Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future of Bliss Towers

Bliss Towers is a perennial topic of conversation in political circles. Back in 2003, when HOPE VI funds were still flowing, Linda Mussmann's second mayoral run was put in jeopardy with some Second Ward voters by the suggestion that it was time for Bliss Towers, Hudson's 1970s era public housing project, to come down. Last year, presented by different messengers, Wanda Pertilla and Billy Hughes, the idea that Bliss Towers could be replaced by something else resurfaced, and this time it seemed more palatable.

There have been a couple of meetings about the fate of Bliss Towers and the future of its tenants since the topic resurfaced. In April, I got myself invited to the second of those meetings, which was described as a charette--"the beginning of an integrated design process." It was a puzzling meeting, since the goals didn't seem all that clear and there were as many presenters as there were presentees. Among the presenters were representatives from Omni Housing Development, an affordable housing development company headquartered in Albany; New Ecology, a Boston-based not-for-profit; and CK Dennis Architect, an architectural firm based in Loudonville. Among the presentees were Mayor Scalera, Billy Hughes, and a few other elected officials, as well as Jeff First, the executive director of the City of Hudson Housing Authority, and a handful of Bliss Towers residents.

The meeting went on all day, and I only stayed for the morning session, but here's what I learned in that time. It has been decided that Bliss Towers, which was built in 1973, needs either significant renovation or replacement. To take advantage of the next opportunity for funding, the decision to rehab or replace needs to be made by the end of the summer. The decision makers are the six City of Hudson Housing Authority Commissioners: Lyle Shook, former Second Ward alderman; George DeJesus, chair of the Hudson Republican Committee; and four tenants of Bliss Towers. Relevant to the decision, it would seem, is the fact that stimulus funds are currently being invested in Bliss Towers to renovate the lobby and the offices. Making it easier, perhaps, to decide to demolish a building in which public funds have just been invested is the conventional wisdom, shared at the meeting, that "renovation is more expensive than to build new" and that "it is easier to get HUD to fund a replacement than a renovation." It's interesting to note that in the early part of this decade, when the HOPE VI program was still active, HUD determined that Bliss Towers was not distressed enough to qualify for HOPE VI funding.

Although the decision to rehab or replace Bliss Towers has not yet been made, some are of the opinion the Housing Authority will take the new construction route. How that would happen and what would be built was fairly extensively outlined in the meeting. The process would involve four phases and would guarantee "no involuntary displacement." There were drawings displayed in the room of the proposed new buildings, and during a break, I took pictures of them.

The first phase would be the construction of a 37-unit senior building at some location other than the current Bliss Towers site. Currently 30 percent of the tenants in Bliss Towers are senior citizens, and the completion of this building would allow those tenants to be relocated immediately. The design approach for this building seems to be what has become standard for new construction in cities or neighborhoods known for their historic architecture: cobble together a few elements from the existing historic buildings and call it compatible. The presentation of this design even lets us know which buildings in Hudson they chose to imitate.

The next phase--which could happen concurrently with the construction of the senior building--would be to create temporary housing for the tenants in the remaining 95 units of Bliss Towers--both the high rise and the low rise. How or where this temporary housing will be created--or what will happen to it when the Bliss Towers tenants have been settled in new public housing--was not clarified.

Phase Three would be to demolish Bliss Towers and Phase Four to build on the site 22 duplexes, which would occupy not only the site of the high rise and the low rise but also the playground across State Street from the high rise.

This leaves, at the least, according to my math, seven units from the current Bliss Towers complex not accounted for in the new plan. They may be counting on some voluntary surrender of apartments, but there was some mention at the meeting of utilizing "in-fill lots within the city" to locate additional units.

Granted the decision to replace Bliss Towers has not yet been made and the plans displayed at the meeting in April were probably only preliminary, but they raise a couple of important concerns. What happened to the idea of mixed-income housing? The HOPE VI project revitalized distressed public housing projects by turning them into mixed-income developments, to the reported benefit of the low-income residents. What happened to the concept of scattered-site housing, promoted as an alternative to concentrating poverty and its problems all in one place? Unless I'm missing something, this plan disperses the tenants of Bliss Towers temporarily into the community and then moves them all back to the same place. There's also the question I raised before: What happens to the 95 units of temporary housing when the tenants of Bliss Towers move into their new duplexes?

I invite comments from those who have more information and insight into this than I do.


  1. I don't have any knowledge of the plan but I thank you for the information about the meeting. I too would wonder what happened to the idea of of scattered and mixed income housing. The concept of 'cluster' housing for low income is not particularily appealing as far as I can see and not too much would be gained by this approach in the end.
    In 30 years it will end up the same as Bliss Towers.

  2. "The decision makers are the six City of Hudson Housing Authority Commissioners: Lyle Shook, former Second Ward alderman; George DeJesus, chair of the Hudson Republican Committee; and four tenants of Bliss Towers."

