Roosevelt Terrace: The Community that Never Was

Once there was a plan to build a sprawling state-subsidized, mixed-income community, known as Roosevelt Terrace, alongside the South Mall Arterial and within the 98 acres seized by the State.* All that remains of that plan is a stripped-down version of the senior apartment complex, South Mall Towers on South Pearl Street.

Map showing location of proposed housing project. ACHOR.
This map shows where the proposed housing project was to be located within the South Mall. ACHOR.

Roosevelt Terrace was intended as an answer (albeit belated and partial) to the critical shortage of middle- and low-income housing in Albany. Its design would complement the State’s massive new office complex. Having displaced roughly 3,600 households, those office buildings and the attendant demolitions were a major cause of the city’s housing crisis.

With the blessings of Nelson Rockefeller and Wallace K. Harrison, the Albany Housing Authority hired Blatner, Mendel, & Mesnick to design this new housing project. Assisting Blatner was the landscape architecture firm of M. Paul Friedberg, famous for the redevelopment of Jacob Riis Plaza.

Detail from preliminary site plan, NYS-137. ACHOR.
Detail from the preliminary site plan for Roosevelt Terrace (aka NYS-137), showing landscaping by M. Paul Friedberg & Associates. ACHOR.

Landscape played a key role in the design of Roosevelt Terrace. Situated on ten acres and surrounded by grass and trees, the eight reddish-brown brick apartment buildings were to be connected by a series of outdoor sitting areas and playgrounds, designed to promote sociability or to facilitate quiet contemplation. Special features of the proposed housing complex included an amphitheater, fountains and statues, an outdoor basketball court with sideline seating, and a community center with full kitchen facilities. Cars were banished below the surface in two underground parking garages.

Roosevelt Terrace, Buildings 1 and 2 were designed for middle-income residents. These apartments were to be built kitty-corner from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where now a four-story parking garage stands. Courtesy of the Times Union.
Roosevelt Terrace, Buildings 1 and 2 were designed for middle-income residents. These apartments were to be located kitty-corner from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where a 4-story parking garage now stands. Courtesy of Times Union.

Save for those reserved for seniors, the apartments were designed as duplexes with living and dining facilities below and bedrooms above, connected by an interior staircase. This design feature increased the expense but also provided residents with an unusual measure of privacy. There would be public corridors only on every other floor. Yet community rooms in each of the buildings encouraged residents to get to know their neighbors.

When the City unveiled its South Mall housing plan in 1967, the editorial board of the Knickerbocker News lauded the community’s innovative design as “an exciting look into the not-too-distant future.” This future, however, proved elusive.

Located alongside the South Mall Arterial, Roosevelt Terrace, Building 8 was a 21-story apartment tower designed for low-income seniors. Courtesy of Times Union.
Located alongside the South Mall Arterial, Roosevelt Terrace, Building 8 was a 21-story apartment tower designed for low-income seniors. Courtesy of Times Union.

First, there were delays. Construction contracts were not sent out to bid until the following year. Then when bids came in, they totaled almost twice the amount estimated. Local contractors, flush with work, wanted $18.4 million to build the 442-unit complex—$41,629 per unit, roughly twice the cost of any other New-York-State-subsidized housing and more than most Albany homes.

State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, a Democrat and Rockefeller critic, temporarily called halt to the housing project but agreed to allow it to continue with a transfer of South Mall construction funds. However, the real threat to Roosevelt Terrace came from members of Rockefeller’s own party. Responding to a report by a taxpayers’ watchdog group, Republican legislators seeking re-election in the fall of 1968 loudly derided the project as an “$18.4 million Albany boondoggle.” A few months later, the governor agreed to eliminate funding for South Mall housing in order to get a budget deal through the legislature.

"A Matter of Priority...." by Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News. Albany newspapers—as well as politicians and community organization—deplored the State’s failure to prioritize low-income housing. Used by permission of Times Union.
“A Matter of Priority….” by Bob Paley for the Knickerbocker News. Albany newspapers—as well as politicians and community organization—deplored the State’s failure to prioritize low-income housing. Used by permission of Times Union.

That left the housing crisis unresolved and a large vacant lot adjacent to the State’s new office complex and highway arterial—ten acres seized and cleared by the State, where nineteenth-century row houses once stood and an innovative community was planned.

* According to Duane LaFleche of the Knickerbocker News, the designers preferred the term “community” to “housing project.”

Note: The photograph of South Mall Towers at the beginning of this post was taken by Jack Pinto and is used by permission of Times Union.

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