Mark Byrnes/CityLab

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller used the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to help create a superagency that would transform the state’s cities and suburbs. It didn’t last long.

Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his motel room in Memphis on April 4, 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued a public statement. A true memorial to King, he said, “cannot be made of stone, it must be made of action.”

Five days later, the governor was in Atlanta to attend the civil rights leader’s funeral, and he expected to go to sleep that night having followed through on his statement.

Rockefeller had been elected governor in 1958; he’d already left his mark on the state, reinvigorating its public university system, creating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (and taking significant planning power away from Robert Moses), and forming a State Council on the Arts, which later became the model for the National Endowment for the Arts. One particular idea, however, was a little too big. Rockefeller wanted to create a superagency that could plan and design cultural centers, stadiums, factories, parking garages, and—most controversially—tens of thousands of affordable housing units, from Niagara Falls to Montauk. And he understood that the fraught days after the King assassination would be his best hope to get enough votes to jam such legislation through.

It worked: Rockefeller’s New York State Urban Development Corporation was born on April 9. From 1968 through 1975, the UDC went for broke, building 33,000 housing units for 100,000 people in 110 developments until it ran out of money and political protection. High-rises, low-rises, urban, suburban, Brutalist, Postmodern; each existed so that non-wealthy New Yorkers could live a better life, whether in a struggling city or a thriving suburb.

Half a century later, the UDC projects that remain speak to the essential service they provide. The ones that no longer exist shed light on the realities that make it so hard to build and maintain high-quality affordable housing to this day.

The UDC was given the kind of sweeping powers that the NIMBYs and YIMBYS now going toe-to-toe over affordable housing construction might find hard to imagine. Its leaders could ignore all local zoning and planning restrictions wherever it went. Its money would come from selling bonds, collecting appropriations, and gathering subsidies. Unlike private developers, the UDC would have all of the financing it needed for a project starting on day one. The idea was that by making all of the funds for a project available in the beginning, planning and design wouldn’t have to be subjected to value engineering. After their work was finished, construction, ownership, and management would be undertaken by private companies.

And it would be run by Edward J. Logue.

A controversial—and ambitious—master builder

A city planner who “roared up and down the East Coast from the 1950’s to the 1980’s like an urban renewal whirlwind,” as The New York Times memorably described him in its obituary in 2000, Logue got his start in New Haven, where, in the 1950s, he brought in the most federal urban renewal funds per capita of any city. He also committed many of the same mistakes other U.S. planners made at the time—misguided neighborhood clearance, an expressway that divided the city, and downtown renewal that favored large-scale projects that catered to suburbanites. In 1961, he was put in charge of the powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Under his watch, the agency added 20,000 new housing units and rehabilitated more than 35,000.

But urban advocates and academics familiar with both cities at the time had no lack of criticism for his work and methods. In a 1970 Times feature on Logue, a Harvard urbanist recalled shoddy construction and tenant complaints in Washington Park; when it came to slum renewal in Boston, the planner “set the middle‐class blacks against the poor blacks,” an MIT sociologist said. “If you want to know what he does, ask the rioters in New Haven,” Jane Jacobs told the Times. “The poor were rooted out, and many of their businesses were destroyed or relocated out in the country in order simply to give the city a better image.”

In 1966, New York Mayor John Lindsay asked Logue to help him reconsider the way the city did housing and development. After Logue suggested merging the city’s planning and development functions, Lindsay backed off bringing in the master builder out of fear he’d merely become the next Robert Moses.

At the invitation of Rockefeller in January 1968, Logue—fresh off of an unsuccessful campaign to be Boston’s next mayor—examined a draft of the UDC charter and helped the governor, a fierce rival of Lindsay, beef it up into something no mayor could stifle. “Logue remembered every trick in the book that he’d run up against and we’d load that into the bill,” Robert Douglass, an adviser to the governor, recalled in Richard Norton Smith’s Rockefeller biography, On His Own Terms. “By the time they were through, it felt like we were presiding over local plumbing codes.”

Not surprisingly, the UDC’s disregard for home rule would make it impossible to pass under nearly any circumstances. But using King’s assassination, the ensuing riots, and a sense that government would now have to make some meaningful progress towards addressing King’s civil rights goals, Rockefeller would find a way.

On April 9, he called in from Atlanta for an update on a vote he was assured would pass. Rockefeller found out that while the senate fell in line, the assembly did not. As retold in On His Own Terms, Rockefeller ordered the state police to launch a dragnet to round up wayward legislators, who “were tracked to theaters, restaurants, and other favorite haunts.” As Smith writes, “one by one, the dissidents were brought to the second-floor office, where Douglass served as Rockefeller’s chief enforcer.”

