By Advance Media NY Editorial Board
Read the original article on Syracuse.com here.
An ambitious plan to remake public housing in Syracuse took an important step forward earlier this month. Planners applied for $50 million in federal housing money to kickstart the “Connecting the New 15th Ward” redevelopment in the southeast quadrant of downtown.
If the “Choice Neighborhoods” grant comes through, Syracuse Housing Authority and its partners could begin construction as early as next year.
Plans call for Pioneer Homes, McKinney Manor and Central Village to be demolished, in phases, over the next 10 years. Those units gradually would be replaced with a new neighborhood of low-rise apartments and townhouses, tree-lined streets and amenities like childcare, job training, education, recreation, retail and green space.
When the New 15th Ward is done, including removal of Interstate 81, an area of concentrated poverty will have been transformed into a neighborhood of choice, where people of low, moderate and high incomes live side-by-side. The housing portion of the project will cost roughly $232 million. All told, the city estimates public and private investments in the neighborhood and its people will exceed $1 billion.
Earlier this month, the editorial board met with members of the New 15th Ward team, including representatives of Syracuse Housing Authority, Syracuse City Hall, Blueprint 15, the Allyn Family Foundation and affordable housing developer McCormack Baron Salazar. After a brief overview of the plans, SHA Director Bill Simmons, Mayor Ben Walsh, Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and Pam Askew of MBS answered questions and responded to public criticism of their vision. Here are five takeaways from our discussion.
Fixing up Pioneer Homes is not an option.
Simmons, of SHA, said the 1930s-era brick buildings at Pioneer Homes need more than $70 million in deferred maintenance. The federal government no longer puts new money into such old buildings. It is less costly — and nicer for residents — to build new apartments, with modern amenities and neighborhood supports. The downside is that longtime neighbors may be separated and some residents may have to move more than once — or may choose to move away entirely.
It’s not the end of public housing.
Public housing residents are not being displaced, planners assure us. Their units will be replaced “one for one” — each unit being demolished will be replaced by one brand-new unit. There will be a lot more units, though — some for low-income residents, others at market rate to create a mixed income neighborhood. “Most stable neighborhoods have a mixture of all incomes in them, people living in a rental and homeownership,” Owens said. “Why should this community be any different?”
The timing is right.
The public housing remake coincides with New York state’s long-delayed decision to take down the I-81 viaduct and reconnect the street grid surrounding it. Both projects will bring millions in federal, state and private investment. Nearby, the new countywide STEAM School at the former Central High School is finally moving forward; the Syracuse Common Council is due to vote on a lease agreement this week.
“The stars seem to be aligning for us here in Syracuse,” Owens said.
Don’t call it gentrification.
Critics of a mixed-income, mixed-use development say it’s only a matter of time before public housing residents are priced out of their own neighborhood. That can’t happen under terms of government funding and deed restrictions, said Askew, of MBS. Residents can expect to pay the same percentage of their income in rent.
Walsh addressed wider fears that the I-81 community grid will open the door to gentrification. “You see on the map we are we are doubling down on our commitment to affordable housing in this neighborhood,” the mayor said, pointing to a later phase of the New 15th Ward project east of the highway’s current footprint.
Project leaders need to build more trust.
This is a huge change, affecting 4,000 people who currently live in the project area. Some are wary of the vision. Others worry about losing connections to neighbors and friends. Some neighborhood advocates feel current residents — many of them seniors and immigrants with language barriers — aren’t well-informed about what will happen to their homes, suggesting the need for more and better communication. Walsh hears their skepticism.
“We think we have all the right partners here … to do something truly special here,” Walsh said. “But we are also going into it with our eyes wide open, with a very clear understanding of where this community has failed in the past, and this country has failed in the past, when undertaking major housing and transportation projects. And we — none of us — would be at this table if we didn’t believe that we could do it differently and we could do it better.”
The New 15th Ward group has an enormous amount of work ahead, not least the challenge of securing the funding necessary to turn its vision into reality. They are on the right track. We urge them to keep residents at the center of everything they do, keep engaging with them and the wider community, and keep moving forward.