What fate awaits Towers?

IT LOOKS OMINOUS, looming above the city. Bliss Towers, the nine-story, publicly funded apartment building in Hudson has served as a landmark of sorts for more than a third of a century. Now it’s showing its age, and city, state and federal officials have to decide whether to fix it or tear it down.

Architecturally, it’s an eyesore. It suffered from the limited budgets available for rent subsidized apartment buildings as well as a lack of aesthetic vision that dominated mainstream design from the 1950s to early ’70s. Housing projects promised better lives for people in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S.; hardly anybody at the time cared what they looked like. The theory was that the nation could end poverty by warehousing people in soulless boxes that might best be described as Soviet chic.

Bliss Towers was one of the last projects built with federal funds for what was called “urban renewal.” In the name of improving living standards, urban renewal gutted whole neighborhoods, forcing the residents, usually African Americans, to move away. The approach started with the best of intentions, although a handful of people profited mightily. The results were, at best, a mixed bag.

I remember the process unfolding in Poughkeepsie, where there now is a lone, high-rise building stuck near the waterfront. It’s remarkably similar to Bliss Towers, and just as ugly. All around it neighborhoods where black families had lived for generations simply disappeared. Vacant lots remain decades later, and the city has neither grown nor prospered as a result. The same holds true for Hudson, though fortunately Hudson was so small and unpromising economically that many of its architectural and historic treasures escaped the bulldozers–there simply wasn’t enough money to be made by tearing them down.

Right now workers are repairing and improving the lobby and Bliss Towers in a $250,000 project funded through the federal economic stimulus package. The work will address some urgent problems and create jobs and economic activity in the region, but when it’s finished, it still will cost too much to heat the 130-or-so units, and the price of maintenance for things like plumbing will only increase as time wears down a structure that wasn’t designed or built for the ages.

So why not tear it down and find some new homes for the 325 tenants who live there now? It may sound simple, because 325 people sounds like a small enough number. Some big metropolitan area buildings have that many folks on a single floor. But consider this: the people now residing at Bliss Towers comprise 4% of Hudson’s population. If 1 out of every 25 people in the city were suddenly to become homeless, where would they go? What would happen to the city if they disappeared?

The Hudson Housing Authority has a good reputation for managing Bliss Towers. It’s a safe place to live, based on what residents and managers say. And for some residents it has special charms, because the upper floors offer stunning views of the city, the Hudson Valley and the Catskills.

It might seem logical to knock the place down, use the site to build a few low-rise townhouses–a current fad in housing–and create or upgrade places around the county for the rest of the folks. And to the credit of the officials involved, public discussions have already begun about the future of Bliss Towers, a courtesy not afforded the people removed by urban renewal two generations ago.

But the situation gets even more complex these days, as some experts, having taken another look at high rise buildings, see them in a new light. The new thinking suggests that building up, as in high-rises, instead of out, as in sprawl, creates opportunities to conserve energy and to reduce the impact that human habitation has on the environment. In other words, high rise living can be green.

Conventional wisdom says that it costs far less to build a new structure than to rehabilitate an old one, so discussions have emphasized on what will follow once Bliss Towers goes away. But just maybe the economists, engineers and politicians have it backwards again, and despite their well-meaning advice, there’s reason to transform this building into an energy efficient, environmentally friendly structure. True, Hudson would look much better with that hulk gone. But the public needs to know a lot more before government starts tearing down people’s homes again in the name of progress.

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