EDITORIAL: Going down?

ONCE, IT WAS STEEPLES that defined the human contribution to the Hudson city skyline. They poked toward Heaven and not coincidentally advertised the relative wealth of the worshipers below.

The steeples remain, but like the mills and other factories of that time, their prominence was eclipsed in the 20th century by what’s now called Columbia Memorial Health—the hospital that sits on a ridge above the east end of the city. The hospital proclaimed the power of science and progress.

But by the 1970s even the Columbia Memorial’s height advantage couldn’t disguise an even bigger structure: Bliss Towers, a nine-story apartment building at the west end of the city, with 120 units and another 15 units in three standalone, two-story structures. Bliss Towers is the only object of its kind in the city when you consider its sheer bulk and its design, or lack of it. Despite its size, the exterior of Bliss gives no hint of the historic city that surrounds it.

You can see similar architecturally misfit apartments in the nearby cities of Kingston and Poughkeepsie. All of them are lingering relics of the Great Society programs (under Democrats and Republicans), which made federal funds available to house people with low incomes. Perhaps some original tenants were made homeless because their neighborhoods had been leveled to make way for other, higher value uses. At least that’s what the public was told.

Jump ahead nearly 50 years. Bliss Towers still provides housing to low income individuals and families. And the buildings are showing their age. Of the 135 units in the towers and the low-rise buildings, 20 are out of service. Tenants have complaints ranging from insect infestations to water leaks. The professional manager of the Hudson Housing Authority (HHA) and the Board of Commissioners know the buildings have not had enough federal funding to conduct regular maintenance. They’ve heard from tenants about the kinds of changes tenants want. And now the board and commissioners have a plan.

The details are vague, but the central feature of the plan is to knock it all down and start over again. They are serious and they may be right.

It may turn out to cost less over time to demolish all the apartment buildings and build new rental units. But that wasn’t an available option until last year, when the HHA received permission to change its legal status. That change allows HHA to borrow from commercial banks. The housing authority can now take out a mortgage on a new building.

But HHA can’t tear down anybody’s apartment until the housing authority finds new income-restricted homes for everyone living in Bliss Towers and the Columbia Apartments. That process could be one of the biggest challenges ahead for HHA. Tenants may also want to know whether they have the right to return to whatever replaces the Bliss Towers.

And what happens if the HHA decides not to rebuild a high-rise structure like Bliss, choosing instead to create many small units? That might reduce the housing available for low income tenants. With all the best intentions, could this plan end up once again tearing apart a neighborhood and creating opportunities for people whose incomes are not restricted in any way?

Some of these questions will come up at a hearing held by the HHA Board of Commissioners on a proposal to issue a “request for quote” on the demolition of Bliss Towers and the Columbia Apartments Wednesday, July 7 at Bliss Towers. Best to confirm the time and exact location closer to the date.

The decision on how best to proceed is up to the commissioners but the project will have effects throughout the city and beyond.

Tearing down an icon like the towers and building something smaller in it’s place is a revolutionary idea. It rejects the flawed notion that bigger is necessarily better. That doesn’t mean smaller, more sustainable housing will necessarily improve the lives of current Bliss tenants. But it’s a good place to start.

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