Connective Corridor

News: Syracuse New Times tells Near Westside Story

(The Near Westside is the western terminus of the Connective Corridor and the neighborhood  is served by the Connective Corridor bus system to facilitate faculty and student engagement in the community.)

From the Syracuse New Times

Story by Joseph Di Dominzio and photos by Michael Davis

TheNear West Side sits just past Armory Square, behind a raised rail bridge and adjacent to the West Street arterial that separates it from downtown. Old blank buildings border a patchwork of abandoned homes, empty lots and construction projects. In early September, however, a bright blue sign on one of the largest buildings provided a welcome splash of color: ProLiteracy, a Syracuse-based international nonprofit organization, had moved its headquarters to the former Case Supply building, 104 Marcellus St.

Since 2007, the Near Westside Initiative (NWSI) has worked to develop this dilapidated, neglected part of the city. By constructing new homes, renovating buildings and attracting businesses like ProLiteracy, the NWSI has made halting but noticeable progress that has created a buzz among residents and the greater Syracuse community.

Across the country, cities like Providence, R.I., Buffalo and Cleveland have embarked on similar creative placemaking initiatives in order to spur development and revitalize struggling neighborhoods. Some initiatives involve artists exclusively; others, like Syracuse’s, attempt to draw on a mix of creativity from artists and entrepreneurs alike. However, crafting a successful approach to creative placemaking is a long-term challenge with few short-term benchmarks. The process is also fraught with roadblocks and a fear of resident displacement. The NWSI has crafted an approach that works with the community in overcoming these issues one brick, one building, one block at a time.

From the beginning, through neighborhood meetings and individual discussions, residents had input on the NWSI plans, including where to start. The original concept of the NWSI came from Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor, who subsequently hired Marilyn Higgins, who herself then brought Maarten Jacobs on board. Higgins serves as president of the NWSI board, and is also vice president of community engagement and economic development at SU. “I asked a group one night, ‘What would make you think this was real?’ And they said, ‘Do something about the Berlin Wall,’” she reports.

“The Berlin Wall” is a stretch of buildings between West and Wyoming streets that the NWSI purchased and began redeveloping soon after. Its commitment to both grass-roots and top-down growth has been the biggest draw of the project. By working with community, municipal and private partners like Home HeadQuarters, Syracuse Center of Excellence and Syracuse University among many others, the NWSI looks to leverage its partner organizations’ strengths with its community engagement.

For example, in an attempt to increase job opportunities, the NWSI partnered with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to hold Green Train workforce workshops. The goal was to train people in hands-on green contracting techniques. According to Higgins, the program has helped about 90 percent of its graduates gain full-time employment since 2011. “I think we’re starting to do well in getting people trained for jobs that pay people a living wage,” she says.

Home HeadQuarters, a Syracuse nonprofit that creates and provides housing opportunities in upstate and Central New York, has rebuilt about 60 homes in the Near West Side in partnership with the initiative. As Higgins explains, home ownership is important to the stabilization of a community. “It makes people feel vested in a neighborhood,” she says. “They’re more likely to participate in neighborhood activities, and their kids are more likely to do well in school if they own a home.”

Michael Davis Photos


House to Home

Some of these properties were redeveloped under the Home HeadQuarters Dollar Homes program, whereby a home is purchased for $1 and then renovated by the owner, who is contracted to live there for three or more years. The Dollar Home program allowed Rick Destito, owner of the Gear Factory, 200 S. Geddes St., to purchase a house on Otisco Street. His home renovations have garnered national attention in The New York Times as well as several home magazines.

Destito and his wife Michelle moved into the neighborhood with their growing family—which includes 3-year-old Isabella and almost 2-year-old Amelia—as he continues renovating the Gear Factory into artist studios and residences as part of his overall vision for the city. According to Destito, developing a neighborhood that fosters creativity, innovation and ideas will change attitudes about the West Side.

Since returning to Central New York in 2005 after living in a number of cities, he has noticed a change when people talk about Syracuse since the work on the Near West Side began. “It seems like the attitude of the people has gotten so much better,” he notes. “People are more positive about things.”

At the end of December, the Gear Factory was awarded a $680,000 grant for improvements as part of the state Regional Economic Development awards. The money will be used for improvements including new utility hookups, an updated elevator and an additional stairwell. With the original windows removed and covered by cinder blocks, Destito will make the most noticeable change to the structure by returning windows to the walls, and once again allowing natural light to illuminate the inside of the mixed use building.

