Category Archives: Community

Isolated and Systematic Cruelty

On September 30, Shakeen Robbins, an employee at the Dunkin Donuts on N Salina Street, poured cold water on Jeremy Dufresne, a homeless man who was in the donut shop to charge his phone. A video of that cruel act got international attention, the Post-Standard published a new story about it every day for seven days in a row, a GoFundMe page raised over $20,000 for Dufresne, and Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, Common Council President Helen Hudson, and Police Chief Frank Fowler have all gotten in touch with the company that operates that particular Dunkin Donuts to talk about how to treat poor people better.

Poor people deal with isolated acts of cruelty everyday. Those acts are pointless and dehumanizing, and they’re all worth our attention. When that video went viral, all kinds of people saw the cruelty of dumping water on another human being just because that person couldn’t do anything about it, and they recognized that cruelty for what it was. Now, hopefully, people like Jeremy Dufresne won’t have to put up with so much casual abuse every single day.

But poor people also face cruelty that isn’t so isolated. They face cruelty that’s part of a coordinated effort to push them out of sight, to pretend that ‘progress’ isn’t leaving anybody behind, to pretend that people who are doing well have no responsibility to the people who aren’t. That kind of systematic cruelty is worth just as much attention and it deserves just as much condemnation as the kinds of isolated acts that Jeremy Dufresne has brought to top of mind.

Ryan McMahon’s plan to incarcerate poor people is an act of systematic cruelty. It tries to use the power of the state to exclude poor people from public space because their presence might be “perceived as threatening.” It targets poor people specifically for being poor and specifically when they make their poverty known. It’s an abuse of power, a failure of government, and a cruel act.

So let’s pay attention as the new County Executive tries to turn his plan into a law. Let’s pay attention to whether Mayor Ben Walsh stands up for Syracuse–the 9th poorest city in the nation–or whether he chooses to go along with the County’s plan to hide its poverty behind bars. Let’s pay attention when SPD arrests any person in the service of that plan, and let’s condemn every single act that fails to respect people’s basic human dignity.

Hope for North Salina Street

On the afternoon of August 29, four buildings on the 700 block of North Salina Street caught fire and burned until firefighters extinguished the blaze the next morning. After the fire was put out, Mayor Ben Walsh announced that all four buildings would have to be knocked down for safety reasons.

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Since the fire, many in the community have combined sympathy for the people directly affected–the people who lived and worked in those buildings–with a sense that this fire is a blow to the City as a whole. CBS anchor Michael Benny summed that feeling up in a tweet two days after the fire:

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It’s a pretty forlorn reaction from a city that is supposed to be “brimming with excitement” about its own “modern-day renaissance.” If there’s as much energy and action as Syracuse’s boosters say, why mourn a few old buildings? Shouldn’t someone swoop in to build something newer and better on the site?

The truth is that all of the new construction happening downtown doesn’t have much to do with the Northside, and everybody knows it. That “renaissance” going on in Armory Square hasn’t even spread to the empty corner of Fayette and Warren Streets, so you know it’s not going to reach all the way up to the 700 block of North Salina Street. If Downtown’s revival is the only thing Syracuse has going for it, then the land where those buildings burned is going to stay empty for a long time.

But there is more going on in Syracuse, and you don’t even have to look that far to find it. Less than half a mile away from the fire, at the corner of Butternut and McBride, a hospital and two non-profits got together to build something new on a site where something old fell down. The vacant building that had sat on that corner for more than 100 years started to fall apart, and by 2012 it was a hazard to people walking down the sidewalk. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Home Headquarters, and Housing Visions bought the old building, knocked it down, and built the new one as part of a huge project that put up 49 new affordable apartments all across the neighborhood. The result is a better place to live for the people in Syracuse who need it the most.

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Walk two miles further east to 603 Hixson Avenue, and you’ll find more reason to hope for a better future in Syracuse. In 2014, the house at that address burned and had to be knocked down. No for-profit developer would have wanted anything to do with that land, but Habitat for Humanity bought the land and decided to build two new houses on it. Habitat turned the construction site into a workforce development program for local masons, and Habitat worked with the Syracuse University School of Architecture to design houses that are “high quality yet still affordable” and that use green technology for heating and cooling.

