Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development

Near Westside Initiative Overview

January 01, 2013 at 9:36 AM

  • Editor's Note: Short Enterprises president and founder W. Michael Short served as deputy director of the Near Westside Initiative while completing a graduate fellowship at Syracuse University.

SYRACUSE, NEW YORK -- After six years of work, the NWSI has made significant strides in bringing its vision to fruition. The NWSI has leveraged $70 million in new capital investment and attracted 337 full time jobs to a neighborhood that had seen no new investment for decades. In addition 60 homes have been built or rehabilitated and 45 Syracuse University faculty members and 808 students have been engaged in the effort. $3.3 million in green infrastructure has been invested in the neighborhood including some of the first "green" basketball courts in Upstate NY, residential street reconstruction and green roofs. The neighborhood is now home to four LEED Platinum structures including three green homes built as a result of a national design competition and featured in DWELL magazine. The NWSI's first warehouse renovation, the Lincoln Building, is now home to La Casita, the City's first Latino Cultural Center; the headquarters of Say Yes to Education and ten, fully occupied artist work/live lofts. ProLiteracy International, the largest literacy organization in the world recently moved their headquarters to a portion of the NWSI's second warehouse reconstruction project, the 100 year old Case Supply Building. WCNY, the regions public broadcasting station will occupy its new 55,000 square foot, state-of-the-art multi-state broadcast center and education facility in the Case warehouse in May, 2013.


The Near Westside (NWS) is the poorest neighborhood in Syracuse, New York, and the 9th poorest in the country. Continual declines in population and home values over the last 50 years, compounded by the subsequent erosion of the tax base and available services, have left the neighborhood struggling with high crime rates, profound disinvestment, persistently low-performing schools and countless hollowed out industrial, residential and commercial buildings. Located immediately west of the city’s thriving Armory Square district, the neighborhood’s 0.33 square mile area contains 188 vacant parcels of land (25%), 83 vacant and boarded up residential structures (15%), and roughly 500,000 square feet of abandoned/underutilized warehouse and manufacturing facilities – the equivalent of 11 football fields. According to the 2000 US Census, the median household income was $12,428 and the neighborhood’s poverty rate was an alarming 52%, nearly double that of the city’s rate. This impoverishment is reflected in the neighborhood’s owner-occupancy rate of only 16%.

Community Partnerships & Leveraged Resources:

In 2006, a broad community-wide, resident-driven, coalition formed to revitalize this severely distressed neighborhood. The combined resources of Syracuse University (SU), New York State, the City of Syracuse, private foundations, businesses, not-for-profit corporations, and neighborhood residents are being leveraged to foster economic growth and improve the stability of the neighborhood. The coalition, led by SU, established a new non-profit development corporation, the Near Westside Initiative Inc. (NWSI), with a mission of using the power of art, technology and innovation, in keeping with neighborhood values and culture, to revitalize this struggling neighborhood.

Syracuse University as Anchor Institution:

Syracuse University has a long history of successful collaboration with Near Westside residents over the past four years. The SU-NWSI partnership provides rich expertise, nationally recognized scholarship in the area of regional planning, inclusive urban education, student ingenuity and passion and diverse intellectual resources to the comprehensive neighborhood transformation planning process.

Syracuse University has been the principal funder of the NWSI, providing approximately $8 million dollars to date. Perhaps most important to the SU-NWSI partnership is that over thirty-eight faculty members from ten colleges at the University have engaged six hundred students in projects in the neighborhood. The projects range from the design and construction of new homes by students in the School of Architecture to the creation of a legal entity for a resident-owned Green Property Management business by the College of Law.

SU also facilitated many of the organizational relationships now serving as the foundation of the NWSI. SU’s leadership in the planning of the NWSI inspired the collaborative operating model now utilized by the initiative. As a result, the initiative is provided dedicated staff from the Gifford Foundation, a private foundation in Syracuse; Home HeadQuarters, an experienced not-for-profit housing corporation; the Syracuse Center of Excellence, an industry-university collaborative enterprise that creates innovations in environmental and energy systems for a sustainable future that includes more than 140 firms, universities, research institutions, and economic development organizations; the Syracuse University School of Architecture; and the SU Office of Community Engagement and Economic Development.  This comprehensive collaboration is overseen by the NWSI Board of Directors, which in keeping with SU’s philosophy of community engagement and ownership, will be a majority resident-run board by 2013.

