TROY — Decaying relics of an earlier model of urban planning will be demolished at a western entrance to Troy and become the latest in a long line of high-rise public housing projects nationwide to be replaced with low-rise buildings that fit better into surrounding neighborhoods.
The Taylor Apartment buildings — nine-story brick boxes as functional and bland as any built during the postwar population boom in the 1940s and 1950s — are an incongruous sight for thousands of motorists passing by daily a few feet away on the Congress Street Bridge ramps.
Two Taylor buildings stand abandoned and rotting from the inside out, with copper thieves and vandals doing damage as quickly as the Troy Housing Authority can paint it over or board it up.
It’s a bad segue from attractive downtown streets and colleges nearby, and city officials are eager for it to be gone.
In Phase I, Taylor 1 and 2 will be leveled and replaced by shorter buildings with ground-level office, retail and community space that incorporate the housing complex into the neighborhood and bring the neighborhood into the complex. The public-private partnership running the project is assembling an array of public and private funding to make this happen.
In Phase II, Taylor 3 and 4 would be demolished and similarly replaced. That won’t go forward until funding is secured, but the need is less pressing: Buildings 3 and 4 are inhabited and in good to excellent shape, inside and out.
Phase III is wishful thinking at this point, but the wishes are held dear by a lot of people: Redesign the bridge ramps so they don’t chop up the housing complex and cut it off from the city.
ENTRYWAY TO TROY
The Troy Housing Authority and Troy Local Development Corp. are teaming up with development firm Pennrose for the project, which the city sees as a way to potentially extend its revitalized downtown into a new neighborhood and boost access to its riverfront.
“We really would like to make it a little more presentable,” said Steve Strichman, Troy’s commissioner of planning and economic development.
Aesthetics aren’t the only reason for replacing the Taylor Apartments, but they are the most obvious. They’re the tallest buildings in that section of the city and they surround the east end of the Congress Street bridge. Buildings 1 and 2, vacant since 2005, are eyesores. Buildings 3 and 4, in much better condition and home to about 200 people, are cut off from each other (and from 1 and 2) by bridge ramps.
Tom Hulihan, the Housing Authority’s director of planning and program development, said when the old Congress Street Bridge was replaced by a new span 400 feet south in the early 1970s, the new ramps stole most of the green space from the Taylor Apartments complex.
Such a plan would likely draw protests or litigation today, but in the era when the U.S. interstate system was being built and urban renewal was wiping out city blocks or even neighborhoods, it wasn't a stretch.
“We fought it and lost,” Hulihan said of the state’s realignment of the bridge, which carries Route 2 across the Hudson River.
Troy and Watervliet have a grant to study a redesign of their respective ends of the Congress Street bridge. But there is no commitment of funding to undertake any proposal they come up with.
The nine-story Taylor Apartments are high-rise by Troy standards, Hulihan said, and the goal of building their replacements lower to the ground is to make them blend into the surrounding low-rise neighborhood. The goal was just the opposite when they were built in the 1950s: Make them a community unto themselves.
Nationwide, aging large-scale public housing buildings are being replaced with smaller-scale construction for the same reasons. The policy and practice of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for years has been to make the housing projects it subsidizes look more like the communities in which they are built.
Lynne Patton, HUD regional administrator for New York and New Jersey, said via email: “Troy’s Taylor Apartments 1 and 2 will be redeveloped using HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, that leverages public/private funding to address the critical capital needs of severely distressed public housing.
“Inclusive, mixed-use and updated buildings that resemble the existing neighborhood helps foster a sense of community and brings subsidized housing into the 21st century.”
The private-sector developer chosen for the Taylor project, Pennrose, held its first meeting with Taylor residents last month as part of the process of planning what will replace their current homes.
Virginia Clark, who’s active in the tenants association, said she was glad to see Pennrose and the Troy Housing Authority seeking their input. The 25-year Taylor resident previously lived in Building 1 and was the first resident to move into Building 3 after it was renovated. She hopes to next move into whatever replaces Buildings 1 and 2.
The complex is convenient to downtown but more than anything else, “It’s the sense of community” that she likes.
There are 278 units in the four Taylor buildings, 125 of which are fit for habitation and 109 of which are occupied. (Some are being held vacant in advance of necessary elevator renovations.)
The replacement buildings will have 350 units, 125 of them subsidized and the rest a mix of workforce apartments (moderate rent for moderate-income tenants) and market-rate apartments.
TOWER IN THE PARK
Pennrose Senior Developer Dylan Sammons, who is working on the Taylor Apartments project, said it’s a challenging planning process because Pennrose wants to honor residents’ desires, the bridge ramps may or may not get moved, the Phase II funding is not in hand, and the city wants to make River Street a through route again, if the bridge ramp redesign ever happens.
So Pennrose needs to devise something that works on a smaller scale now and is expandable to be compatible with multiple future scenarios.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “The Congress Street bridge is such a schism. I think we’re going to be running with some variations that maintain the bridge and also some variations that extend River Street.”
What won’t happen are more high rises.
“There’s a definite trend or desire that has influenced the trend [away] from ‘tower in the park’ to something that puts eyes back against the street,” Salmons said.
“We’re reimagining the context of what’s been created there. After about 20 or 30 years of that, we saw it wasn’t working.”
Taylor will be the second upstate New York project for Philadelphia-based Pennrose. The first is Yates Village in Schenectady, which already is underway.
Yates is different from Taylor in one obvious aspect: It’s two stories tall instead of nine. But it needed a gut rehab after 71 years, and its barracks-style design is just as out of step with current public housing theory as Taylor’s towers. In industry jargon, Yates is a “mass superblock with no penetration” — a wall of buildings that separate their residents from the neighborhood.
“In that project we are bringing in buildings closer to the streetfront,” Salmons said.
Through streets will be added and townhouse-style units will be constructed, again with the hope of merging the neighborhood into Yates and Yates into the neighborhood.
Yates, like Taylor, will be a public-private venture built with a patchwork of public and private funding, an increasingly common model as cities and agencies struggle to fund their housing programs.
HOPE AT LAST
The Troy Housing Authority had sought to demolish and replace Taylor 1 and 2 for more than 18 years before the funding picture came together sufficiently to do so. The Authority started back in 2001, when the buildings were still occupied and HUD was providing billions of dollars for that type of project through its HOPE VI initiative.
Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Homes, a high-rise complex so notorious it became a national poster child for troubled public housing, was demolished through HOPE VI, as were many other sites. But the funding application for the Taylor demolition was unsuccessful.
Now, Troy has a chance to undo some of the poor design decisions of the mid-20th century, said Strichman, the planning and development chief.
“We’re fortunate that we have a totally intact downtown here,” he said. “That’s what makes Troy so attractive to so many people.”
Also, at over four miles in length, Troy's waterfront is one of the longest of any upstate city, an asset that it is trying to further develop. If everything comes together as hoped at the Taylor site, a big visual and practical break in the waterfront will be gone, Strichman said, and downtown will be reconnected to the area south of the Congress Street Bridge.
“I think that’s the next frontier, really,” he said.