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A new thing is happening in Syracuse, and it’s happening where people don’t always think to look. Community organizations are working together to create better neighborhoods all across the City. That’s hard work, it takes time, and it’s happening in neighborhoods left behind by the financial and economic systems that build glitzy, profitable, exclusive places like Downtown. That work means hope for the whole City, and it means hope for North Salina Street.

The “New Economy” in Upstate New York

Last week at the ceremony opening the new Expo Center at the State Fairgrounds, Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke about bringing Upstate New York into the “new economy.” As he sees it, that new economy is based on making Upstate into a place that people want to be.

The Governor pointed to County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Mayor Ben Walsh as two local politicians who understand this “new economy.” The County Executive turned Onondaga Lake “into an asset and an attraction which is what water is everywhere, and that amphitheater on the lake is magnificent, and it’s working, and it’s attracting people.” In Syracuse, the Mayor focused on “downtown development” because that attracts “the new workforce: the millenials… They want to be downtown.” Investing  in tourist destinations and downtown apartments attracts people to the region, it gets people to spend their money here, and it gets people to live here.

But now we’re seeing the dark side of this “new economy.” On the same day that the Governor gave that speech, Ryan McMahon, Chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature, went public with his proposal to incarcerate people who ask for money “aggressively.” The new law “would prohibit persistent solicitation after a person has rejected a request for money, which could be perceived as threatening.” A couple days later, Mayor Walsh came out in support of the law, saying that he’d heard complaints from “business owners and citizens who have felt threatened or harassed by panhandlers.”

If your idea of the “new economy” is based on bringing in new people, this panhandling law makes perfect sense. Those new people are the ones spending money Downtown, renting the $2500 apartments, shopping at the high-end clothing stores, drinking the $6 beer, and they’re not going to do all those things if they “feel threatened” or if they “perceive” Downtown to be dangerous. They are the people that matter, and if they might get scared off by interacting with some of the people in Syracuse who don’t matter, the obvious solution is to criminalize that interaction.

That’s why the Governor’s “new economy” is a moral failure–the people who have been living in Syracuse do matter, and they don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve to be talked about like they’re the problem, like they’re the reason the City has fallen on hard times. They deserve better lives, and any economy that can’t make that happen isn’t one worth bringing about.

It’s exciting that people want to be in Syracuse, are choosing to live in Syracuse. But those people need to see the whole City. It’s a City racked by poverty, segregation, and homelessness. The health of this community depends on facing those challenges squarely, respecting the humanity of each person who has suffered from them, and working together to overcome them. When Syracuse finally does that, it will have created a New Economy worth talking about.

The Other Viaduct

On August 7, the Post-Standard published a letter by Ed Griffin-Nolan arguing that the rail viaduct that runs along Downtown’s south and west sides should be torn down.

That viaduct does have its problems. A small bridge used to carry Jefferson Street over Onondaga Creek, but when they elevated the trains they got rid of that bridge. Now there’s no way to get directly from Armory Square to the Near Westside, and that has something to do with the stark differences between Wyoming and Walton Streets.

 

SHA’s East Adams Street Neighborhood Transformation Plan also talks about how the viaduct needs “cosmetic treatment” and “noise reduction treatment” for the sake of the people living right next to it.

But let’s not overdo it. Despite its problems, the viaduct has a lot of potential too, and there are plenty of people talking about all the ways that it can be a positive asset for Syracuse.

In 2015, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse hosted a public forum where people talked about running some kind of transit service on the viaduct. The most interesting idea to come out of that was paving the viaduct as part of a Bus Rapid Transit system. That could give Syracuse something like the Silver Line in Boston or the trolleys in Philadelphia–transit that runs in the street through most city neighborhoods, but that avoids the worst traffic in the city’s center.

The viaduct is also a canvas for public art. It started with the murals on the bridges over West and Fayette Streets in 2010, and artists has continued to make good use of the viaduct’s long flat undecorated walls ever since. This is some of the very best public art in Syracuse, and it elevates people’s daily lived experience of the City.