Douglass told one Rockland County legislator, “I know you don’t like the bill, but you’re on the list of guys who are going to vote for it.” He also threatened to have an Air Force base runway extended through the legislator’s district (or house, depending on who’s retelling the story) if he didn’t change his mind.

Just before midnight, the assembly vote had been reversed in favor of the UDC. Quietly, it turned out, the governor also approved a new pension plan that allowed lawmakers and staff to retire at half pay after 20 years of employment.

Dawn of a superagency

The agency established a “70-20-10” housing formula: 70 percent middle income units, 20 percent low income, 10 percent elderly. But funding was not as easy as the UDC hoped for. It could sell bonds to secure local property tax exemptions, but that would still not be enough to subsidize low-income units. Luckily, the U.S. Housing Act of 1968 passed that August, establishing a new federal rental housing subsidy program that the UDC would lean on heavily.

Letters from mayors across the state arrived at Logue’s desk in 1968, expressing enthusiasm for the new agency and an eagerness to get going on already selected sites targeted for infill and redevelopment. Mayor Lindsay in New York was not nearly as thrilled, but he eventually assigned eight projects to the UDC, seven of which were understood to be on topographically difficult sites. Logue accepted these less-than-ideal sites for the prize of Roosevelt Island. There, he would build a car-restricted, dense, and modern “New Town” geared to serve working families.

In suburbs across the state, the agency was met with deep mistrust and suspicion—particularly in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst and in Lysander, outside Syracuse, where the agency wanted to build New Towns. A year after the UDC’s creation with little to show, WCBS-TV in New York City ran a station op-ed in 1969 challenging its lack of results. It referred to the UDC as a “reluctant giant” facing heavy resistance from affluent suburbs and questioned Logue’s conciliatory approach at the time. Never known for being passive or cautious, Logue said to BusinessWeek about the criticism, “I think I’m going to enjoy that one for a while.”

As confident as Logue always seemed, there was already a sense that the agency would be neutered or killed off by Albany before it could fulfill its ambitions. Bills to limit the UDC’s powers had been introduced at every single legislative session since it went into law—held off only by Rockefeller’s political maneuverings.

Setting high standards for design

In 1970, the UDC rolled out its biggest ideas for a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Another Chance For Cities.” The show catalogue declared that by the end of the decade, “135,000 new residential units will be needed annually in New York State. Without new approaches it seems likely that 45,000 of these will not be built. The UDC expects to try to fill over half of this gap.”

As the Whitney show demonstrated, the ambitions of the UDC were not limited to the volume of units it promised to build. Its projects also emphasized design. Logue’s work in New Haven and Boston showed a bias towards post-Miesian design, embracing brick and concrete over glass curtain walls and exposed steel. (A 1986 WGBH  tour of Boston with Logue best demonstrates his disdain for glass buildings.) Throughout his time at the UDC he kept clippings of Ada Louise Huxtable’s architecture columns for the New York Times to help keep up with the design discourse, and his agency hired a wide range of talented architects in age and style.

This was apparent in “Another Chance For Cities.” There was Davis, Brody and Associates’s Harlem River Park project, which demonstrated a much needed twist on the brick towers that were ubiquitous in New York City’s public housing. James Polshek, Richard Meier, and Giovanni Pasanella did the same in their Twin Parks housing projects for the Bronx. Upstate, Paul Rudolph used varied scale and setbacks to create Shoreline apartments, a humane and textural project in Buffalo surrounded by a busy commercial street and elevated highway. Werner Seligmann and Associates, meanwhile, would design modern apartments to blend into the hills outside of Ithaca that would not look out of place in Switzerland.

Architect Ted Liebman, now a principal at Perkins Eastman, joined the UDC in 1970 as its Chief of Architecture. “Every 10 minutes,” he recalled, “there would be a groundbreaking and Ed Logue would say, ‘Why aren’t we doing more? We don’t need housing anymore?’”

High-rise construction had become the de facto solution for affordable housing in urban America, and the UDC didn’t shy away from it either. That didn’t sit right with Liebman. “I was upset with a high-rise that was being built and thought that we should be building very dense low-rise housing,” he told CityLab. “Conceptually, Ed liked the idea but he said, ‘I’m not ready to fight the world on high rises.’”

Liebman visited 80 housing projects in Europe and returned with a “Low Rise High Density” prototype that he thought would work in New York City. Logue was enamored with idea that Liebman had lived in these European projects he visited, so they created a “live-in program” in which UDC employees and their families would spend one or two weeks living in a low-income housing project. They also started a design program exploring factory-built modular housing and hired an environmental psychologist who would conduct a “design for living” assessment of each project. “Logue didn’t want us to lose sight of why we were working for the UDC,” recalls Liebman.