    Carole, I read the story quickly and may have missed something. But if the above is true, we are headed for disaster. Nothing personal, but why can't we get a decision-making process that actually makes rational sense, not just political sense.


  3. What a horrible idea. Have we learned nothing from the Urban Renewal decades that built this tower in the first place? Bliss Tower represents, architecturally, a very specific moment in our attitudes and history as it relates to public housing. To demolish it is an act of erasure. Any historic preservationist who supports tearing down this building is a charlatan.

    Getting rid of Bliss Tower will not alleviate the cyclical poverty of its residents. Getting rid of Bliss Tower will not erase the reality of being poor, black, and marginalized in a town seemingly on the up swing - although for a very specific segment of its population. While I advocate mixed income developments I guarantee that will not be what replaces Bliss. We continue to ghettoize our poor in the same ways, just under the ruse of "redevelopment" "mixed use" p.r. speak. Restoration & Rehabilitation is always presented as More Expensive than demolition & replacement. Look who's saying it? The very folks who will benefit from its erasure. Neglect is a fantastic way to prepare a building for the wrecking ball. It not only produces great pics for the paper, it incenses the residents to the point of supporting the demolition itself. We must be suffering from amnesia to say otherwise.

    In fact, that's exactly what they said when Penn Station was destroyed - the very act that birthed the National Historic Preservation Act. Sure, folks will argue about the architectural merits of Bliss, "its no Penn, no greek temple to transport". Bullocks. There are many many reasons why Preservationists should save this unique hi-rise in our tiny City, much beyond the scope of this comment. And much beyond the social impacts of such a move. I can't believe for a moment the people of Hudson, so utterly concerned with Historic Preservation, would get behind bulldozing this incredible document. Its no different than the bulldozing of Every house between 1st and Front to build COARC, that cinderblock dump of a structure. But then, as now, the same arguments were used. This is 60's Slum Clearance, updated with incredibly reductionist Disneyfied renderings of what will replace it. An insult to the sensibilities of town very much concerned with restoration, rehabilitation, & preservation. Save Bliss Tower.

  4. shouldn't this be something that the town should vote on and not a select few.

  5. If that building wasn't so ugly then maybe it would be worth preserving.

    And maybe if that building wasn't so ugly the residents might have chipped in and warded off the neglect themselves. Not very likely!

    Simply preserve the botch with a nice photo for your diary, a memory of all those excellent programs that infantilized a generation (and counting).

  6. First off let me clarify something. The Board of Commissioners of the Hudson Housing Authority is made up of 7 (seven) members all of whom have had very close ties to this agency for many years. George DeJesus is Chairman of the Board, what his political agenda and status is is of no concern to those of us here as with all other members of the board. This is an unpaid inglorious position and members serve basically out of concern for the residents. We currently have two (2) resident Commissioners as specified by the State of New York.

    Realistically the decision of what course to take as far as redevlopment is up to the Housing Authority as we are the recipient of the funding as well as responsible entity for Federal Project No. NY61-1. We do not take this decision lightly and bullshit politics has no place in making the decision. Whatever course of action is pursued by the Authority it will be made in complete cooperation with City officials and most importantly with those affected the most, the residents.

    In reading Peter's post I detect that there are some that don't think we have the capability to make that decision. I beg to differ. Who is more reponsive to the needs and requirements of the Authority than the Authority? Certainly not those content with standing back and pointing fingers with contempt and critcism, or those making there bi-annual vists prior to an upcoming election. Disaster? What disaster are you implying? The crumbling infratstructure of a 40 year old family occupied Hi-rise? Or the disaster of allowing individuals who have no knowledge at all of public housing and an agenda, be allowed to control the process. The only disaster would be allowing all the rhetoric to continue prior to the application for funding.

    I agree that we should not isolate low income housing in any one location (cluster housing). But we cannot rewrite history. It is our intent to create permanent scattered site housing throughout the City with this redevelopment project. Unfortunately, vacant properties are not readily available, and if we pursue this route, most of the redevelopment will have to occur within our project site.

    And yes, I agree... it is ugly but it serves the purpose for which it was built.

    If you have any questions or other rhetorical innuendo concerning past or recent history of the Housing Authority or the redevelopment project, call me don't speculate. 828-5415

    Jeffrey K. First, Executive Director
    Hudson Housing Authority

  7. Mr. First—Thank you for clarifying the number and makeup of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. I got the information I reported from Lyle Shook, who is, I believe, one of the commissioners, so I felt there was no reason to question the veracity of what he told me.

    I get the sense from your comment that you feel the future of Bliss Towers is not an appropriate topic of public discussion. I disagree. Bliss Towers is not an island. The building is part of the fabric of Hudson; its tenants are part of a larger community. The decisions made about the future of Bliss Towers will impact the city as a whole, and for that reason it is perfectly appropriate for the people of Hudson to have an interest in the process and opinions about a desired outcome.