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Syracuse could also follow in New York City’s footsteps and turn the viaduct into something like the High Line–an elevated linear park that’s a magnet for people. As an elevated greenway, the viaduct would let people walk or bike between several different neighborhoods without having to worry about car traffic. It would connect the Creekwalk to more neighborhoods, and it’s a good opportunity to bring the Onondaga Lake trail into the City. It would take what is now a visual barrier between Downtown and the Southside, and turn it into a vantage point for people to see the City in a new way.

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Ed Griffin-Nolan is right to call that the rail viaduct a “vestige of the past.” It could only have been built in the past because the political and economic conditions that allowed the railroad to elevate its tracks through the center of Syracuse don’t exist anymore.

But he could just as well say the same thing about the New York City Subway. That city could never build its current subway if it had to start from scratch today either, but that that only makes the all those tunnels and rails more precious.

Syracuse is full of resources like this. No one would build something like Holy Trinity Church on Park Street anymore, but thank god it was there so that the City’s growing Muslim community could use it as a mosque. No one would dig a channel at the southern end of Onondaga Lake anymore, but the Inner Harbor is an asset for the City today anyway. No one would build a factory on Erie Boulevard, Wilkinson Street, Emerson Avenue, or Plum Street anymore, but old shop buildings on all those streets are finding new life as housing. Hell, the entire City of Syracuse is a relic of the 19th century, but it has remained relevant by making the best use of the resources at hand throughout its history.

Syracuse has 200 years of built heritage. For too long, the City treated that inheritance with contempt, demolishing buildings and tearing up infrastructure without thinking of the costs, all in the name of progress. We filled the Canal in to build a road, and then 100 years later decided we wanted part of the Canal back in Clinton Square. Syracuse isn’t so wealthy that it can afford to keep making mistakes like that. The City has to make the best use of what it’s got now. That’s the real challenge of the 21st century.

Transformed Neighborhoods

Someday, NYSDOT will demolish the structurally suspect I81 viaduct that runs alongside Downtown. That’s going to uncover a lot of land in the City’s center. Some people want for NYSDOT to build a new viaduct on that land, but last week, the Gifford Foundation put out a statement suggesting that Syracuse instead use the land to build a new neighborhood.

The Gifford Foundation isn’t interested in just any neighborhood–it thinks that this is an opportunity to do something “transformational”:

“A transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there, promote health and safety, and create jobs”

That sounds like a great place to live and a positive addition to the City. It’s the best possible outcome of this whole drawn-out process. Here’s hoping that kind of a neighborhood goes up when the viaduct comes down.

But in the meantime, let’s recognize that what the Gifford Foundation has described isn’t just a good blueprint for building a transformational new neighborhood. It’s also a call to transform the neighborhoods that Syracuse already has. Everybody living in this City deserves access to good schools, services, community, health, and employment, so while we’re all waiting for the possibility of getting a neighborhood that’s brand new, let’s do the work to make those things a reality in the neighborhoods that are already here.

It’s dangerous to focus too hard on something like I81. It’s such a big thing that’ll have such a big effect, that it’s too easy to just wait around for it to happen. But Syracuse can’t wait. Blodgett is falling apart now, people are showing up hungry at the Samaritan Center now, Centro’s out of money now, and this City needs to respond to all of that with urgency. If it does, then that new neighborhood the Gifford Foundation’s imagined won’t be so transformational. It’ll just be a new addition to a Syracuse that’s already transformed.

Syracuse’s Pride is Welcoming the Stranger

Since 2000, Syracuse has welcomed more than 10,000 people from overseas. Many of them arrived in the City as refugees, escaping violence in places like Somalia, the Sudan, and Syria. It’s hard work to get those people to the City, to help them fit in, to get them housing and a job, and it takes a whole constellation of allied organizations, businesses, and neighbors to do that work well.

This is work to be proud of. For too long, Syracuse found its pride and identity in vain things–national prominence borrowed from name brands, ill-defined and ill-conceived notions of growth. But it’s a truer pride that Syracuse, even with all of its challenges, continues to accept and embrace an ever-larger portion of the human family. The City is keeping the Nation’s promise to ‘lift its lamp beside the golden door’ and fulfilling the sacred duty to ‘welcome the strangers,’ even if they are some of the ‘least of these.’

