A new stadium for high school sports, concerts and community exercise. A health center. A YMCA. A fruit tree forest and urban gardens. Free internet. A place to drop children at day care while parents train for jobs in construction.
The $1 billion plan to rebuild the neighborhood in the shadow of Interstate 81 goes way beyond the proposal to replace public housing.
Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard used the Freedom of Information Law to obtain a copy of the city’s first application for a $50 million grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.
While the city did not win the competitive grant, the documents show in new detail what planners have in mind for a 27-block, 118-acre neighborhood that ranks among the most impoverished in America.
The projects are so enormous, and involve so many players, they are the kinds of proposals that would normally be announced separately over many years in Syracuse.
The ambitious neighborhood remodel would start next year with a plan to raze public housing and build brand new apartment buildings and townhouses that could be used by the current low-income residents as well as people willing to pay market-rate prices to live near Syracuse University and the hospitals. But the plan goes far beyond the bricks and mortar of new homes.
“Everyone’s mind for that neighborhood goes directly to the highway, which isn’t even going to happen until 2026, and the housing, which is major,” Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens said. “But this focus is really around the people that live in that housing.”
While the building of I-81 in the 1950s and 60s tore apart a thriving Black community, the tearing down of the elevated highway offers a chance to build a new neighborhood, city planners say.
There are proposed new streets, public parks, retail stores and festival spaces – the kinds of amenities that make a place a neighborhood.
Unlike other neighborhoods, however, there is also a focus on education, child care, job training and health care – intended to pull the residents out of poverty. Each of these concepts comes with plans for new multimillion-dollar buildings and services to be built over the next 10 years.
The neighborhood remodel is led by a non-profit called Blueprint 15. The nonprofit was formed by the city, the Syracuse Housing Authority and the Allyn Foundation, which is using money from the sale of Welch Allyn to fight poverty. The developer is McCormack Baron Salazar, which has worked on 16 similar projects.
Now, they need about $1 billion to pull it off.
The application for the first $50 million was rejected by U.S. Housing and Urban Development on a technicality that city officials say they can remedy for a second try.
Planners were disappointed, but say the project is still on track. They plan to start instead with a tax-exempt bond program available to developers through the New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency. They are also in frequent conversations with the same state officials for other sources of funding, Owens said.
This year’s state budget sent millions of dollars to grant programs for affordable housing and state leaders have said they are very interested in Syracuse, she said.
At the national level, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday launched a $1 billion grant program to help reconnect neighborhoods divided by the creation of the 1950s highway system. Buttigieg visited Syracuse last summer. The Syracuse team intends to apply, officials said.
The Blueprint 15 plan also hints at investments from the city, the school district, Onondaga County, other state agencies, New York’s SUNY college system, the SUNY hospital system, the Allyn Foundation, Home Headquarters and other non-profits.
But city officials did not make all of those dollar amounts public. They redacted whole chapters of the application that appear to spell out how they would pay for this project. That is because the commitments are not final, officials said. The official reason they gave for blocking information was that the records qualify as trade secrets, which are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Law. Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard has appealed the decision to redact the documents, arguing that the information does not meet the standard of a trade secret as defined by state court rulings.
Neighborhood is suffering
The application also exposes the dire poverty and current housing conditions in the neighborhood just south of downtown.
The median household income in the neighborhood is $16,000 compared to $38,000 in the rest of the city. The unemployment rate is about 26%; compared to 3.8% in the entire city.
The neighborhood elementary school is failing, with less than 11% of students in three grades proficient in math and English. The violent crime rate is nearly three times higher than the city average. There are no grocery stores, only convenience stores.
The current public housing, the oldest in New York state, does not meet health and safety standards. There is no central air conditioning. There is no fire sprinkler system. Wiring is outdated. There are not enough lights outside, allowing criminals to hide. There is asbestos, lead paint, mold and evidence of pests, records show.
“The entire neighborhood has an isolated, disconnected feel,” the application says. “It may be immediately adjacent to Downtown’s commercial retail space, but East Adams Street is a hard barrier rarely crossed by residents outside the 15th Ward.”
Focus on children
Outside of housing, Blueprint 15′s prize project is the proposed Children Rising Center, according to Stephanie Pasquale, interim CEO of the non-profit.
The concept is an early learning center combined with a play center and parent empowerment center. It would be a safe place outside the home for parents to learn to play with their children and bond with other parents and children. Among the proposals is a program specifically for fathers to learn parenting skills. It is modeled on the The Play Space, in Auburn, which is also funded by the Allyn Foundation, Pasquale said.
The building would house a new branch of the YMCA, she said.