The agency teamed up with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies to debut its Low Rise High Density concept applied to an urban and suburban site for the 1972 MoMA show, “Another Chance For Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives.” Its urban model for the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn would eventually be built, but the suburban model for Fox Hills in Staten Island would not.

How the suburbs fought back, and the UDC unraveled

Most cities across New York were generally enthusiastic for the UDC’s arrival. But in the suburbs, it was a different story. Articles in local newspapers—even in towns where the UDC had no concrete plans—showed intense local mistrust towards the agency from the day it was formed.

Images of Ed Logue using eminent domain in any suburb would have turned the agency into something beyond unpalatable throughout the state, so the UDC’s greatest power was only to be used as a negotiation chip. In many cases, the agency would even increase its lowest rent levels at individual projects to satisfy locals and fill budget gaps.

Contentious welcomes in Westchester, where the UDC wanted to build dozens of units in each of the county’s nine towns, made it clear that top-down planning to avoid haphazard, isolating, and inequitable sprawl would be a challenge. “He felt the only real solution to creating more equity and addressing the deep problems of low-income urban residents was to find housing options for them outside of the city,” Lizabeth Cohen, author of an upcoming book on Logue, told CityLab last year.

“We didn’t try to rock the boat, but when we did it was because we wanted the architecture to be good and the programs to be more than minimal,” Liebman said. “I had five years of going into the poorest neighborhoods [in New York City], and people from community meetings would walk me to the subway and watch me get on train to make sure I got through all right. When I went with Logue to Bedford [an affluent town in Westchester], we came with a guy with a gun in his pocket, because Ed’s life was threatened.”

As the decade wore on, the political currents shifted against the UDC. In January of 1973, President Richard Nixon settled into his second term and ordered a moratorium on all new commitments under existing housing subsidy programs. This included Section 236 subsidies, which covered up to 90 percent of housing costs. HUD money was the lifeblood of the UDC’s low income housing plans and it had made significant financial commitments to projects it would no longer have enough money for. Four months later, Albany passed a bill that allowed towns and villages to reject the UDC’s low‐ and moderate‐income housing projects. As a trade-off, the agency was able to increase its bonding, but it was a strong message from the state’s suburbs.

The political freefall was well underway. Rockefeller left office in December 1973, leaving his successors to rein in a spiraling budget. In 1974, New York repealed bond covenants that had restricted involvement in mass transit by the Port Authority, a move that upset investors. In 1975, just after Logue’s departure, state legislators refused to appropriate more than $100 million to repay UDC bond anticipation notes. The agency defaulted. Logue would later explain that the banks decided to teach the state a lesson by letting the UDC default. His agency, he said, was “picked, singled out, and used as a whipping boy” as revenge by the private financial community.

Logue was called into Moreland Act Commission hearings centered around the financial collapse of the agency he oversaw. Brought as evidence in one hearing, a December 1971 memo spoke to Logue’s cavalier attitude towards money. According to an October 1975 New York Times report, after being informed by the UDC treasurer that his borrowing plan for 1973 would be unfeasible, Logue responded:

“I do not believe there is any evidence to support your conclusion, and I do not propose to go looking for any. We are going to build as much as we can. The need is here now. When, having prudently managed our affair, we have gone as far as we can go and we can't borrow any more, that is another day . . . In other words, that is my problem.”

Stephen Lefkowitz, who wrote the UDC charter, recalled Logue’s manipulation of the agency’s selling point—its ability to finance projects in their entirety from the start. As told to Richard Norton Smith:

[W]e didn’t finance one by one. What we did—instead of 20 bond issues for 20 projects, each having sufficient funds to complete its particular project—we issued basically nonspecific, nonproject bonds. We started, say, 20 projects and the bond issue would contain, say, 10 percent of the funds required for each of those projects. This was an imaginative approach to the problem… the problem, of course, came when we couldn’t borrow the rest of the money.”

This did not surprise critics like Jane Jacobs, who said to the Times five years before the agency’s collapse, “[he’s] magnificent at taking the glory and leaving the pieces for someone else to pick up… By the time the UDC is obviously failing and the state sees it has a mess on its hands, he will have left—he has a great capacity for moving on at just the right moment.”

After the default in 1975, Richard Ravitch was appointed to take over the agency and straighten out its finances. It wrapped up work on the remaining housing units and turned into little more than an economic development arm of the state.