Keeping that promise and fulfilling that duty have changed Syracuse for the better. Refugees are renewing old neighborhoods–fixing up homes and opening businesses. They are bringing new life to institutions like the Farmers Market and the Public Schools, and to old community fixtures like DiLauro’s Bakery and St. Vincent DePaul Church.

But now that’s all in jeopardy. On June 17, the Post-Standard published a letter from Beth Broadway, CEO of InterFaith works, that talked about all kinds of artificial barriers that the federal government has thrown up to make it hard for people to come to America. The numbers don’t lie–Syracuse is on pace to welcome 72% fewer refugees this year than it did in 2017. The prospects for 2019 are even worse.

That is all the result of a poisonous national politics. A politics that demonizes people who are made in the same image as all of us. A politics that criminalizes self-improvement and replaces compassion with cruelty– that attempts to deny our commonality. Ultimately, this politics harms us all, because we are all created equal, and so when we dehumanize these others, we equally dehumanize ourselves.

Syracuse will suffer spiritually and practically from the effects of this politics. It will suffer from the loss of that good work, and it will suffer from the loss of so many good people who would otherwise have added to all that the City already has. But Syracuse can keep its pride by fighting for those people at every opportunity.

In her letter, Ms Broadway talks about three ways that we can do this:

› Write letters, make phone calls and speak out for refugees with elected officials.
› Invite a refugee to speak to your congregation, club meeting or social group through InterFaith Works’ Spirit of America program.
› Volunteer with any of the refugee-serving organizations in Syracuse. We can use English tutors, drivers, organizers, friends to teach people about our community and more.

We can also give money to InterFaith Works, Catholic Charities, the Northside Learning Center, or any other that works with refugees directly or indirectly.

June 20th is World Refugee Day. This should be an occasion to celebrate Syracuse and the good work that the City is doing, but that work is now in jeopardy. Take June 20th as an opportunity to make a personal commitment to that work and, in doing so, make Syracuse a city to be proud of.

Who are jobs for?

In an opinion piece that the Post-Standard printed on May 13, Mitchell Patterson predicted that in the next few years, companies in and around Syracuse will be hiring for tens of thousands of jobs. This, he says, is a problem:

Having too many jobs sounds like a good problem to have. But not having the people – or the people with the right skills – to fill them is holding us back.

Who’s this “us,” and who’s a part of the “we” that worries elsewhere in the piece about how “we have a job glut,” and “we can’t even fill the current surplus of jobs that exist.”

That “us” certainly doesn’t include the 17,000 people who are looking for work right now. If it did, then several thousand new jobs would not be a problem, but an opportunity to improve several thousand people’s lives. When you include those people in the “us” that has a stake in Syracuse’s future, the problem instead becomes turning that opportunity into a reality for the people with the direst need.

To tackle that problem, Syracuse needs relevant educational opportunities for adult learners, and it needs useful transportation options for people who don’t own a car.

So many of these new jobs are going to require some kind of diploma, and that’s a barrier for a lot of people who are looking for work. Public educational institutions like OCC and BOCES serve adults who need to get new training so that they can earn those diplomas. These schools already do a lot of this good work, and they could do even more with larger staffs and more locations.

Those educational opportunities are no use, though, if people can’t reach them. It’s too difficult to take a class at OCC if you have to get there on the bus. It can be even more difficult to keep a job when day in and day out you’re relying on this bus system to get you to work on time. Organizations like Providence Services can help, but what the City really needs is to renew its commitment to public transportation as a tool of individual empowerment. The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s SMART1 recommendations will make it possible for more people to get to OCC and to more of the jobs available in the community. Centro needs support and pressure to act on those recommendations, and the SMTC needs to finish the job it started by planning all the other service improvements suggested in the Syracuse Transit System Analysis.

17,000 people are out looking for work. That’s more people than live in all of Geddes. They have to be a part of the conversation when we’re talking about the future of work in Syracuse. When they’re included, the the community’s obvious overriding imperative is to make sure that they benefit from these changes that are coming, these new jobs that will open up. Once we’ve taken care of that basic business, then let’s talk about whether or not there are too many jobs and not enough workers in this community.

