100 million plan would turn Syracuse public housing into neighborhood for all

By Marnie Eisenstadt February 14, 2019

Syracuse, N.Y. – Syracuse’s public and private leaders are planning a $100 million reinvention of three big public housing projects and the neighborhood around them. It’s a historic effort to turn worn-out, depressing stacks of apartments for the poor into a place of opportunity.

The city, Syracuse Housing Authority and Allyn Foundation are leading the effort to remake the East Adams Street neighborhood. The area includes the state’s oldest public housing project, Pioneer Homes, as well as McKinney Manor and Central Village. It is 118 square acres on 27 blocks; more than 1,000 units of public housing where more than 4,000 people live. It is all in the shadow of Interstate 81.

The massive complexes of brick buildings that date back to 1937 would come down. They’d be replaced by modern housing that puts people receiving public assistance in the same units as people paying market rates.

It would raze a collection of homes that has kept people in poverty penned in on an island, separated from the city and opportunity.

It would try to replace it with a modern version of the old 15th Ward, once a vibrant black community with single-family homes and businesses. That neighborhood was bulldozed as part of the city’s urban renewal strategy and the construction of I-81 in the late 1950s.

The area is home to some of Syracuse most entrenched and concentrated poverty. The crime rate is more than twice Onondaga County’s. The neighborhood elementary school is on the state list of failing schools.

The new neighborhood — planned with Purposed Built Communities, a nonprofit organization that provides free services — is designed to lift people out of that poverty. The organization, funded by a group including billionaire Warren Buffett, has worked with 21 other deeply poor neighborhoods across the country.

The plan for Syracuse is more than housing. It includes a better school, a preschool, commercial development and something residents have not had in generations: a true grocery. The dead-end streets would be reconnected. There would be more parks and businesses. And there would be families from all income levels. People receiving rent subsidies could live next to college professors, the planners imagine.

It sounds massive because it is.

“This is not a quick fix, but it would be the largest transformation of Syracuse in the history of the city,” said Meg O’Connell, executive director of the Allyn Foundation, which has been working on the idea with the city and housing authority for three years.

In interviews with Syracuse.com|The Post-Standard, the group said it was finally ready to publicly discuss the plan.

“We didn’t want to put it out there and not deliver,” O’Connell said. The residents have been promised much that has fallen short, she said during a meeting with Syracuse.com that also included Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and SHA Executive Director Bill Simmons.

When Mayor Ben Walsh mentioned Blueprint 15 in his State of the City address, this is the project he was talking about. That is the name of the nonprofit formed by the Allyn Foundation, the city and the SHA. It is named for the 15th Ward, the area group hopes to resurrect.

The board includes community heavyweights — Syracuse University, SUNY Upstate, CenterState CEO, Syracuse City School District and Onondaga County. And it also includes neighborhood representatives: three residents of public housing, a representative of Tucker Baptist Church and one from Syracuse Cure Violence.

How does Purpose Built work?

The idea comes from the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta. That was the first Purpose Built Community more than 20 years ago. When that neighborhood’s redevelopment proved successful, a new nonprofit sprang up to help other communities do the same thing.

Purpose Built offers its services for free. But it chooses what communities to work with. So far, there have been 22 cities, including Syracuse.

“This is not a short-term fix,” said Carol Naughton, executive director of Purpose Built. “But we think it’s the right outcome. Tinkering around the edges doesn’t really change outcomes.”

Naughton oversaw the redevelopment of East Lake. It was 542 units of public housing. She details the change: The poverty was deep. It had a crime rate that was more than 18 times the rest of the nation. The schools were failing: Fewer than 30 percent of the kids graduated from high school before the community was rebuilt.

Now, the crime rate has been cut by 97 percent, Naughton said. Nearly everyone who can work does, she said. Even among the deeply poor, incomes are five times higher, Naughton said. She said the high school graduates nearly 100 percent of the senior class and nearly all are also accepted to college.

Their schools are now among the highest-performing in the city: the elementary school is ranked sixth, the middle school is second, and the high school is the best in the city, Naughton said.

The transformation has been detailed on NPR, in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and in news reports around the nation. The neighborhood was a war zone where the only industry was a thriving drug trade. Now, it is thriving.

The change didn’t come cheaply or without conflict. The total cost was around $172 million of public and private money.

Some have criticized the East Lake revitalization as gentrification. There, residents involved in the planning process booted residents with felony criminal convictions. That is unlikely to happen in Syracuse, Simmons said.

So how did Syracuse make Purpose Built’s cut? The support and leadership behind the concept in Syracuse made it clear that the community is committed for the long haul that transformation takes, Naughton said.

How the housing works

No one is building new public housing projects anymore. There’s little support to fix them.

“We’re dying a death of a thousand cuts,” said Simmons, of the SHA, which owns and runs the complexes in Syracuse. The apartments need expensive repairs. Most don’t meet housing codes, he said.