SU has a solid reputation for completing unique projects within identified constraints. World renowned intellectual resources are being brought to bear on the challenges of this small Syracuse neighborhood. In addition, SU has a great deal of experience promoting ongoing and meaningful community participation with residents and organizations that are broadly representative of resident voices. One of the SU’s programs, housed in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, known as CNYSpeaks, provides residents of the Central New York region with opportunities to have a meaningful and constructive voice about issues affecting their lives. CNYSpeaks is the region’s only nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that designs and implements constructive public deliberation processes that can accommodate hundreds of participants at one time. The overarching goals of CNYSpeaks are to: Raise the level of civic attention and involvement on critical community and regional issues; Improve the quality of public discourse and decision-making; Stimulate better, more honest communication between citizens, elected officials, policy and decision-makers, and civic and business leaders; and improve the responsiveness and quality of public action and policy. Since its founding, CNYSpeaks has trained over 200 public forum facilitators. They have also engaged 2,500 Syracuse residents in face-to-face deliberations and over 12,000 people in facilitated online discussions. CNYSpeaks has been publicly supported and recognized by SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor and numerous elected officials for successfully facilitating community engagement and won the Best Online Content Award in 2009 from the New York State Associated Press.

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance:

The catalytic projects planned for Syracuse’s Near Westside were conceived from the desire and commitment of project partners to improve conditions in the neighborhood. Initial planning included an analysis of existing conditions and a review of community initiatives achieving success in similar neighborhoods across the country. Successful asset-based community development models were then modified for application to the NWS by incorporating the region’s emerging signature strengths in “green” technologies and design.

In addition, a set of coordinated people-based approaches were also incorporated to address the multiple pressing needs of neighborhood residents. As a result, a vision was created for the NWS that includes new commercial/residential mixed-use developments and investments in residential properties. The buildings being redeveloped are former warehouses that serve as a reminder of the power and influence of this formerly industrial city. Current efforts are also focused on residential housing located in close proximity to these large commercial structures. Through the development of these warehouses and homes, and the inclusion of neighborhood resident input, this currently disinvested neighborhood will become a model for neighborhood revitalization.

The NWSI has demonstrated its ability to unify multiple organizations around the development and implementation of a shared plan for the NWS. In addition, the NWSI has held all involved parties and partners accountable for implementation as well as sustained commitments. NWSI’s designated planning coordinator, SU, has played an integral role in all of these efforts. Past planning experience highlights with resulting outcomes include:

  • Lincoln Supply Warehouse: Through diligent planning, NWSI purchased and recently completed renovating this vacant four-story warehouse in the neighborhood ($3.5M project). The new space has 10 live/work artist lofts on the top two floors and two commercial tenants signed leases for the bottom two floors.
  • Case Supply Warehouse: Over the past three years the NWSI has successfully recruited the regional public broadcasting station WCNY to relocate into this abandoned warehouse in the neighborhood. The leading international literacy organization, ProLiteracy, was also successfully recruited to relocate to Case Supply. $11M of the $23M in funds required for construction have been committed. Both project and architectural planning are underway and construction is scheduled to begin in March 2011. All of this work has been accomplished collaboratively with project partners.
  • Small Business Development: The NWSI conducted a street-by-street study in 2009 to assess the needs of the local business community. In response, the NWSI is currently working to launch a micro-loan program in partnership with the Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union. Other initiatives include a business and entrepreneurial development program, a business peer mentoring program, and the formation of a business association (20 members).
  • Green Practices/Infrastructure: In partnership with the Syracuse Center of Excellence the NWSI has attained a LEED-Neighborhood Development Pilot Project designation from the US Green Building Council. This was the result of a year long planning effort with the City of Syracuse and neighborhood residents. Efforts are currently underway to incorporate green building and technology into the NWSI’s sustainable urban development plan. Improvements include: the deconstruction instead of demolishment of a neighborhood residence, new energy efficient appliances, porous pavement for sidewalks/driveways, rain gardens to manage run-off, and several homes have been retrofitted with water-catchment systems.
  • Near Westside Home Performance Study: Collaborating with NWSI partner Home HeadQuarters, Inc. (HHQ), SyracuseCoE hired contractors to perform home performance assessments (including energy audit and health and safety inspections), and SyracuseCoE staff provided assistance to homeowners to interpret the results.  To date, 24 home performance audits have been conducted and 22 home owners have received assistance in interpreting results.
  • Residential Property Redevelopment: NWSI assisted HHQ in their planned acquisition of 103 properties in the neighborhood – 20 properties were sold to owner-occupants, 11 were demolished, and 1 was deconstructed, 11 were substantially rehabilitated, and 7 new homes are being constructed for owner-occupants. To date, 46 homeowners have taken advantage of exterior mini-grants and 41 homeowners have made energy upgrades. Home HeadQuarters sold 4 properties “as-is” for one dollar under a pilot program designed to encourage homeownership and private investment.
  • Government Collaboration: The NWSI successfully collaborated with the City of Syracuse and the State of New York to pass a seven-year property tax abatement incentive plan that has helped the NWSI to market abandoned and dilapidated properties.
  • Innovative Green Homes: November Construction completed on three “From the Ground Up” homes. These homes were the winners in an international competition hosted by Syracuse University’s School of Architecture (SOA), UPSTATE: Center for Design, Research and Real Estate at the SOA, in partnership with Syracuse Center of Excellence, Home HeadQuarters, the Near Westside Initiative, and neighborhood residents.

