Sunday, January 23, 2011

Urban Renewal Redux

Early aerial photographs of Hudson show that once upon a time the Second Ward looked pretty much the same as the First Ward. The grid pattern of the streets was regular. Houses and buildings stood on 26-foot wide lots with a relationship to the street that is identical to that which still exists in the First Ward. A walking tour guide, written by Ruth Piwonka, to accompany a book signing celebrating the publication of Bruce Hall's book Diamond Street in 1994, suggested that, already in the 19th century, the south side of town was considered marginally more affluent than the north side. It would seem that the economic gap between the neighborhoods on either side of Warren Street--below Third Street at least--had widened by the 1970s, because when the city fathers decided to eliminate what was allegedly the "worst housing stock in the state," they targeted the Second Ward.          

What happened forty years ago during Urban Renewal had an enormous, community-altering impact not only on the neighborhoods of the Second Ward but also on the city as a whole. Today Hudson still deals with the consequences of the decisions made by the Hudson Urban Renewal Agency in the late '60s and early '70s--decisions that concentrated low-income housing in one area of the city and rendered the revitalization that has taken place in the First Ward and elsewhere impossible by destroying much of the historic architecture that has been the engine of Hudson's revitalization. Although the Hudson Urban Renewal Agency seemed not to foresee the long-term effects of their plans, they did make an effort to keep the community informed while these very radical changes were being proposed. The History Room at the Hudson Area Library has a number of brochures published by the Hudson Urban Renewal Agency and newspaper articles touting the benefits to the city of the demolition and redevelopment project--including the anticipated benefits, through PILOTs, to the tax base.

What's being contemplated now--the elimination of Bliss Towers and the creation of dozens of single-household replacement units scattered throughout the Second and Fourth wards or perhaps throughout the whole city--is equally radical and will also have a significant and long-term impact on the city, yet no effort at all is being made to keep the residents of Hudson informed about what's being contemplated. At the informal Common Council meeting on January 10, Council President Don Moore said that Tim O'Byrne has been hired by Omni Development to address the Bliss Towers replacement project. Tim O'Byrne, it seems, is "Site Selection Specialist at BBL Development Group," the design/build firm that brought us the Central Firehouse on Seventh Street and the county office building at 325 Columbia Street. Last Tuesday, before the Council approved the resolution to give land in the 200 block of Columbia Street to Habitat for Humanity, Moore indicated that the lots were not among the parcels being requested by Omni Development, so presumably somebody--perhaps Moore himself--knows what parcels they are requesting, but so far the information has been kept from the public. This project will have an enormous impact on Hudson, and it should proceed, if not with the involvement and input of the whole community, which would be ideal, certainly with the community's knowledge of what's being contemplated before the plan is presented as a fait accompli.

The property tax implications alone are a compelling reason why the community needs to know what's being considered. The single-household units built to replace Bliss Towers will be tax exempt. The vacant properties now owned by the City of Hudson, HCDPA, and HDC, which are likely sought by Omni Development, are currently tax exempt, and if they become the sites of Bliss Towers replacement units, they will be tax exempt in perpetuity. Can Hudson really afford to consign any more of its small land area to decades of tax exemption?  

Consider 13 South Second Street. Until a few years ago, this was a vacant lot, and were it still a vacant lot, although it wasn't owned by the City of Hudson, it might well be one of the parcels sought for Bliss Towers replacement units. Today, however, it is not a vacant lot but rather the site of a house that is on the tax rolls, assessed at $317,300. 

In his "State of the City" address, delivered at the Organizational Meeting of the Common Council on January 10, Moore mentioned Governor Andrew Cuomo's intention to establish a two percent property tax cap and its implications for Hudson. If the City must limit how much it can raise the taxes on existing properties, a logical way to meet its ever increasing budget demands would be to encourage the creation of more taxable property rather than dedicating more of Hudson's limited land area to new tax exempt property. It is hoped that Moore, Fourth Ward Supervisor Bill Hughes, Mayor Scalera, and whoever else is in discussion with the Hudson Housing Authority and Omni Development about this project keep the City's fiscal sustainability in mind as they plan this new scheme of "renewal" for Hudson.      


  1. I heard about a plan in Springfield MA, to collect more revenue by charging all property owners a "curb fee" for city services, separate from a tax. This way the non-profits would have to contribute to the kitty. Not a bad idea considering the number of properties that are not on the tax rolls.