Working for the Whole Neighborhood

On Sunday October 22, the West Onondaga Street Alliance (WOSA) announced that it would repaint the railroad bridge that crosses over West Onondaga Street at the edge of Downtown Syracuse. Currently, that bridge highlights the Rescue Mission’s work feeding the hungry and housing the homeless on its campus between the train tracks and the Adams Street Expressway. It’s painted bright red with the words “Mission District” on one side and “Lives Change Here” on the other. Soon, the bridge will instead read “City-Gate,” a name that WOSA has made up for what it’s calling a “new” neighborhood.

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This stretch of West Onondaga Street is not a new neighborhood. People have been living in this part of town since 1824. A lot of the people who lived there over the years were very rich, but now a lot of the people living there are very poor. WOSA worries that all that poverty makes some people from outside of the neighborhood feel like they’re not “invited” into it. WOSA told the Post-Standard that, while the words “Mission District” focus people’s attention on homelessness, the words “City-Gate” will get them to think of something other than poverty when they pass under the bridge on their way out of Downtown.

But poverty isn’t a problem that goes away when you stop thinking about it. Making up a new name won’t change the truth that people living just southwest of Downtown face everyday. It won’t bring Nojaims back. It won’t fix up Blodgett. It won’t shorten SHA’s waitlist for rent vouchers, and it won’t cosign anyone’s mortgage. There are all kinds of real problems that have entrenched poverty in this neighborhood and in this City, and they’re what people need to be working on.

Until that work is done, the poorest members of the community deserve our full attention. That’s what it means to be a community–to recognize that my life is tied up with yours, so I can’t pretend that my good fortune is unrelated to your daily hunger. Attempts to cover up part of a neighborhood–or to pretend that you belong to a “new” neighborhood that doesn’t have the same problems as the old one–sever those ties. The result is a community that’s poor in spirit, no matter how rich any of its members may be.

The Real Reasons it’s hard to Run a Business on the Near Westside

On September 12, the Post-Standard reported that Nojaim Brothers Supermarket, a 98 year old grocery store located in one of the City’s poorest neighborhoods, planned to close up shop. Within a week, the paper published several pieces analyzing effect on the neighborhood and Nojaims legacy in the community. Since that time, nothing has been put out, and it seems like Nojaims really might be on its way out.

That’s a shame. It’s a shame because the store is a good community member. It’s a shame because it’s well known throughout the county, showing people that good things happen in poor neighborhoods like the Near Westside. And it’s a shame because the people living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire metro area should be able to walk to a store where they can buy healthy food for themselves and their families.

It hasn’t been enough for some people to note that this is a shame. Local luminaries have asked, sensibly, whether or not the community’s elected representatives could have done something to avoid this problem.

The Post-Standard mentioned competition from the recently opened Price Rite on South Ave when it broke the story. Within minutes, EJ McMahon of the Empire Center blamed Price Rite and the tax breaks it received from the City. The Post-Standard published a follow-up article developing this case. Republican mayoral candidate Laura Lavine agrees with this assessment, and says that it’s independent mayoral candidate Ben Walsh’s fault for helping make the deal that brought Price Rite to South Avenue. Every other news outlet that has reported on Nojaims closing has mentioned competition from the South Ave Price Rite and the tax exemptions that it received.

This is all very small thinking. Anyone seriously interested in the effects that local government policies have had on the ability of a business like Nojaims to make it on the Near Westside can’t just look back a few months. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 62 years ago when it built the James Geddes Rowhouses to concentrate poverty in the neighborhood. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 53 years ago when it turned West Street into an expressway and demolished the neighborhood’s business center. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 42 years ago when it cut corners and built Fowler High School to be structurally unsound. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 23 years ago when it wasted the opportunity that Ontrack provided to connect the neighborhood to major employers via rapid transit. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 9 years ago, and again this year, when it declined to renovate Blodgett Elementary. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside a year ago when it built a police substation in the neighborhood but neglected to staff it with officers. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside over, and over, and over again when it’s called for a grocery store to serve Downtown’s new residents even though Nojaims is less than a mile away from Clinton Square.

