Friday, September 3, 2010

Another Perspective: Save Bliss Tower

Motivated by the photo inventory of sites on "Jeff First's Wish List" published here on Wednesday, Gossips reader David Marston sent me this thoughtful and well-articulated ten-point argument for the preservation of Bliss Tower. Since the future of Bliss Tower will have a huge impact on our small city, the discussion of its future needs to be a community discussion, and Marston's perspective needs to be a part of that discussion. For this reason, I asked his permission to publish the comments on Gossips, and he agreed.

Demolishing the 36-year-young Bliss Tower would be one of the biggest mistakes our city could make for at least the next half century. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. It flies in the face of the wisdom sociologists, urban planners, and housing advocates have gained since Pruit-Igoe was demolished just 17 years after being built. (See saveblisstower.com.)

2. HOPE VI monies have in application, more than 80% of the time, reduced the gross number of units rebuilt after demolition. I know this is not the intention of Mr. First or any of the public housing managers in our city, but in practice this is almost always what happens. (See report link below for further evidence of the application of HOPE VI monies.) Consider the number of lots one needs to replace the 132 units in Bliss and the political will to get each of these lots serviceable to this idea.

3. There is a multi-year waiting list to get into Bliss. If Bliss were the nightmare many people have come to associate with hi-rise housing projects, there wouldn't be a waiting list to get in. We should see this as an affirmation of Bliss's relevance to our public housing portfolio.

4. Renovation and restoration is green. Not demolition. If Hudson wanted to do something forward thinking it wouldn't demolish its tallest building--and one of its youngest. Reduce, reuse, restore. Density is green; sprawl is not. It gives us the opportunity to provide services at one site--which is always a more efficient delivery. The first floor already provides literacy programs, daycare, etc. Imagine a Bliss with hi-speed Internet, a job placement service, community garden, solar technologies, and various other 21st-century updates. I shudder to think what housing 132 households will actually end up costing--especially when we already have the land and the building for those 132 households.

5. Architectural preservation is not reserved just for buildings of aesthetic merit, but also cultural and historical merit. Bliss qualifies in spades. Not only a specific historical and architectural testament to housing policy and design, but a specified piece of our city history--that will never be again. Urban Renewal in upstate New York--particularly in the decaying Hudson River cities of the 1970s took a very specific form. This is worthy of preservation--we will certainly realize this 100 years from now if we demolish Bliss. While preservation of modern structures is just beginning to take shape, we need to be at the vanguard (like our city is in so many other ways) and realize architectural significance when we have it--and not just for cute 19th-century structures.

6. Demolition disperses communities and dissolves bonds. Breaking apart longtime neighbors, dissolving relationships, isolating families. This is a hindrance not a help. Forced relocation across the 2nd ward will not sit well with the community--or the neighbors--when put in practice.

7. Deferred maintenance and a stigma that energizes a demolition-by-neglect mentality will affect any building--hi-rise or low rise. This should not be a carte blanche for three dozen new buildings. Nobody built Bliss so it could be torn down 36 years later. If we focused our efforts on an RFP for restoration, rehabilitation, and renovation, I bet we'd see a whole different set of figures. Omni Housing did a restoration of a very similar hi-rise in Troy. Why not explore this possibility?

8. Putting more properties into City management is not a good idea. Most of us know that the tax burden is incredible here. Dispersing the Bliss units will only increase this load and bring further infill opportunities into an untaxed shelter we cannot afford. HHA and HCDPA should be thinking about selling properties to income-producing owners so they can be brought back onto the rolls, not increasing their portfolio and thereby escalating the already obnoxious burden home owners and local businesses pay in local taxes.

9. Using all of our infill potential on public housing will not create opportunity or reduce the net financial impact of housing our poor. It will only increase the burden on the 2nd Ward. Why not use these properties to create jobs, create opportunity, and create some hope? Is it a good idea to demolish a community garden that has been in existence for over a decade? To fill more than three dozen empty lots with more public housing because of a stigma against hi-rises? Spending a few million for new houses doesn't create any new income for the city and wastes good opportunities.

10. Bulldozers don't solve problems. People do. And I'm very confident we have the people to solve our "problems" (whatever they may be) with Bliss. Jeffrey First is a very capable and approachable leader. We just need to get out from behind the idea that demolition is the magic key. Vision means sometimes admitting that past policies were wrongheaded. The same thing was said (see references below) about the buildings all along Front that we demolished for Hudson Terrace. The same thing that was said for all the buildings demolished along Warren to build COARC. Same was said to demolish the Worth Hotel. And so on and so forth. Why do we replay this script? The City of Hudson deserves better. Save Bliss Tower.