  2. Carole writes: "What's being contemplated now--the elimination of Bliss Towers and the creation of dozens of single-household replacement units scattered throughout the Second and Fourth wards or perhaps throughout the whole city--is equally radical and will also have a significant and long-term impact on the city, yet no effort at all is being made to keep the residents of Hudson informed about what's being contemplated."

    This is the key: As long as it stays business as usual, with a few people controlling the money and the message, Hudson is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. The saving grace in all this is that because of the recession there won't be any money for such urban planning nonsense. The kind of growth we've seen in Hudson the last 15 years has been due largely to the lack of government intervention. So, until we get a government that is transparent, fair, and responsive, I would hope it stays out of the urban development business. --pm

  3. Property owners (and renters) already pay at least one "curb fee" — the price of City garbage bags. Owners pay water bills as well.

    What other "curb fees" are left to levy, without stretching to include services which provide very general benefits (e.g. plowing, lighting) that the public enjoys? Pretty soon, in the absence of some fiscal restraint, one may find that property taxes are used only to cover City salaries and benefits, with everything else treated as an excuse to create special fees and taxes.

    A number of towns in the next county east (Barrington, Lenox) reap huge revenues from hotel room taxes. Considering the Hudson way of soaking newcomers and tourists, it's surprising this hasn't been tried yet.

    —Sam Pratt

  4. well done gossips....a true cautionary report. after attending the most recent school board meeting and hearing of a looming budget crisis there we can little afford to give up any taxable property without a comprehensive plan to offset any losses and provide solid footing for the future.

  5. Oh Lord can't they ever learn from their mistakes.

  6. Whats happening in Springfield is happening all over the region. Bloated governments mining ever exotic parts of the municipal body to keep their incredibly nepotistic regimes in power.

    Schenectady is leading the pack by considering (and presenting at the Mayors conference) addressing the constitutional right of non-profits to remain untaxed by instead levying these 'curb fees'. Union College 'donated' 80gs just to buy some good graces in the run up to this insanity.

    This only furthers the degradation of civil life, and the ossification of RICH/POOR. While the very class that benefits from such toxic burdens on the populace generally don't even live in the municipality that pays their salary.

    I have one message for the massive bureaucratic appendage that is Municipal Government in this City.

    Live off Hudson, Live in Hudson.

  7. Live off Hudson, Live in Hudson !


    This also should apply to the men and women of the Hudson Police Department. They all should live in the town they protect, and become a part of the community, instead of visitor status.

  8. City neighborhoods realize differing fortunes for tangible reasons, even if the reasons are difficult to identify or may at first seem irrelevant. Regarding the decline of the Second Ward, I am increasingly compelled by the fact that it is pretty much a literal dead end, as so many of its streets (e.g., Mill, 2nd, 3rd) don't connect to anything beyond. I suspect the Second Ward's initial, imperceptible decline had something to do with this. As the decline continued, it looked to some planners like an appropriate place to concentrate low-income housing. Remaining residents with some economic choice felt more and more "stuck" and moved out, which furthered its decline. I think I've seen old city maps that show 3rd Street continuing through to somewhere... I don't know where it went but it probably would help the Second Ward on the whole if 2nd, 3rd, or Mill Street connected today to the Harry Howard area.

    As for the "mysteries" of the Bliss redevelopment, I met with Omni Development last week and will report on this ASAP on my blog. But I don't think there is an effort by them or anyone to keep information about possible building sites from the public. I think Omni is simply in the same position as everyone else... i.e., it's hard for them to get reliable information as to what is available or feasible and what the encumbrances are. It thus doesn't make sense for them to "think out loud" about every alternative. The last time they publicly mentioned some sites as possible candidates--"possible" as in "we really don't know if these sites are appropriate but we're trying to find out"--they were assailed for it. This sounds to me like we put them in a lose-lose proposition: If they think "what if...?" out loud they are lambasted for it, and if they think to themselves they are lambasted for thinking to themselves. (Let me be clear, this is my interpretation of the situation, not anything Omni expressed to me.)

    As mentioned in the post, Bliss and other projects in the Second Ward have potential to help an ailing neighborhood. Our critical involvement in the redevelopment process is needed, but we need to be less suspicious and accusatory just because we don't know what is going on. Sometimes no news means there's no news, not that a conspiracy is afoot.