“All the things that I’ll be using the money for are the things that have hindered development of the building for 50 or 60 years. It’s really going to transform the way that whole corner looks, and how everyone views the area,” Destito says.

Isaac Rothwell, a Near West Side resident and NWSI board member, worked with Home HeadQuarters to purchase his house at 521 Tully St. He converted his basement into a recording studio where he collaborates with community performers. Currently he works full time with On Point for College, a local nonprofit that helps high school graduates access a college education. Rothwell hopes to grow his studio’s reach by partnering with local schools and organizations. Having grown up in the area, his idea of success is a little different.

“Success is accomplished when we don’t have any more abandoned homes,” he says. He believes another indicator of success will be when the NWSI makes good on its discussions about expanding redevelopment efforts beyond the northern part of the Near West Side, known as “the horseshoe,” a residential development area surrounding Skiddy Park five blocks north and three blocks southwest.

The program also caught the attention of Marion Wilson, director of 601 Tully, a permanent arts and community space located on the corner of Tully and Oswego streets. The former drug house now has a café, gallery space and a garden, and it hosts a number of activities in conjunction with the Westside Academy at Blodgett, a Syracuse City School District elementary school across the street.

“The first thing we did was have a focus group with the neighbors to see what they wanted,” Wilson relates. With the help of the SU architecture department and some contractors, Wilson rebuilt the entire structure over a year and a half.

Margie Turner, an area resident who works at 601 Tully, feels that the students and the staff there have become like another family in the neighborhood. “They have much respect for everybody around here,” she says. “And most everybody around here has respect for them.”

Objecting to the idea of a branded neighborhood, one designed solely for artists and creative people, Wilson prefers a neighborhood that retains residents while commingling with new residents over the long term to decrease poverty and increase opportunities. She explains that she would like to see the Near West Side become a neighborhood “where diverse people can live together, who are also succeeding.”

Change agents: Near West Side Initiative director Maarten Jacobs (left) stands in Skiddy Park, while his boss, president of the NWSI board Marilyn Higgins, looks out over West Street from her office inside the Warehouse.


Fits and Starts

The NWSI’s initial progress was fitful. After reviewing perceived successes of other efforts across the country, the initiative in 2007 named as its new director Mark Barone, who had directed the revitalization efforts in Paducah, Ky., population 26,000. The Near West Side in 2007 was a lot like Paducah’s LowerTown in 2000: Both had high levels of poverty and low levels of investment. By reinvesting in Paducah’s neighborhoods and encouraging artists to move and work there, Barone was able to attract a number of new residents with the help of low-cost housing and low-interest loans from a local bank. As new artists moved in, galleries and other small business began to open, which boosted the value of housing.

That same year, to get the project on solid financial ground, SU secured forgiveness from New York state on the remainder of a loan, totaling $13.8 million, with the money to be invested in the community, the true genesis of Cantor’s notion. With additional funds from Restore New York, the Gifford Foundation and Home HeadQuarters, the initiative began to invest with $24 million of funding.

In 2008, however, Barone left the NWSI without much tangible progress, and the NWSI hired Maarten Jacobs to be its director about a year later. Since then, the NWSI has spearheaded a number of new developments in the neighborhood, and Jacobs—who like Higgins is an SU employee—has remained the only full-time staff member dedicated to the organization.

Before coming to Syracuse from Maryland, Jacobs briefly worked as a social worker, using his background in psychology, sociology and community development to help at-risk youth. For him, working one case at a time was not a good fit. Jacobs preferred to address systemic social problems from what he describes as a “macro-preventive approach.” From 2007 to 2009 Jacobs worked with Syracuse’s Northside Collaboratory (now known as Northside Urban Project or Northside UP) developing programs that intersected with art and neighborhood development.

According to the NEA’s creative placemaking report, Paducah’s revitalization effort is facing “sustainability challenges.” Some of the original artists have left and sold their properties for a profit, an indicator of the raised property values but also of a willingness among these new arrivals to integrate themselves within the community.

This situation, a common part of the gentrification process, is something Jacobs is deliberately looking to avoid here. One of his goals is to achieve a balance of 30 percent new residents and 70 percent current residents. That doesn’t mean displacement; there is simply that much available space in the neighborhood.