  8. Jeffrey,

    Thanks for responding to the thread, its important we have a forum, outside of the heavily restricted confines of hearings and subcommittees, to discuss these issues.

    Has the Authority done a feasibility study on upgrading the current facilities, and collected multiple bids for such work? Or has there only been RFP's for new construction? I know its doubtful restoration & renovation bids have been gathered, because the acquisition of HOPE VI funds almost always necessarily translates into demolition, but I wanted to be sure. Much of critiques (and a federal lawsuit in MO) of HOPE IV fund scenarios center on clear reductions in the number of units, Carole pointed this out in her post, could you address?

    I've seen this "17m" number bandied about in relation to renovation and restoration, who exactly provided that figure? And how exactly does that figure translate to $100,000 a unit?

    Much of the language being used by project applicants rests on the "poor benefiting from green technology". Just like 30 years ago when Light, Air, Space, & Greenery were used to justify slum clearance and building towers in the park a/k/a international style. Viola, our Bliss. There is nothing "green" about demolishing a 36 year old structure.

    "Who is most responsive to the needs of the authority but the authority?"

    Understanding the management of public housing, its nitty gritty daily maintenance, is just one part of the narrative that should be marshaled to review this. You seem to infer that property managers & whats the best option, are mutually exclusive. I deeply contest that supposition. I quote from a guide on ushering HOPE VI projects:

    "Ensuring that the larger effort involves the appropriate professionals. This includes persons with specialized expertise in real estate contract law, accounting and finance, architecture/engineering, and property management. Such experts would help to both develop additional protocols and analyze (both quantitatively and qualitatively) the information gathered through them. Such experts would have to be free of any interests in the particular redevelopments to be assessed, to ensure the trust of those who participate and maintain the confidentiality of information that would be reviewed."

    Right now, the only people involved are ALL partial. The track record with HOPE VI monies is not very spectacular, but I hope you can dispel some this "speculation" and "rhetorical innuendo".

  9. It is not my intention to exclude anyone from the process and I apologize if that was what I inferred. This whole process is in its infancy and figures being bandied about are only speculation at this point. The principals at this point are the developers, commissioners, the Mayors office and the residents. Before any serious money is invested in this program we need to verify that we do indeed qualify for such a program either through DHCR or HUD and I have serious concerns at this point. I am not naive enough to know that we do not need the assistance of many development professionals, as I too am aware of the Hope VI directives. My defensive attiude is only directed towards those who are willing to so easily condemn or question the integrity or intentions of the Commissioners and / or staff.

    If and when we decide to proceed there will be ample opportunity for public input as it is a requirement. AS far as the reduction in the number of units, in most HOPE VI projects the demolished units had serious vacancy issues, were located in troubled and crime ridden neighborhoods, or were poorly managed. We are currently and have been for nearly 10 years fully occupied with an extensive waiting list and reducing units is out of the question. Thus the need to develop scattered sites.

    Carol the conceptuals you have posted were designed nearly 10 years ago however the concept is the same. "Green" technology? I admit that I am old school and the thought of greening things will only drastically increase costs of construction. However, if it is what is required it is what we will do.

    Renovation or new construction at this point is still in the discussion phase. Renovation sounds fine but there still is the issue of family units in hi-rise construction which does not work. Any renovation of this building is going to involve a gut renovation of the building to replace leaking and broken pipes, a complete restructuring of the existing floor plan to meet space requirements
    as the units by code are now deemed as having inadequate floor space. The HVAC systems in the building are all fairly new (within the past 8 years or so) and we have upgraded all appliances, furnaces, boilers etc. to High efficiency units. Our kitchens and bathrooms are due for an upgrade (15 years old or so), we are experiencing perpetual leaks not from the roof but through the walls with wind driven rain. We had the building sealed in several areas over the past couple of years when funding permited. The best fix for this issue would be to seal and repaint the entire structure $$$$$$$$.

    Parking lots and sidewalks need to be replaced, elevators need new cabs, so on and so on.

    As I write this I realize that I may have ben a bit defensive. I apologize. I welcome and would consider any suggestions. I just don't want to see this developoment proposal bogged down to the point we lose any funding opportunities. I will post when any further information is available.

    Also, 10 years ago, we issued an RFP for a Development partner and Omni was selected by the Board. When determined that we would not qualify at that time we entered into an agreement with Omni as the "Developer of Choice" if any future development opportunities should arise.