When you’re dealing with a history of government abuse and neglect that stretches over seven decades, it takes some severe myopia to just see back as far as April.

There are a lot of good lessons to learn from Nojaims difficulties. The grocery store got government help to build an expansion, but the associated mortgage payment was too expensive–government might have pushed the store to grow too big too fast. The City of Syracuse put in a signalized cross-walk at Otisco Street, but couldn’t do enough to slow the traffic coming down West Street to make the crossing feel safe–maybe NYSDOT’s plans for the corridor will have more success. Syracuse University had been doing a lot to bring investment to the area, but the new chancellor is less interested in community outreach and has pulled back–maybe we shouldn’t rely on private institutions to do the necessary work in our communities.

With all of those lessons worth learning, it’s too bad that the Post-Standard and the Empire Center and Laura Lavine have learned a worthless lesson instead. They see the bad thing happening in the Near Westside and have blamed it on the good thing happening on the Southside. They think that it’s too hard to get healthy food in two adjacent poor neighborhoods, so we might as well not even try. They see the status quo as unfortunate but intractable–worth talking about but not worth fixing.

That’s not good enough for this City. Syracuse is facing some big challenges, and it needs a Mayor committed to making life more liveable in all of its neighborhoods, a press that calls for the changes that will make that happen, and it needs critics capable of showing the real causes of the City’s problems as well as actual solutions. If the leaders of the community understand what’s really going on and act intelligently, the City can fill the hole that Nojaims is leaving in the Near Westside, and it can build neighborhoods where people can find healthy food within walking distance.

Syracuse University’s Campus Framework and the City

On May 15, Syracuse University published its Campus Framework. This document “is meant to guide future potential development and decision-making” on both the University’s “physical campus and the surrounding area” until 2037. The plans for the campus’ “surrounding area” will have a direct impact on the City’s Near Eastside.

The last forty years show how Syracuse University’s building programs can either help or hurt the neighborhoods that abut the campus. During the 1970s and 80s–a period that the Framework calls “Strategic Investment”–Syracuse University closed public streets on University Hill and built new dorms on South Campus in order to remove students as much as possible from the City. The most visible project from this period is Bird Library, a concrete bunker built on top of what had been a public park and which cut off the intersection of Walnut Avenue and University Place.

Euphemistically, the Framework describes all of this building as “introspective”–it was really just an attempt to wall the campus off from the City. As the University separated its campus from the surrounding neighborhoods, it also discouraged students from living in city communities and contributing to their well-being. This ‘introspection’ added to the City’s myriad problems during these decades.

From the 1990s until 2014–a period that the Framework calls “Campus + City”–Syracuse University outgrew the wall that it had built along Waverly Avenue, and it had to locate new facilities further and further from the insular campus quad. Eventually, the University complemented this physical expansion with new services and initiatives that benefited both students and city residents. The most visible project from this period is the Connective Corridor, a free public bus route running from a university building in Armory Square to the main campus on University Hill.

Practical and economic factors forced the University to expand and expose itself to the City, but programs like the Connective Corridor, the Near Westside Initiative, and Say Yes to Education had a genuine positive impact on the community. Nancy Cantor, the University Chancellor who drove much of this new development, saw the University as an ‘Anchor Institution’ that could provide employment, capital, philanthropy, and a community vision for the City of Syracuse. She understood that city problems, if left unsolved, could eventually become university problems, so it was in the University’s interest to work for the benefit of the entire community. The two would succeed or fail together.

The Framework proposes to meld the ideas that guided campus development during these two periods. Like the “Campus + City” period, it looks for space to grow beyond the campus’ traditional boundaries, but like the “Strategic Investment” period, it seeks to draw a line between that new growth and the surrounding neighborhoods. The next period of campus development–which the Framework calls “Campus-City”–is ambivalent about about the University’s relationship to the City, but it should ultimately benefit the neighborhoods that surround the redeveloped campus.

