The attention Gossips has been paying to Bliss Towers has led some to conclude that I am an advocate for saving Bliss Towers. Frankly, I'm not sure if I am or not.
On the one hand, I am appalled by the sheer wastefulness of demolishing a huge building that's only thirty-seven years old. I think the greenest building is the one that already exists. I believe that density not sprawl is what makes cities vibrant and efficient places. I don't think there is anything intrinsically wrong with high-rise apartment buildings. All these things make me a Bliss Towers preservationist.
On the other hand, I wish that Bliss Towers had never been built. I regret the loss of the organic neighborhood that was sacrificed to build it. I think the building is monstrously out of scale with the rest of the city. I wish it wasn't the first thing people see when they approach Hudson from any direction--especially from the water. Those attitudes, I suppose, argue for its demolition.
My greatest concern about the current planning for Bliss Towers is what is being proposed to replace it: fifty or sixty two-unit buildings, some scattered throughout the city, some constructed on the current site of Bliss Towers. So far as I can tell, this plan is being proposed because there is money available for it, but in my opinion there are serious problems inherent in the plan.
In terms of land use, the plan is very uneconomical. Hudson doesn't have a lot of geographic area, and maximizing the buildable land area we have should be a priority. This plan significantly increases the land area required to provide the same amount of subsidized public housing that Bliss Towers now provides, taking up land that could be used for new owner-occupied homes, for affordable housing, or for market rate rental apartments.
Land use is closely connected with property taxes—the major source of revenue for paying for city services. Right now in Hudson the owners of many commercial and residential properties are struggling under disproportionately heavy property tax burdens. There are reports of people trying to sell their houses for less than the assessed value to escape the taxes anticipated for the coming year. It is also rumored that people are reluctant to buy property in Hudson because of the perception of runaway taxes. Short of making drastic cuts in the City budget that would require the reduction or consolidation of essential services, increasing the number of properties paying their full share of property tax is the only way to ease the tax burden. Every piece of land taken up by a project that requires a tax abatement or a PILOT is land unavailable for development that would contribute its fair share to the City budget.
Another problem with replacing Bliss Towers, as Gossips has noted before, is that finding enough space for the new construction may require demolishing—in addition to the high-rise and low-rise buildings that make up the Bliss Towers complex—a number of 19th-century houses in the blocks surrounding Bliss Towers that survived the devastation of Urban Renewal. Eliminating more of what’s left of the original architectural fabric of the city in these neighborhoods further diminishes the possibility that the regeneration that has occurred and continues to occur in other parts of Hudson could ever happen in any significant way in the Second Ward.
The Hudson Housing Authority has explained that there is money available to build new public housing projects but there is not adequate money to maintain them. This circumstance is blamed for the dilapidated condition of the thirty-seven-year-old Bliss Towers, which has been called a “maintenance nightmare.” Managing and maintaining a building the size of Bliss Towers is undoubtedly a challenge, but it seems it would be an even greater challenge to manage and maintain fifty or more small buildings scattered throughout the city. Bliss Towers tenants have already expressed concerns about security if the high-rise were to be replaced by scattered site units.
The creation of Bliss Towers had a huge impact on the built environment of Hudson, and its existence has affected the city's social and economic character. Whatever decision is made about the future of Bliss Towers will have a similar impact on the city—not just the Second Ward but the entire city. Jeffrey First and the Board of Directors of Hudson Housing Authority tell us they are consulting with Bliss Towers tenants to ensure that they find the best alternative for them, and I am confident they are, but what about the rest of the city? Are they considering the impact of their decision on the tax base, on city services, and the city’s economic future?
Scattered site and mixed income are hot terms in public housing at the moment. The evidence that these concepts benefit the people who live in public housing and the neighborhoods and communities in which such housing is located seems to be primarily anecdotal, and there are significant differences in the way these concepts can be implemented. What we need to do is find the best way for Hudson. Is the best way constructing two-unit townhouses, which, given the setbacks and spaces between the buildings proposed in the only plan that exists so far, seem more suburban than urban? Would it be better to replace Bliss Towers with several smaller apartment buildings that don’t exceed the city’s four-story height limit, located in different parts of the city and offering a mix of low-income, affordable, and market-rate units? Is the university quad model, suggested by a commenter on this blog, one that should be pursued?
In her book The Battle for Gotham, Roberta Gratz identifies the classic brownstone as “the most successful housing form” for New York City. “The four- and five-story brownstone is the perfect structure to serve a single family or as multiple apartments. Easy to reconfigure over time, new brownstones would make infinitely more sense than the single- and two-family suburban housing that has been built in too many [New York City] neighborhoods over the past twenty years (page 250).” Maybe what we need to do is follow the model of our own 19th-century houses, which have housed single families and multiple apartments, and build three-story row houses like the ones found below Second on so many Hudson streets.
In order for us to explore the alternatives and reach the solution that will be best for Hudson, the discussion of Bliss Towers needs to be opened up to include more people than those currently at the table. We need to consult smart independent urban planners and students of cities who can counsel us about the course of action that would be good for Hudson as a whole instead of allowing the future of our city to be shaped by the availability of federal funds and the recommendations of a developer who will benefit from replacing Bliss Towers but has no vested interest in Hudson.
Ironically, the goal of both scattered site housing and mixed income housing is to create a mix of residential and commercial buildings and a mix of people of different income levels similar to what seems to have existed in Hudson's Urban Renewal Area in the 1950s and 1960s, before it was all bulldozed.
Thanks to Lisa Durfee for discovering this picture and letting Gossips use it.