A discussion of Blueprint 15 on the Campbell Conversations

Feb 23, 2019

Blueprint 15 is an ambitious new project to reconstruct the neighborhood in Syracuse surrounding I-81, in order to combat poverty and reinvigorate the area. Several key stakeholders are beginning the process of giving more shape to the idea. This week, Grant Reeher talks with the leaders of two of those organizations. Bill Simmons is Executive Director of the Syracuse Housing Authority, and Meg O'Connell, Executive Director of the Allyn Family Foundation

Interview highlights

Reeher: Let me start, Meg, and I’ll start with you, if you could just provide a basic … overview of Blueprint 15. What, at least at this point, is the vision about? And why is it being put forward?

O’Connell: The vision about Blueprint 15 is really that it exists and has been formed to be what we would call a community quarterback organization. It consists of about 18 to 20 different community leaders and stakeholders with vested interests and concerns about the neighborhood that we’re talking about. It includes, of course, the Syracuse Housing Authority, two commissioners of the Housing Authority, two residents who were appointed to serve on this board, as well as local leaders from business, education, medical Upstate, Syracuse Community Health Center, educational partners, the superintendent of schools, as well as the EOC. And the purpose of this organization is really to support the Syracuse Housing Authority as well as to create a vision of a holistic neighborhood revitalization for this neighborhood.

Reeher: What were the origins of the idea? What was the spark that got it going?

O’Connell: For a while, there’s been all these conversations about what’s going to happen with I-81 and the impact on that neighborhood. What happened to that neighborhood when I-81 went through was in many ways a racial social justice issue. And I think there’s a lot of concerns that we keep having this conversation about 81, but really, what does it mean to the neighborhoods and the residents? And it’s an area of our city that does have significant challenges related to the housing challenges that the housing authority has had. HUD is not putting a lot of money into housing projects and rebuilding housing projects, and so, there was an idea to try and say, “Now, wait a minute. Let’s really look at a much broader, more holistic revitalization of what this neighborhood could be.” And it has such rich historical and cultural roots as the old 15th ward. There’s really a strong community, in all the conversations we’ve had, really desire to try and as best bring it back to what it used to be.

Reeher: Will everyone who’s currently living in the housing projects have the ability to live in the new housing? How are you going to work that?

Simmons: We’re totally demolishing all the units and rebuilding the streets. They give each resident a tenant protection voucher, meaning that they will get a voucher to relocate pretty much anywhere they want in the country or any neighborhood. And then, they have the right to come back to the development once it’s fully completed. And so, you would do this in phases … And so, because there are still so many moving parts like the decision about I-81 and what’s going to happen, we’ve decided to work in the areas furthest from I-81 and work our way back, and hopefully, we’ll know more in the years to come. And that will dictate a lot of the rest of the phasing.

Reeher: This is in its early stages. Just say a little bit about that, and then, we’ll move onto another topic.

O’Connell: I think that’s a really important point. What we’re really announcing now is more kind of this partnership between the Syracuse Housing Authority, Blueprint 15 and a consulting entity called Purpose-Built Communities. … Essentially, there are no plans. There are no architectural drawings. Blueprint 15, in partnership with the Syracuse Housing Authority, has issued an RFP for a master developer. Once that master developer comes on late spring, there will then be a whole planning process that will be very comprehensive in terms of community engagement, resident involvement, and that’s really critical because we don’t want to really present that there is a plan that people haven’t even had an opportunity to participate in.

Reeher: It’s a concept at this point.

O’Connell: It’s a concept. It’s a vision. And I think it’s just trying to say that let’s think about how we can do something differently.

Reeher: Even though it’s a concept, is there an idea of what the estimated cost is going to be for something like this that will be borne, the cost that will be borne by at least public taxpayer funds and nonprofit funds as opposed to what investors are going to bring to the table and put in on their end?

Simmons: From a housing standpoint, all of the traditional models and dollars for building low-income and affordable housing, like tax credits and bonding and home loan banks, all of those tools that even the state of New York has provided for affordable housing, we will be using that mix of dollars to redevelop and develop these new properties.