Successful Community & Resident Engagement:

The NWSI is built on a foundation of engagement and collaboration with neighborhood residents. A third of the Board of Directors live or work in the neighborhood. In addition, successful planning and coordination with residents resulted in the creation of the Near Westside Community on the Move. This resident organization meets monthly with a regular attendance of 50-70 residents. The group has an established resident-lead committee structure allowing direct influence on the work of the broader initiative, empowering residents to leverage their combined resources to undertake projects of their choosing, and guaranteeing ongoing resident feedback on all matters involving the NWSI.

Multiple Funding Streams:

The NWSI successfully secured and integrated funding streams from multiple public and private sources to implement its ongoing and comprehensive neighborhood plan in the NWS. SU provided the seed money for the NWSI, which was made available through the reinvestment of debt from a New York State Urban Development Corporation mortgage (Debt Reinvestment Program). SU redirected these funds ($13.8M) to support the economic revitalization of the NWS and to create facilities focused on evaluating and showcasing new technologies developed by partner organizations. SU also contributed approximately $1M in additional funding over the last three years for staffing and operational costs and $116K for numerous projects in the neighborhood. Additional secured and integrated funding include: $10.9M from New York State, $2.5M from the Federal Government, $250,000 from the Gifford Foundation, $200K from National Grid, and $98K of a $3M Kauffman Foundation grant.

Superblocks & Poverty Concentration:

Located at the heart of the NWS is the structurally distressed and socially alienated James Geddes housing development, which is managed by the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA). Construction of James Geddes in 1955 altered the original neighborhood street grid by eliminating a number of cross streets. As detailed in a report issued by HUD in 1996, construction of high-density public housing developments on “superblocks” result in “high levels of distress by cutting off residents from the surrounding community.” This rings true for the 950 residents of the development who account for 29% of the neighborhood’s total population and are the most economically challenged with 79% of households having extremely low income.

James Geddes houses 950 residents and has 477 units. The development consists of 4 senior citizen high-rise buildings and 39 family row houses and clearly exhibits major structural and design deficiencies. Any comprehensive and long-term success by NWSI will rely on the successful integration of James Geddes into the overall neighborhood revitalization effort by addressing these deficiencies. The development demonstrates substantially inappropriate site layout and building design when compared to the surrounding neighborhood. James Geddes makes up only 6% of the neighborhood’s total area but houses 29% of the neighborhood’s residents. Furthermore, while 52% of NWS residents are living in poverty, James Geddes residents are the most vulnerable/economically challenged in the neighborhood with 79% of households having extremely low income. In addition, the site layout deficiencies fostering this entrenched and concentrated poverty are also isolating residents from the surrounding community. With little connection outside of James Geddes, residents are unable to take full advantage of the social and economic opportunities resulting from the revitalization efforts currently underway.
The social and economic consequences resulting form the construction of densely populated James Geddes “superblocks” are profound, it’s also important to note that the four high rises are critical for the area as they provide some of the only accessible elderly and disabled housing in the neighborhood: 24% of residents are disabled and 23% households are headed by seniors. It’s clear that there is a substantial need for major redesign/reconstruction, redevelopment, and partial demolition of the development.


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