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Syracuse, N.Y. — The city of Syracuse is about to embark on an ambitious $800 million plan that would replace the public housing projects in the shadow of Interstate 81 with a new neighborhood where low-income residents live side-by-side with people paying market-rate downtown rent.
It will be the end of the state’s oldest public housing – hundreds of institutional brick apartments built in 1938 just south of downtown Syracuse and the hundreds of other gated-off buildings that grew up around it.
City planners are expected to ask the federal government for the first $50 million in a grant application to be revealed today. Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard looked at the plans.
In the poorest ZIP code in Syracuse, depressing blocks of apartment buildings would be replaced by modern, colorful townhomes and multi-story buildings with high-end appliances along tree-lined, walkable streets. There would be no more enclosed courtyard parking lots that attract nuisance behavior.
Planners envision parks on every block, a grocery store, community gardens, improved schools and more job opportunities. They hope people who take the bus to minimum-wage jobs in nursing homes and retail stores will live in the same homes as doctors who can walk up the hill to work.
The Black neighborhood everyone still calls the “15th Ward” was torn apart in the 1950s and ‘60s when the government built a highway overpass through it. Now, as that highway has aged out of its useful life, government leaders have promised to remake it in a way that gives justice to past mistakes.
A nonprofit called Blueprint 15 has been tasked with reimagining the neighborhood. 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.
They are ready to hand a plan to the state and federal government at the same time there is political will to lift a neighborhood suffering from every ill of concentrated poverty. They expect there will be millions of state and federal dollars available as part of the I-81 rebuild and federal spending on infrastructure.
In Syracuse, planners have spent 10 years getting ahead of any orders from the top down.
“This is what the plan is,” said Bill Simmons, director of the housing authority. “We’re not going hat in hand and saying, ‘What are you going to do for me?’ ”
Syracuse has not seen anything like an $800 million transformation of a whole neighborhood in modern history.
But with this redevelopment comes great uncertainty among the 4,000 people who live there. The housing authority has promised, and is required by the federal government, to offer a new apartment to each person who lives there now.
Some residents welcome the change. Others fear they’re being evicted from homes they love and losing neighbors they rely on.
“I know it will be different, completely different, and I’m sorry about that. I’m sad about it,” said Alice Daigle, who has lived in Pioneer Homes for 40 years.
The residents, the advocates who fight for them and city planners all over the country are watching to make sure the project is done with sensitivity.
Mayor Ben Walsh said he understands why residents doubt the project and the city’s motives.
“Every chance the city of Syracuse has had to undertake a significant development opportunity that involves older, affordable housing … the powers that be have failed the residents,” Walsh said. “So, we have history working against us. And until we prove that we can do it a different way, people are right to be skeptical.”
The $800 million plan
Policy makers have been talking about a plan to transform the former 15th Ward since at least 2010. Now, officials say that plan has moved closer to reality with step-by-step demolition and construction plans, a partnership with a big-name developer and an application for a $50 million federal grant.
The 10-year plan includes tearing down the state’s oldest public housing project, Pioneer Homes, as well as McKinney Manor and Central Village. The neighborhood – 118 acres on 27 blocks – is home to more than 4,000 people in more than 1,000 units of public housing.
As early as 2023, the first mixed-income, low-rise apartment building could go up on nearby vacant land owned by the Syracuse Housing Authority, said Pam Askew, senior vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar, the developer that won a competitive bid to work on the project.
The master planning effort, led by McCormack Baron Salazar, was $741,000.
The plan is to demolish and develop in three major parts, some of which will overlap with the planned demolition of neighboring I-81.
In the first part, the group would build on vacant land, possibly as early as next year. Over the next several years and in several phases, they would bulldoze McKinney Manor and two blocks of Pioneer Homes and replace them with a combination of low-rise apartment buildings, walk-ups and townhouses. More than 600 units ranging from 1-4 bedrooms would replace the 293 units being torn down.
The second part of the redevelopment would see the rest of Pioneer Homes – the ones closest to I-81 – come down, and the third would include demolition of Central Village. The idea is to work with plans for I-81, building along with the new community grid instead of guessing what will fit once the highway comes down.
Developers aren’t planning any demolition for Almus Olver Towers, the senior residence. That building would be remodeled instead.
All that demolition and construction will cost a lot – about $500 million for the housing alone, which doesn’t take into account other promises made as part of the project.