Reeher: It’s a big, ambitious project. I think somewhere I saw $100 million in print. I don’t know. Maybe that was in the Post Standard, but Meg?

O’Connell: As Bill said, you have the housing component, which also entails changing the street scape. … Right now, there are more courtyards, and I think there’s a lot of desire to change a lot of the infrastructure in the roads, everything related to that. But as part of model, if you just tear down housing and rebuild new housing, that is not going to change over a neighborhood. … Again, we are using the framework around the Purpose Built Communities because they’ve done this successfully in 22 other communities across the country. So, what also would go, in addition to the housing costs and where the $100 million plus would come from, is the desire to make sure that we have really strong health and wellness opportunities … making sure that we have really strong creator-to-career educational opportunities. … What we’re also looking at is, also as Bill mentioned, that there has to be a mixed commercial. You have to have people that have opportunities for jobs, people to start businesses in these neighborhoods, so all of that together, when you look at that, is kind of what drives up the price. And I think that there’s been comparables done for Purpose Built Communities that can give you that $100 million plus budget.

Reeher: Meg, the Purpose Built Communities have been invoked a couple times, and as you mentioned, you’ve been working with this Atlanta-based nonprofit organization. … What kinds of services will you be looking for from the Purpose Built Communities in thinking about this project and thinking about actually putting it together?

O’Connell: Purpose Built Communities is essentially a free consulting service. They have to choose to come in and work with your community.

Reeher: They choose you.

O’Connell: They choose you, right? And I think that’s really important. So, when we started two plus years ago, almost three years ago, trying to look at concentrated poverty and other concerns, we were trying to figure out what other national organization was struggling with the same issues that Syracuse has. We’re not that unique in some ways. And so, that is where I found my way to Purpose Built Communities. … They started in 2001 in the East Lake Village neighborhood area of Atlanta, and at that time, it was very similar, a public housing project that actually was far worse in many ways in terms of the crime rates, the vacant properties, and over the period of the last 20 years has really turned around that neighborhood. And what happened was, after they started all of their work, they started to have other communities that came to them – New Orleans, Charlotte, Wilmington, Omaha, all these other cities that said, “Hey, what did you do? Because we have some of those same challenges.” And, in 2007, they founded the Purpose Built Communities as a consulting service. And what they do is they really come and help advice work through with the knowledge that they have how you envision a whole holistic revitalization, what that needs to be. They have a lot of data behind what they have shown to be effective. They look at a collective impact model. And so, that’s pretty much how we’ve been working with them.

Reeher: How will the community that’s currently living in the neighborhood be involved in the decision-making surrounding the project?

Simmons: I think when you have a master developer on board, they bring the additional staffing and expertise to have a number of community engagement meetings and make sure that your entire tenant base is involved in it along with the employees and stakeholders and complete process similar to what we did before when we had a planning group on board. You meet with individual groups in their developments and have these planning charrettes to find out what type of housing stock residents would like to have, types of activities, and what they would like to have happen in their schools. And then, from having these planning charrettes, you start to build a vision for the neighborhood and what opportunities, maybe even commercial opportunities, you want to have on that planning footprint.

Reeher: Does the plan assume, Bill, or does it require even, a particular outcome for what will be done with I-81? Because we still don’t know for sure.

Simmons: No, it doesn’t require a certain outcome. The Housing Authority has taken a position that we support the street grid option. That street grid option complements our housing plans the best, but regardless of what decision is made up with I-81, this type of investment in the community needs to happen. And so, it is not dependent upon the I-81 decision.

Reeher: There’s probably going to be an association of minds, though, between the grid in this even though, as Bill just said, the project can work with the retained viaduct. How’s that going to work for getting the support maybe of some of the suburbs that you wanted?

O’Connell: As someone who lives in those suburbs and has come out for the community grid pretty vocally, I really believe that everything has to come down, in our perspective, to what’s in the best interest of the residents and this city. And the ability to bring that highway down to the community grid and connect both our largest employers up on the hill into these neighborhoods only seems like a real win-win for the future of our city.