Also, I-81 slices through Pioneer Homes. It comes so close to Simmons’ office that the windows shake from the traffic. The decision on how to replace the elevated highway creates two opportunities. The massive demolition and construction from the highway make it more sensible to remake the neighborhood now. Also, the highway project comes with federal environmental and economic development money.

The plan covers nearly half of SHA’s 2,340 units of public housing. They would be replaced by mixed-income housing in smaller, more modern buildings.

Beyond that, the city would reconnect to a neighborhood that is near everything and yet an island. The two largest employers, Syracuse University and Upstate Medical University, are in walking distance. So is a newly bustling downtown. Now, the neighborhood is at the center of all of this but isolated.

The tenants have been represented to some degree in the early talks. The plan is to let them and the rest of the neighborhood drive some decisions about what the community looks like.

Simmons recognizes the residents have a long haul ahead. Some have been living in the same apartments for generations. For better and worse, those apartments will be gone. The housing authority has already been talking with local landlords about the need to find housing for tenants during construction.

But the construction also opens a door that has been closed for more than a decade in Syracuse and elsewhere: Section 8 housing choice vouchers. The waiting list for these vouchers in Syracuse has been closed for 10 years and there are still 3,000 people on it. But tenants whose buildings are going to be knocked down will get these federal rental assistance vouchers. They can be used anywhere in the U.S.

Including tenants

“A neighborhood is first and foremost made up of the people,” said Owens, the deputy mayor. From the beginning, the group has worked to involve tenants, she said.

“When you get information out there that impacts people, and where they lay their heads, that’s a huge deal,” Owens said.

The Purpose Built model relies on tenant input. The point is not to gentrify a community to make it prosperous. Instead, the plan is to create a holistic neighborhood that lifts people up, said Naughton, of Purpose Built.

“We need to make sure we’re hearing from the community and that the voice is authentic and large and guiding this work,” she said.

Supreena Smalls, 60, has lived in McKinney Manor for 20 years. She raised her four children there. Now, she lives alone in the public housing apartment, but she often cares for her grandchildren there.

She is on the board of Blueprint 15. Better housing would be good, she said. But what would really be great would be a better school for her twin grandchildren, a neighborhood where she could take her grandkids for a walk, and a grocery store close by.

Smalls talks to residents about the project and has been at a recent tenants’ meeting where it was discussed. Some tenants are worried about being pushed out of their homes.

“They explained that’s not going to happen,” Smalls said.

A “world class” school

Smalls really hopes for a better school. The neighborhood school, Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School, is on the state’s list of the poorest-performing schools. It could be put under state control because it didn’t improve enough last year.

State test results show the situation is dire: Only 4 percent of third-graders at the school were proficient in English and math. The numbers get worse in the upper grades.

The Purpose Built neighborhood model is built around “cradle to college” education. That means a quality preschool that feeds a neighborhood elementary school.

In the East Adams neighborhood, Blueprint 15 will work with the district to remake the Dr. King school. Jaime Alicea, the city schools superintendent, is on the Blueprint 15 board.

The new school would likely use a STEAM model, which has brought success in other Purpose Built communities. That means the school uses science, technology, engineering, the arts and math to build the curriculum. The learning would be more hands-on and project-based than traditional schools. The early focus is on language, literacy and social skills, Naughton said.

That $100 million price tag

There are no construction plans or even a footprint for the Syracuse plan. But based on other Purpose Built Communities, the cost won’t be less than $100 million.

The money would come from several places.

Some would come from HUD, the federal agency that oversees public housing. HUD is encouraging communities to get out of the high-density public housing project business in favor of mixed-income developments of smaller buildings.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo supports the plan, O’Connell said.

Private groups and nonprofits might kick in. The reconstruction of I-81 could bring some federal money.

The Allyn Foundation has paid for planning the Syracuse project and plans to pitch in a half-million dollars this year. It might put more money in later.

The Allyn Foundation and O’Connell have been driving the early efforts. In 2015, the foundation grew after the Allyn family sold Welch-Allyn, its century-old medical device company in Skaneateles for $2.05 billion. Family members donated to the foundation $85 million from the sale. Since then, O’Connell and the other family members have zeroed in on finding solutions to Syracuse’s poverty. The foundation is also behind the construction of a new $22 million building project on a problem corner of Salina Street that will provide mixed income housing and a food market.

O’Connell, part of the Allyn family, is a graduate of Dartmouth College who had a previous career in social services. In 2012, O’Connell was chosen as the interim president of Onondaga Community College, where she was the president of the board of trustees.

The East Adams revitalization is expected to take a decade.

The Blueprint 15 CEO likely will be hired this spring and will then hire a few more people. One will oversee the community engagement. The other will may oversee the school plan.

A master developer will be hired by spring to come up with the plan for the neighborhood and work with the nonprofit on finding the money.

If all goes as planned, New York’s first public housing project, Pioneer Homes, would become the state’s first Purpose Built Community.