The plan also calls for the creation of a “cradle-to-college education pipeline” by offering early childhood and college readiness programs, workforce development programs, increased career opportunities and programs to attract entrepreneurs and businesses to the neighborhood.
All told, officials expect to spend more than $800 million by the time the project is finished in 2032, making it one of the most expensive projects in the city’s history.
Askew expects the funding will be a mix of public, philanthropic and private dollars. Public money would come from the city, county, state and federal governments, including possibly from the Department of Transportation as part of its plans for I-81.
Officials also plan to target housing-specific philanthropic dollars and private funding from lenders and investors.
The city is in the process of submitting an application for a $50 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to kickstart the project. It would be the first time a city in New York state received one of these coveted federal redevelopment grants.
Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens pointed to McCormack Baron Salazar’s experience with this exact kind of HUD grant as a reason to be optimistic about the city’s probable success. The company has worked on 16 similar properties across the country using Choice Neighborhoods grants.
But the project still has a long way to go, Walsh said. He, Owens and representatives from Blueprint 15 are meeting with local, state and federal officials to nail down project funding sources, but even the $50 million HUD grant isn’t a sure thing.
The project is in such an early stage, no one even knows what to call it. Gov. Kathy Hochul called it the “New 15th Ward” when she mentioned it briefly in her State of the State address earlier this month. The Syracuse Housing Authority calls it the East Adams redevelopment. Critics refer to it as a land grab or an eviction.
“Everybody has a name,” said Jackie LaSonde, an advocate for South Side tenants. “It’s Blueprint 15 and then it’s the Syracuse Surge.”
LaSonde said advocates like her have had a difficult time participating in meetings and getting details.
“I try to keep my ear to the ground and know what’s going on,” she said. “But it’s becoming increasingly difficult. I can go online, but I am someone who’s always driving or moving.”
When people do hear details, she said, they seem different from the last time. It’s hard to know whether plans have changed or whether people are just not getting straight answers, she said.
“There’s nothing concrete with attorneys written up – this is how we know this is going to look,” she said.
LaSonde said she would like to slow down the process and help the people who live there understand where they’re going to end up living. Some residents are seniors. Others are immigrants who need interpreters.
“People, very understandably, are unnerved,” she said. “Will the change be in favor of poor people or people who are financially challenged and, if so, what does it look like?”
In Pioneer Homes, the average income is $13,630. The average rent is $297, according to the housing authority.
As their apartments are torn down, residents will be given the option to move to another public housing unit in the city or use a Section 8 voucher to move into an apartment anywhere in the country.
The biggest concern among residents is where a Section 8 voucher would land them. Government-owned public housing feels like safety. Privately-owned Section 8 housing is uncertain.
“The down underbelly people don’t talk about is will they have to go where they’re accepted and that means places like Tim Green’s Skyline,” she said.
Daigle, 83, has lived at Pioneer Homes for 40 years. At her age, she said, a move away would be for good, and she doesn’t expect to move back.
“It’s too much to move out of here and move back,” she said. “And when you move back, you don’t know where they’re going to put you and the neighbors that you have and love, they probably won’t come back.”
Daigle said she has not seen the latest plans. She does not fully understand her options. She said meetings have been difficult to attend because of injuries she suffered in a fall. She said her neighbors are busy or too fed up to go.
“Some of them are just sick of it because they don’t know what’s what,” she said.
Concerns are big and small. Would they be able to bring their washers and dryers? Would they need a new bedroom set? Will they be able to move back at all? She’s been saving money just in case.
She said a lot of people don’t want to move because they’re settled in with their furniture inside and surroundings outside. She said neighbors look out for each other, shoveling walks and checking in on each other. She enjoys watching children play from her apartment that opens up to the sidewalk.
“I’m afraid of the high rise,” she said. “You notice on TV, fires or the elevator won’t start. At my age, you think of those things.”
Promises: A home for everyone
Officials have answers for these concerns.
Many residents won’t ever have to leave the neighborhood, said Simmons, the housing authority director. That’s why plans call for building on nearby vacant property first.
About 36% of tenants will move straight from their current public housing into the new buildings in the first stage of construction, Askew said. The other tenants will have to move out for about two years, with moving costs covered and a case manager assigned to each household to ensure a smooth transition.
Fewer than 25 families would have to move out during the first stage of the demolition process, Simmons said.
HUD requires a one-to-one ratio for these redevelopment projects – meaning every single current tenant gets to live in the new buildings if they want to. Because the new development would turn some areas of townhouses into low-rise apartment buildings, more people will live in the new development than live there now.