With home ownership rates increasing and homes being purchased as fast as they can be renovated or built, Higgins says the NWSI has succeeded in energizing the market. “Every time {Home HeadQuarters} finishes a home in the neighborhood, it sells,” she reports. “Built, sold, done. The market is there now. We’ve done what we wanted to do in making people realize here is a walkable neighborhood, in proximity to downtown with an incredibly interesting mix of people, and it’s a great place to consider investing.”



Occupying Syracuse

The NWSI is currently enjoying a 100 percent occupancy rate of the 60 homes and 10 apartments currently completed. And, according to Jacobs, artists occupy about 25 percent of those homes. The residency program started with local artist Juan Cruz, who was suggested by residents when they were asked to help select the first artist-as-long-term resident. Earlier this year, Artplace—a collaboration of foundations, banks and federal agencies to encourage creative placemaking—awarded the NWSI a $400,000 grant for Saltquarters, the refurbishing of the former Sherman’s Restaurant, 115 Otisco St., into artist studios, a gallery and workshop space that would add two more artist residencies. Other organizations, such as the Minnesota-based Artspace, have developed buildings in cities like Buffalo, managing them and renting them only to artists.

Grant lenders like the National Endowment for the Arts and Artplace describe this influence as “vibrancy.” And while few if any metrics exist to determine whether simply adding vibrancy helps the goals of creative placemaking, the realization that artists are essentially small businesses is crucial to understanding their usefulness in both the economic and social development of a neighborhood. Entrepreneurs can fill the same need in development, Jacobs points out, but artists tend to connect with a community faster.

The Near Westside Neighborhood Plan, created as an alternative to a “master plan,” was implemented to provide the NWSI development initiatives with more flexibility. A master plan, as Jacobs describes it, has to be followed in a linear way, with each step taken in order. With the neighborhood plan, strategies can “jump around” if projects need to develop in a different order, or skip over other strategies that may be out of place. It takes into account the partners in all sectors from the top down, including residents.

“You can’t do anything unless there’s a level of trust or a common bond,” Jacobs says. The residents have put a lot of trust in him and the NWSI over the last few years. Besides developing commercial properties in the horseshoe, Jacobs also assists in coordinating community events and festivals, and was integral in raising money to redevelop Skiddy Park, in the center of the Near West Side, earlier this year.

Private investment can also be counted as a success, with about $60 million of new investment coming from companies and organizations over the last five years, including new buildings. These new developments include the King King Architects building—they had previously been located in Manlius—an expansion by Steri Pharma, a local pharmaceutical manufacturer, and the upcoming creation of a Nojaim/St. Joseph’s Nutrition and Wellness Center on Gifford Street.

“You can talk to almost any developer in town, and they could tell you that investing on that side of West Street is not something they would have done themselves,” Higgins says of the area near Onondaga Creek. However, the initial rush of development is winding down. Higgins explains that the state and federal money is drying up, making it difficult to redevelop properties in the community, a central need for any placemaking initiative. In Paducah, it took a decade to recognize some of the underlying issues in the development plan, and with the relatively nascent Near Westside Neighborhood Plan, the sustainability still must be borne out.

Residents are engaged in the process, but not yet in large numbers. According to Jacobs, the attendance at public meetings can be sparse. Despite some low general turnout, about 50 percent of the NWSI board members are residents. Members of the board are chosen by a nominating committee led by Carole Horan, a neighborhood resident, and then the current full board votes on the nominated individuals. Partnering residents with a “diverse group of Syracuse stakeholders,” as Jacobs describes the remaining half of the board members, is what he sees as a sustainable model for the Near West Side.

“It’s going to be interesting to see over the next five years,” Rothwell notes. “I think right now people and other entities are starting to realize this has a lasting impact. So now is the point in the work that’s been done where it starts multiplying and there will be other people starting to step up to the plate to do work as well.”

Some of that work has already begun. “Movement on Main,” a new design competition to transform Wyoming Street between Gifford and West Fayette streets, was announced in November. Designers are submitting plans to remake the five-block stretch into a ”healthy” main street promoting outdoor activities such as running, bicycling and dancing, anchored at one end by the planned Nutrition and Wellness Center and on the other by the renovated Case Supply building.

WCNY, Syracuse’s PBS station, still plans to move from Liverpool into that updated structure this winter as fellow anchor tenants with ProLiteracy and its bright blue sign. “When we brought our first crane into the area, which was for a house designed by School of Architecture students, there hadn’t been a crane in that neighborhood in over 60 years,” Higgins says. “People just came out of their homes and watched. It was very powerful.”