Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Question of Bliss Towers

David Marston's website SaveBlissTower is now up, providing important background information and a well-reasoned argument for saving Hudson's only Urban Renewal era public housing high-rise.

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.


  1. Carole,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful essay. I'm a preservationist -- and an anti-urban planner -- and so would come down on the side of saving Bliss Towers. There are so many better things to do with the money (including not taking it), so many vacant lots, so many houses that need repair and renovation (and so much BAD done in the name of urban renovation and "low-income housing"). Spending money to tear something down -- something that is NOT falling down -- is sheer and simple lunacy. And I have no faith in the governmental process, especially in Hudson, to do anything remotely smart with all the money. Look at Crosswinds. Instead of building working-class housing in all the vacant lots in Hudson, they have to destroy a perfectly good piece of open space.... No, no. Save Bliss Towers. --pm

  2. I'm all for blowing up the towers, the sooner the better. To me it's just a giant government financed sardine can created to pen in and isolate the poor. Rather than build more lousy government housing, better to put a nice community pool there. Rather than demolish old houses and build more lousy housing, demolish the unrepairable ones and replace with small community parks full of trees. Fix the better ones up. The problem is, the economy of the region has changed. There is not enough employment here to support the population. Rather than urban renewal, I'd say we need to de-urbanize Hudson, condense and improve what is here.

  3. Dear Slowart,

    Let's assume that you are entitled to your opinion and that, in fact, it is an opinion held by others: blow the thing up.

    What next? How do we decide what to do?

    --peter m

  4. Build a swimming pool.

    Use the construction money to purchase defunct small farms and vacant land. Set up cooperative farms owned by the workers, formerly unemployed, to grow corn, or other vegetable fuels, to fuel biofuel stoves. Convert all government owned buildings and willing private residences to biofuels. Sell the fuel grown on the farms to heat the buildings. Money formerly spent on oil is transferred to the local farmers, formerly unemployed. Money formerly spent on welfare is saved and reinvested into creating additional cooperatives and converting more heating systems. Something like that might work.

  5. I think Carole is right. Open up the discussion beyond the present committee and receive counsel from urban planners who understand the dilemma of small cities and come up with a plan which takes into consideration the impact on the whole City. This is a very big question indeed for now and the future.

  6. slowart - farms are nice, pools are nice...but where do the poor people go? you didn't mention anything about where all those people would LIVE. you claim to disdain "penning in the poor," but you don't seem to have much of an idea where they would go once you blow up their building and tear down all of the other buildings in town in need of repair and replace it all with parks and pools.

  7. It's interesting that I asked Slowart "how do we decide what to do?" and he didn't answer that one. Part of Hudson's problem -- since I've been here -- is the decision-making process. Everyone has an opionion -- tear it down, blow it up, save it, swimming pools, gardens, etc -- but there is no rational or fair process by which the opinions are gathered and decisions made.... So, Slowart, how do we decide what to do?


    peter m.

  8. Great Post, Carole. I would be willing to acquiesce on Bliss Tower and support replacement if the City were willing to CATEGORICALLY STOP ALL OTHER DEMOLITIONS. Until such point, Save Bliss Tower.

    I will not stand by while we demolish the last remaining empty lots, mid-19th century wood frames, and ALL FUTURE OPPORTUNITY for the 2nd Ward NOT TO BE a PUBLIC HOUSING GHETTO because people are uncomfortable with seeing a hi-rise from the river. The proposal is Nothing more the Bliss Lite 2010, and anyone who is fooled by "low-rise" and "mixed-income" as a solution to their precious opinions about hi-rises will be sad beyond measure when they pull up to the 2nd ward with 15 bulldozers and finish off what they started when they built Bliss in the first place. Then the 2nd Ward will look exactly like Bliss, except spread for blocks upon blocks... but hey, we've resolved the issue of visualizing systemic poverty and we can go on ignoring the Other Side of Warren, unencumbered. The City of Hudson will not erase its poor, or purge their presence, no matter home many times we demolish their homes.

  9. Slowart asked me to post this comment for him:

    I wasn't avoiding the question, I'm not by a decent computer today. That's the issue isn't it, not so much the building as where are we going to put the people? I'm not a social engineer or politician, but it seems to me a few ambitious projects like the one I described would require a large number of people to operate it and live at or nearby the location, so they would live there. Assuming that's never going to happen, because the only thing government seems to be willing to do to "create jobs" is fiddle with taxes and give money away to bankers, the question then becomes where are we going to move the people to? That being the case I'd say it would be better for the poor people, for Hudson and for society in general if the people were not warehoused in Hudson but were relocated, say eight or ten families to a town, to nice communities throughout the county. Of course as soon as you start doing this people start screaming, because more affluent, caucasian dominated communities don't want poor black people moving to their town. So the core issue isn't the building, or the residents, it's racism, which is why we have +25% of Hudson living in poverty in the first place. I don't see why helping people into a better, more diverse living situation with better housing and schools in a more affluent community would be negatively characterized as purging or dumping the poor.


  10. I have to agree with Slowart here. Can you imagine the outcry if families were parcelled out, 8 to 10 at a time, to Kinderhook, Chatham, Claverack, Philmont, Livingston, Taghanic, Ancram, etc.... Of course the families, some of whom have lived here all their lives may not want to move out to the country either. So what to do? I like the idea raised by Carole of the brownstones, or row houses, or smaller apartment buildings, three to four stories tall, in keeping with Hudson's architecture, on the lot of Bliss Towers, and perhaps other vacant lots in the City. But to raze old buildings to build new houses, such as have already been built on lower State Street (or is it Columbia), little picket-fenced cottages, - doesn't really fit with Hudson's architecture and they look misplaced. Has anyone asked the people who live in Bliss Towers where they'd like to live?


  11. What Slowart said at first I found rather shocking until I now remember the history of The Poor House or Alms House of Hudson or Ghent.

    Families were housed in a communal setting, with a huge vegetable garden to supplement their meals and to sell to the community.

    When they regained employment they moved on back into society.

    Interesting how this kind of welfare is shunned now for a less productive humanistic isolationist approach that is soulless.

  12. The Indian Resettlement Act, updated for the Hood! Brilliant!! See'ya at the pool!!!

  13. Hello my name is Ife Cabbins, I live in apt.# 705 in the High Rise of Bliss Towers.

    Farms, are you serious, that sounds like slavery, what do we have to work the land for our pay because we live in low income housing?

    This is discrimination, we came to live in Hudson not to be kicked out because of out financial status.

    This sounds like a bunch of opinions being yelled from a blowhorn in the distance for us not to hear. Its the worst kind of racism because its behind our backs, I'd rather you say it to my face. We could call Hudson racist based on comments that were left here.

    I'd love it if you all could take some time out and come and listen to the people who live here and understand where we're coming from rather than make assumptions about how we live. Many of us are hard working and have families just like everybody else. Just because we fall in a particular bracket doesn't mean we should be put at the bottom of the totum poll, overlooked, and have other people who have more money make decisions for us.

    All of these other historic houses that are damaged basically beyond repair are being renovated, why shouldn't Bliss? Just because its young doesn't mean its not part of our history. Its our home. Lets not take down history, lets freshen it up. We need people who care and that can reach out and help with renovations. We are a community, we're supposed to stick together. Some of these comments sound like you're trying to divide us apart and that's where all the hostility comes from in this town. Tearing down Bliss would cost more money and cause more problems.

    The pool idea belongs in Newport Beach, or find another place in Hudson, we do need a YMCA.

    Thank you for those who support us and thank you Dave bring awareness to this topic and starting

    Its all for the good, that's what's up.