That makes room for some people who would pay market rate and some “workforce housing,” which is subsidized based on income, in addition to units for the current public housing residents.
In the first stage, nearly 50% of the total new units would replace the public housing apartments; another nearly 30% would be for low-income residents. About 140 units – just under 25% — would go for market value.
The buildings would be privately owned. A subsidiary of McCormack Barron Salazar would run the complex, attracting tenants, hiring staff and collecting rent checks.
But the housing authority would still own the land, and a contract with the developer would require that they maintain the same number of affordable housing units for the life of the buildings, Simmons said.
Raquan Pride-Green is the executive director of Blueprint 15, the nonprofit group that has been working toward a plan for the area for several years. Although he didn’t grow up in the projects, his grandmother lived in Pioneer Homes, so he spent countless hours surrounded by the brick buildings and immersed in the neighborhood.
He said it’s important for planners to listen to what residents want and to keep them informed. Blueprint 15 and the housing authority have surveyed more than 150 tenants who would be affected by the changes. They’ve also hired five “community navigators” who are longtime neighborhood residents to go door-to-door collecting opinions and disseminating information.
Robert Mike, a 15-year tenant who represents tenants on the Blueprint 15 board, said the project is a wonderful opportunity to rebuild outdated housing. He said the timing makes sense with the redevelopment of I-81.
Critics fear this new plan sounds too much like the damage done to the Black community when the government built the highway through the 15th Ward in the 1950s and 60s.
Mike said the difference is that people like him are helping drive the concept. He said he has been to at least 20 meetings on the project and he hopes more people decide to go and get first-hand information. He said even the name is up for debate.
“Some tenants’ reaction is that they are going to kick us out. They’re not going to let us move back in. They’re just moving us out to build condos for the rich and the poor will be displaced. But that’s not what I’m hearing,” he said. “If you put five people in a circle and you whisper in one person’s ear and pass it around, by the time it gets back to the first person, it’s not going to be what the person said.”
At first, Mike said, a lot of tenants saw the project as a chance to move south for job opportunities. But Covid-19 has changed that. Now, more people want to stay near family here, he said.
Like others, he said he has great neighbors and acknowledged some of them won’t stay.
“It’s like starting all over again as an adult,” he said. “We just have to get along with everyone.”
He said he fell in love with the concept when he went to visit a similar neighborhood in New Orleans. The senior complex had a movie theater. Apartments had stainless steel appliances and a washer and dryer in each unit. The family units have all the latest technology.
“You can say Alexa, turn the lights down. Alexa, lock the doors,” he said. “If we can build that here, I know without a doubt that the tenants will fall in love with it just like I did.”
These apartments would include many of the same amenities, based on a wish list put together by residents, Askew said. The apartments will all have in-unit laundry, large windows, walk-in closets and central air conditioning.
The units will all look the same, regardless of who lives in them, Askew said. Layouts, interiors and amenities will be the same for those paying full market rate and for the public housing residents.
And outside, each block will have a park space with a playground. Residents have asked for community gardens and have made some very specific landscaping requests.
“Residents said at one time they remembered when there were trees that produced apples, so they wanted us to consider apple trees,” Askew said. “So, to the extent that Syracuse can grow apple trees, we’re absolutely happy to write that in the specifications.”
Walsh said he’s excited to see the area grow and change, but he knows distrust surrounds the project.
“It gets me up in the morning, and it keeps me up at night,” he said.
Advocates and city planners point to Kennedy Square, east of this project, as an example of the kind of situation they want to avoid.
Kennedy Square, built in 1975, had about 300 units for low- and moderate-income tenants in a sprawling complex of high- and low-rise buildings. Empire State Development, a state entity, seized it in 2000 after sections of it became vacant and uninhabitable.
One day, tenants were given hand-delivered letters that said they had 90 days to find a new place to live. The housing was demolished and nearly became the site of a new sports stadium for Syracuse University.
Other former low-income housing in Syracuse, owned by private developers and eventually seized by the state, has been turned into student housing.
In other cities like Chicago and New Orleans, officials broke promises to residents, and few former residents ever returned. Pride-Green pointed to more recent successes in cities like Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio, as models the city hopes to emulate.
And city officials finally want to do right by residents who deserve better than empty promises, Owens said.
“They have been inundated with information, inundated with uncertainty and questions, and again and again, their resiliency astounds me,” Owens said. “And they deserve the best product we can produce for them.”