    And Carol, my orignal post was not directed to you, it was intended for Peter's sake and the comment he had to offer.
    JKF, ED

  10. So let me clarify. We've already chosen a developer, based on a proposal done 10 years ago? Jeffery, you know that's hilarious. Yet moreover, you criticize Carole for posting 10 year old conceptuals, but then say yourself, they haven't changed. Does the Authority really think this is due process for government contracts? And now, with a FED due date of Dec 31st, you've given just enough time to facilitate democratic process in gesture only. We'll probably be stuck with OMNI, professional HUD $$ vaccuum & purveyor of mediocrity. But just to point out, according to OMNI, the 21-storey JFK tower in Troy was rehabed for 15m. So I'm still miffed by this figure of 100g's a unit for Bliss.

    Also, there seems to be a slight contradiction, the above post continues the 'dispersed' sites idea, while the earlier post clearly stated there aren't any available lots for dispersal. Please clarify.

    If indeed dispersal is an option, I raise the Teddy Cruz renderings commissioned by David Deutsch, has the authority seen these?

  11. Mr. Marston,
    I did not criticize Carol for posting 10 year old conceptuals. These are what was available and what was presented at the meeting. I explained that they are ten years old. Where is the criticism?

    I also said that vacant sites were not readily available, not that there were none. The project cannot move forward without demonstrating site control of properties within the City.

    I am sure there are thousands of designs that you and others feel should have been considered in the proposal, and we are still considering designs and options. We have been working with Omni for the last 10 years on other options and updated designs, however, all this is still in the discussion phase.

    I too am miffed by 100 g's a unit for Bliss, but like I said, the project is still in its infancy and this is what we have to discover. There are many steps to be taken prior to an application

    What you are inplying is that there must be something unethical going on. 'Fraid not.

    JKF, ED.

  12. Ok, well I'm only implying that this seems like a tight calendar for a project of this size to be only "in its infancy", yet one you've been hashing w/ omni for 10 yrs? I'm more confused than supposing. 6 mos for seeing this thru the proper steps. Title to sites, elevations, expert input, public review, funding arrangements, etc. I'm sure if you had new renderings (?) you would have displayed them. If they have a lock on design of federal public housing in Hudson, they owe the taxpayers the visibility.

  13. The time frame seems ambitious to say the least. There is no lock on the design and there are no recent renderings. David, the application process began 10 years ago, most of the necessary prep work was assembled over the last 10 years. It is not as though we are starting from scratch. Omni has been successful in applying for and receiving HOPE VI and other related grants for many years.
    This will be an open process as we are required by law to do so. Trust me, there will be much time for public comment, and there will be public comment. WE are trying to meet this deadline as the entire HOPE VI program is destined to go away in 2011. HUD has basically scrapped the program. HUD has just issued a "Choice Neighborhoods" NOFA which we are also considering the deadline is 60 days from the date of the NOFA which is very competitive. So with these funding opportunities all the timelines are tight.

    Look, you don't know me and I don't know you, but I want to bridge this gap of mistrust. I am as open and straight forward as anyone you'll ever meet just ask anyone in town. I detest government waste and bureaucracy in general. I have spent my career (20+) in revitalizing this project to the point where we are throwing good money after bad in repetitive repairs while our operating budget is continually being cut. So we need to make some changes. I am a taxpayer on the "front lines."

    I have been here for 58 years and my family for generations before that and I love this City as much as you do and want nothing but the best for ALL citizens.

    You can call me at 828-5415 or come see me anytime.
    JKF, ED

  14. I'm glad this discussion is taking place; I applaud Mr. First for striving to keep it civil. As facts and information are uncovered, hopefully a best choice can be made.

    Yet, I'm more interested in an idea similar to what the county just south of ours is starting to explore with homelessness: it's elimination. Can we discuss the elimination of public housing? Can we bring in the people who live in public housing and explore the reasons why, in addition to their aspirations for the future, which I will venture to say would include not living in public housing if given the choice. Let's invest as much time and energy and resources into the elimination of the need for a Bliss Towers in Hudson as is being invested in it's replacement. Let's adopt a Habitat for Humanity mentality and rehab existing homes in Hudson to house the families in need. Jeffrey First says they aren't readily available, but maybe they would become so if the result would be a community-face-changing alternative.

    Now, everyone, please tell me how incredibly naive I am and why this idea can't possibly be brought to pass...

  15. An incredibly interesting report I just came across detailing some of the things I was trying to hit on; demolition isn't a solution, net loss of units under Hope VI monies, demonstrating what I vaguely call the Pruit-Igoe myth (from the fantastic essay by the same title), as well as a number of other observations/conclusions that are certainly relevant to Bliss. To think, this doesn't even begin to address the architectural perspectives on this issue; it bemoans one to say, there is a lot at stake here. I thought it warranted sharing. Incidentally, the first conclusion is Preservation with a call for a moratorium on demolition. Pretty incredible considering this report is written from a grass-roots sociological policy wonk position. Caveat, the link is an 82 page PDF.

    As an addendum, or memory jog, I've included the Times slide show of the Teddy Cruz designs.

  16. Omigod............0~`o