says. They are "the new public space."