--David Marston

AUTHOR'S NOTE: References will be available on saveblisstower.com very shortly; in lieu, I offer this incredible report on cities, public housing, and HOPE VI monies. I urge you to read it--or even just skim it. There are plenty of helpful illustrations and insights into this very topic.

The Hudson Area Library History Room has the following publications from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s--the peak of demolition and "Urban Renewal" in the City of Hudson. I think they're very instructive on how we're just making the same facile arguments and the same mistakes.
"Comments About Historic Preservation Through Urban Renewal, Hudson, New York," prepared by J. Glenn Little & Assoc, Preservation Consultants, Alexandria, VA

"Historic Preservation Through Urban Renewal, Hudson, New York," a report by Raymond, May, Parish & Pine

"Hudson Urban Renewal, A Commitment to Progress," Second Annual Report

"Fa├žade Easement: Hudson Urban Renewal Agency Takes New Approach to Historic Renewal," New York State Planning News, page 3

6 comments:

  1. The Historical Room at the Hudson library also used to have renderings of the City fathers' original planning goal from that era -- to put three towers on the Promenade.

    There are some solid points above (particularly about renovation being far greener than new construction). But I'm not sure the preservation movement has ever been about keeping *all* old buildings, regardless of merit. There may be an argument for such an ideology, but it's not one I've ever heard around here.

    For example, if the former Wal-Mart on Fairview Avenue remains empty for another 20 years, and then someone wants to demolish it to create a park, should it be preserved to remind us of the era in American commerce when cheaply-produced goods from China dominated the consumer landscape and big box stores decimated Main Streets?

    I'm all for extending the definition of preservation to sites like the Fugary Boat Club, which is a unique local landmark that may not fit the standard image of preservationists protecting handsome brick buildings, but is unique in the region.

    --Sam Pratt

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  2. I don't understand the reference to Pruitt Igoe in Paragraph 1. I grew up in St. Louis and remember what a horror Pruitt Igoe was -- the perfect form of an "urban renewal" slum.

    Is he suggesting that Pruitt Igoe should have been preserved? Does he think Pruitt Igoe was a success? It caused decades of terrible problems for the City of St. Louis.

    I thought there was all kinds of data now to say that low-rise public housing (five stories tall, built around courtyards like Oxford or Yale colleges) provides the same housing density with much better social dynamics than high-rise buildings in the middle of a plaza, like Pruitt Igoe.

    -- Jock Spivy

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  3. Just for the record, Jock, what's being proposed for Hudson is not five-story buildings built around courtyards but two-story, two-unit freestanding buildings--66 of them if they're to equal the number of units in Bliss Towers--built on various sites throughout the city. That's not density.

    In a city as small as Hudson, it's nuts to think of willingly surrendering that much land area to tax exempt housing. If each building sits on what is a traditional Hudson building lot--26 x 120 feet--that's five acres! Five acres in a city whose total area, if you don't count the prison, the Firemen's Home, and the North and South Bays, is not two square miles but something closer to one and a quarter square miles, if memory serves.

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  4. The proposed plan sounds crazy Carole, I quite agree.

    What I was trying to say is that Pruitt Igoe was a terrible form of low-income housing, an utter failure. Bliss Tower strikes me as a small-scale version of Pruitt Igoe (high rise, etc.).

    A better form of housing is the "Oxford college" model. Maybe if Bliss Tower comes down, that form of housing could replace it, on the current Bliss Tower site.

    To build on 66 parcels in the meantime, throughout Hudson, seems insane (IMHO).

    And what happens to the 66 units after Bliss Tower is replaced by Bliss College or whatever? Do 132 new poor families get imported into Hudson to keep the buildings occupied?

    I guess these are the kind of questions you're trying to get answers to. I don't envy you.

    -- Jock Spivy

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  5. That's exactly right, Jock. Those are the questions we need to have answered. The logistics baffle me.

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  6. Sam-

    Thanks for reading the post and proffering some words, I appreciate your input. I certainly hope you'll join me in standing against the bulldozers.

    Although I wonder how some of my points became so lost in translation, and I feel compelled to correct the record. Firstly, the implication that you can derive an argument for preserving "all old buildings" in my point about Preservation & Bliss Tower is a willful obfuscation of the facts; there was no such inference made. The wal-mart/park example you offered is frankly wildly sensational & extraordinarily unnecessary. It helps cloud a very real Threat not only to the hi-rise but a large number of mid-19th century wood frames, a community garden, and countless infill opportunities. It aptly demonstrates a tactic used quite often against preservation. The future (and past) of the 2nd Ward should be given the opportunity to grow organically - not through the lens of another misguided "Urban Renewal" project. The plan as it stands is truly a nightmare scenario for Hudson. I certainly think we can both agree on that. I hope you, and other politically enlightened citizens of Hudson will stand with me and stop this from happening.

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