Logue made a brief, humble return to New York in the 1980s to build affordable homes in the South Bronx for Mayor Ed Koch. He died in 2000. Five years later, worried that the agency’s history would be forgotten, Liebman and his wife put together whatever materials they had from his time at the UDC for an exhibition at the Graduate Center CUNY. To this day, he takes great pride in the work he and his colleagues did for New York State. “We had the brightest people I’ve ever worked with in my entire life,” says Liebman.

And they had to be. “Ed Logue had it in the UDC legislation that he could fire people. He didn’t want anyone staying a day longer than they were working hard. But he didn’t have to fire people, because everyone was so excited to be there. The ones are still living I still know; we’re like a small club.”

However diluted or flawed some may be, the communities built by the UDC—done by an impressive collection of architects and planners—only exist because of the shrewd maneuverings of one politician during one of America’s grimmest weeks. “We wouldn’t have had the UDC if King wasn’t assassinated,” says Liebman. “We wouldn’t have had it if Rockefeller didn’t call every legislator and twist their arm to get those votes.”

What’s left?

There is little in the way of money, political enthusiasm, or general goodwill towards an agency like the UDC or a figure like Logue today. But their mission was noble, and their work is well worth remembering. CityLab has selected 12 projects that show a range of ideas—high and low rises, suburban and urban, failures and successes—that best exemplify the agency’s abilities as well as the economic and political realities then and today:

Carousel Park (Tonawanda), Elmwood Square (Buffalo), Madison Park (Rome)

(Mark Byrnes)

As highlighted in the Graduate Center CUNY show, three projects by Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen show an adaptable “kit of parts” design formula for elderly housing repeated at three sites. Carousel Park in Tonawanda is anchored by a brick tower, a community center, and a shared outdoor space. A three-floor section stretches out from it and integrates itself into the street grid—a similar layout exists in Rome’s Madison Park complex. In a busy mixed-use corridor just north of downtown Buffalo, the formula is adapted to a high-rise with first floor retail. Each remains successful to this day.

Shoreline Apartments (Buffalo)

(Mark Byrnes)

In the name of urban renewal, Buffalo wiped out a vibrant, working-class neighborhood just behind its city hall in the 1960s and built a highway through it, expecting new investment. When that investment failed to materialize, it turned to the UDC to bring the area back to life. Logue tapped Paul Rudolph, of whom he grew fond during his time in Boston, for the job. The architect’s vision included low rises, high rises, a community center, a school, public space, and retail. But as Rudolph tinkered with the design and the state faced construction delays, time and money started running out. Very little of the project was realized, and its current ownership has decided to demolish the most visible and dense section of it. It currently sits in squalor; left wide open and completely ransacked along a prominent city street next to the developer’s new builds for its tenants.

River Park Commons (Rochester)

(Mark Byrnes)

River Park Commons, with over 400 units, was one of the UDC’s earliest projects. It did not age well. Gruzen and Partners’s four long low-rise units along Mt. Hope Avenue were demolished and replaced by new ownership in 2009. The new project is the opposite of what it replaced—colorful and with an emphasis on separation between units to create a sense of variety. But a facelifted version of the original high rise still stands; while locals make fun of its new look, the renovation earned an “Upstate Project of the Year presented by the New York State Association for Affordable Housing” and an “Outstanding Rehabilitation Design Award from New York State Homes and Community Renewal” in 2012. The high rise and low rise are branded and priced separately (“The Hamilton” high rise is 100 percent affordable, the “Erie Harbor” townhomes 20 percent), and both still provide immediate access to park space right up against the Genesee River.

Pines of Perinton (Perinton)

(Mark Byrnes)

The Pines of Perinton’s 506 income-restricted units give residents of this quaint and walkable small town access to superior public schools, transit, and a historic town center along the Erie Canal. Designed by Gwathmey Siegel, the sprawling site blends into the wooded and hilly landscape. A vast maze of white rectangular units cleverly open into courtyards, green space, and small sections of surface parking, creating an “eyes on the street” environment with spontaneous interactions. Some units are elevated with covered parking underneath. Despite wear and tear, Pines of Perinton still functions as an important gateway for the region’s immigrants, elderly, and disabled to the jobs and services this affluent suburb just outside Rochester offers.

Kennedy Square (Syracuse)

(Mark Byrnes)

Completed in 1974, Kennedy Square and its 409-units were defined by two 8-story concrete and brick towers surrounded by low-rise residential buildings and green space. Taking up just over 10 acres of land just outside downtown Syracuse, it began to deteriorate in the 1990s and was eventually demolished, starting in 2009. The state then transferred it to Upstate Medical University, which teamed up with local developers COR on a deal that has long been seen as suspiciously favorable. Since the plan was announced, two of COR’s top officials have been accused of bribing a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo for other local projects. If Kennedy Square is ever fully redeveloped, it will be known as Loguen Crossing—named after Reverend Jermain Loguen, who lived nearby and whose home was part of the Underground Railroad.