The center and YMCA would be in a new $18 million building owned and managed by Blueprint 15, the application said.
The center would offer 112 daycare slots for children 5 and under. This will allow parents time to train for jobs a block away at the new SUNY Education Opportunity Center Applied Training Laboratory.
This would be a new $10 million, 12,000-square-foot training center, targeted to open in the spring of 2024. Syracuse Builds would be in this building. That group is training women and people of color in construction trades — a workforce needed to rebuild the highway and the neighborhood. The proposal is to train more than 300 people each year.
The child center and job training sites would be within walking distance of the rebuilt housing.
Along with indoor exercise and play, the neighborhood plan is also heavy on opportunities to play sports and exercise outdoors.
Perhaps the biggest draw for people who don’t already live in the neighborhood is a proposed new sports stadium.
The city school district has plans to build a new high school stadium in Roesler Park, behind the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, a public school that opened on East Adams Street in 2007.
Superintendent Jaime Alicea, who is retiring this week, said the school district has committed $6 million for the project and could seek more state funding if needed. The project is still in the planning stages, but he envisions a field for football and soccer surrounded by a track. It would have seating for 1,000 people and parking available in the ITC lot.
It would be used by students at ITC, who currently have no sports facilities, and could be used by future students of the proposed STEAM school. STEAM, a countywide arts and science school, is to be built in the old Central Tech High School, which closed in 1975.
Like other high school sports stadiums in the city, this one would also be open to anyone who wants to walk on the track or request a permit for a performance or another kind of event, he said.
“We know that we have a very diverse community in that part of the city,” Alicea said. “This is an opportunity to have a multicultural festival on that side of town.”
New roads, parks
When the Syracuse Housing Authority razes Pioneer Homes and McKinney Manor, the city plans to redesign the streets and public parks to connect the new 81 corridor with the commercial district on South Salina Street. That means building new roads that run east to west through what is now public housing designed around courtyards.
It also opens up space for what planners are calling a “Linear Park” that would run between South Townsend and South State streets on a new extension of New Street. Renderings in the application show fruit trees, community gardens, play fields and gathering spaces for picnics, birthdays and graduation parties.
In community meetings, the current residents said they needed more outdoor places to gather, exercise and play, Pasquale said.
“Having those options for folks to get not just exercise, but to have community, to have places to gather that are inviting and have fun, different things to do for people,” Pasquale said.
The proposed cost of the park is $17 million, including the stadium. It would be paid for by the state and the city, according to the application.
New business neighbors
The new residential housing will also include some first-floor commercial space that can be used for women and minority-owned retail stores on East Adams, South Townsend and Salina streets, officials say.
The Greater Syracuse Land Bank would also help create new retail space on South Salina and Montgomery streets by acquiring dilapidated buildings, records show.
Three Black-owned businesses are named in the application as possible occupants of a light manufacturing facility in a 23,400-square foot space.
They are Brackens Financial Solutions, JHP Industrial Supply and E Smith Contractors. This will cost $13.2 million.
The plan also includes free or low-cost internet service and “digital navigators” hired to help residents troubleshoot networks and devices. This is part of the universal broadband program already announced by Mayor Ben Walsh. This will cost $3.4 million.
The application also highlights health care and private business investments that have already started near the neighborhood.
The Syracuse Community Health Center has already announced a new $20 million facility on South Salina Street that will have an urgent care center.
The $154 million Nappi Wellness Center, proposed to open in 2023 on the SUNY Upstate campus, would focus on wellness, healthy aging and brain health, including Alzheimer’s research. The application says it will help residents to comfortably age in place.
JMA Wireless recently opened the first major factory in decades in the city. The company makes 5G components on Tallman Street. It’s a $50 million factory that could employ 200 people.
“Things are changing,” the application says. “I-81 has exceeded its useful life and 15th Ward residents have impressed upon the city and the state that now is the time to reverse the injustice and inequity that plague the neighborhood and create a neighborhood of choice.”
Ask anyone involved how real is this $1 billion plan and they acknowledge, there is a lot of work to do.
Alicea, the superintendent who spent 39 years in city schools jobs, said he has never seen anything like the kind of collaboration happening among different agencies and levels of government.
Because the housing is owned by the Syracuse Housing Authority, HUD must approve the entire plan.
There are also live grant applications and constant conversations with foundations and state government officials.
There are ongoing talks with residents as small as their requests to grow apple trees and install laundry machines in each apartment. And there are negotiations as big as replacing and renovating 1,500 units of public housing.
“We’re going to keep going,” Owens said. “We’re going to keep pushing at this.”