According to the Framework, the chief challenge of the Campus-City period will be to consolidate the physical expansion of the Campus + City period while regaining the insular feeling achieved during the Strategic Investment period:

Syracuse University’s close physical connection to the city is an asset for partnerships and campus vibrancy; yet, it also creates challenges for an identifiable, clear sense of campus arrival. While the historic Campus on the Hill occupies a clearly defined area south of the Einhorn Family Walk, the University’s many other buildings within the Campus-City Community are not clearly defined.

It’s not enough that university buildings stretch down the northern slope of University Hill–those individual buildings must create a “clearly defined area” that campus visitors can enter or exit through “gateways.” That area’s definition should consist of “strong architectural design” communicating “University presence” and achieved through renovation of existing buildings and redevelopment of underused land.

The northern slope of University Hill lacks definition because it’s covered with surface parking. The University owns many of these lots, and the Framework proposes that it construct new dormitories on most of them. By designing these buildings all at once, the University can unify their facades and extend the campus’ clearly defined area all the way north to Harrison Street.

There is an economic incentive here as well. The University is in some financial trouble, and it can’t afford to keep buying up more land every time it needs to construct a new building. By more fully developing the land that it already owns, the University can add thousands of square feet of classroom and residential space without purchasing any more real estate.

Despite the insularity inherent in any plan to create “gateways” (entrances that imply barriers), this plan should benefit the neighborhood north of Harrison Street. First, by moving all of the dorm space from South Campus to University Hill, the University will bring an enormous buying population within walking distance of a struggling retail market. That will support the businesses along Genesee and Fayette Streets, and it will draw new businesses to the neighborhood, putting more daily errands and jobs within walking distance for the people who already live there.

Second, the decision not to buy any more land means that the University will not actively displace nearby residents. The majority of people living in the neighborhood rent their homes, so they’d be particularly vulnerable if the University continued to buy up land. This also means that there will be less total demand for land in the surrounding neighborhoods, and that will keep rents down.

Third, the Framework’s proposed upgrades to the Centro system will benefit everybody who rides the bus. After the University helps Centro implement the technology necessary to support “Real-Time Bus Arrival Information” and a “Bus Locator App,” Centro can turn around and offer those services to all of its riders. The Framework also proposes “Free Centro” for students–a subsidy that would boost ridership figures and automatically increase Centro’s state aid under the State Transit Operating Assistance funding formula.

Local government has work to do to capitalize on this opportunity. Just like the Strategic Investment period, the University still wants to control the public spaces within its campus. These include streets like University Place–long closed to through traffic and recently turned into a footpath–and parks like Walnut Park–a quarter of which is covered up by Bird Library, and which the Framework discusses as if it belongs to the University. City Hall needs to hold the line and keep public spaces public. That makes the difference between an insular campus and a Forbidden City on University Hill.

The State or SUNY Upstate or whoever it is that’s responsible also needs to let go of the land where Kennedy Square used to stand. The original plan for the site–displacing poor families in order to build a state-run luxury “neighborhood”–was bad, and it probably won’t ever get built. The land has sat vacant for four years, but developers are building new apartments along its edges. To more equitably distribute the benefits of land ownership, the State should allow City Hall to subdivide that land into normal-sized lots, and then it should sell those lots off to private developers who can build apartment buildings, stacked flats, single family homes, office buildings, and retail space on this prime real estate between the University and Downtown Syracuse.

 

The Westcott Neighborhood enjoys all kinds of advantages because of its proximity to Syracuse University. Students and professors live alongside families without any formal relationship to the University. Between subsidized apartments, cheap apartments, luxury apartments, affordable houses, and expensive houses, rich people and poor people all can find a place to live. The neighborhood has good transit, two grocery stores, and an active business district, allowing people to meet their daily needs without owning a car. It’s a place where all kinds of different people can make a good life.

The plans described in the Framework can bring the same benefits to the neighborhood north of Harrison Street. For all of its abstract discussion of architectural definition and efficient land use, the plan amounts to this: the University will move a lot of student housing from South Campus to the parking lots along the main campus’ northern fringe. That will instantly increase the area’s population without driving up its rents, and that means more money circulating through the neighborhood. If City and State government handle this change well, the result will be a larger, denser, healthier neighborhood between University Hill and Downtown Syracuse.

The University is asking for comments from the on the Framework. You can submit them at this link.