West Village (Ithaca)

(Mark Byrnes)

Werner Seligmann and Associates’s design for what’s now known as West Village brought Modernism from Europe’s mountain towns to Ithaca. On this deeply inclined site in a quiet neighborhood, one wide structure at the top of the site anchors a series of more intimate ones down the hill, connected by steps and corridors. But the isolated location has arguably exacerbated its problems. Residents without vehicles are too far away from jobs and services, and the complex has been plagued by crime. The property was sold in 2008 and has abandoned the 70-20-10 UDC pricing model for Section 8 vouchers only. As part of the sale, new ownership replaced the complex’s white walls which were accented by blue, yellow, green, red, and orange sections. Now, beige and green vinyl siding define the site. If the new aesthetic is meant to imply that things are safe and familiarly suburban, the inescapable presence of security cameras scattered throughout says something else.

Ely Park (Binghamton)

(Mark Byrnes)

Ely Park was designed by The Architects Collaborative, created by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, among others. Now known as “Legacy Bay,” it abandoned a low- and moderate-pricing model when new ownership took over in 2008 and now provides market-rate rents for its 414 units. Its one of the UDC’s most suburban designs—a remote location and sprawling layout, sprinkled along a winding road that reaches a dead end. Yet it still provides easy access to transit, educational services, and urban amenities.

Marcus Garvey Village Park (Brooklyn)

(Teresa Mathew)

For a model of the Low Rise High Density project in Brownsville on display at the 1972 MoMA show, Logue wrote, “If [Brownsville] is to be rebuilt successfully, the new low-rise prototype, both as a unit and an aggregate whole, must afford not only a sense of individual identity but also a sense of community.” Marcus Garvey Park Village, according to Urban Omnibus, has more units per acre than NYCHA’s Van Dyke housing towers next door. Unlike typical brick public housing towers, the design by Ted Liebman and Kenneth Frampton’s includes internal courtyards and pedestrian streets, forming an urban scene that balances a traditional layout with a modern design. The project is not spared from the neighborhood’s ongoing struggle with poverty, drug use, and crime, but it stands out to this day as an exceptional approach to urban housing.

Roosevelt Island (Queens)

(Teresa Mathew)

The UDC’s most equitable and urban New Town is Roosevelt Island, which continues to evolve its Philip Johnson and John Burgee 1969 master plan. Its pedestrian and transit-oriented layout makes for a uniquely calm New York City experience. Tourists can enjoy a tram ride in from Manhattan (built because its subway station opened far later than originally planned) and visit the recently completed FDR Memorial. A new generation of tech entrepreneurs and students are getting familiar with the island thanks to the Cornell Tech campus, which opened last fall. Despite additional high-end housing construction in recent years, the UDC’s vision for the site—where people of all ages and incomes share the same library, post office, and grocery store—can still be felt walking up and down Main Street.

Twin Parks (The Bronx)

(Teresa Mathew)

With Twin Parks, the agency designed for sloped sites formed by blast rock while the city worked on the flatter sites on the same project—a deal Logue gladly accepted from Mayor Lindsay in exchange for the chance to develop Roosevelt Island. The dynamic tower designs and thoughtful public spaces receive mostly praise to this day, but maintenance issues and the borough’s continued struggle to provide quality services and employment for its residents are a reminder—timely still—that architecture alone will not solve the root issues of a marginalized community.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    Why New York City Stopped Building Subways

    Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.

  2. A mobile home park.
    Equity

    The Case for Preserving Mobile Homes

    Preservationist and landscape architect Eduard Krakhmalnikov thinks these places are overlooked in the national conversation on affordable housing.

  3. Downtown Roanoke is pictured.
    Life

    The Small Appalachian City That’s Thriving

    Roanoke, Virginia, has become what many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It started by bringing housing to a deserted downtown.

  4. Life

    You Cannot Win the War on Noise

    For centuries, Western culture has been trying to find some peace and quiet. But the more people try to keep unwanted sound out, the more sensitive they become to it.

  5. A sign warns non-resident drivers to avoid using a street in Leonia, New Jersey.
    Transportation

    What Happens When a City Bans Non-Resident Drivers?

    Besieged by commuters taking Waze-powered shortcuts, Leonia, New Jersey, closed its side streets to non-residents. Not everyone is happy with the results.