King + King Architects moved into a renovated building across the street from the Warehouse. For public TV and radio station WCNY, King + King Architects, working with KoningEizenberg Architecture, is renovating a 56,000-square-foot space in a former warehouse—a $20 million project that is funded by grants from the state of New York, Syracuse University, private donors, and foundations. Robbins calls this “textbook reweaving,” saying that “within a very small area, in the past four or five years, we’ve seen new construction that hasn’t happened in decades in the city of Syracuse.”
On a smaller scale, the university is also taking a hand in trying to redevelop some of the neighborhoods directly around the main campus. There is the Near Westside neighborhood, an intermittently blighted district that has been targeted for a kind of collaborative redevelopment partnership between the university and the community. Whereas some large private universities acquire more and more land for student housing, academic buildings, and other facilities, there seems to be a sense of civic opportunity in Syracuse, where property is inexpensive and where the university is the city’s second-largest employer. “This is the most reciprocal relationship in a city I’ve ever witnessed between the community and an academic institution,” Robbins says. “Rapprochement isn’t an easy thing—it takes a lot of trust on both sides.”
Syracuse University was able to invest $13.8 million in community development beginning in 2007, thanks to a targeted loan forgiveness program from the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation and Empire State Development. Much of that was directed toward the the Near Westside Initiative—a multipronged program that includes single-family home starts, historic renovations, and new developments.
The Syracuse Art, Literacy, and Technology District is a section of the neighborhood that abuts the downtown Armory District. It’s the site of an aggressive effort to accelerate the forces that attract artists and creative professionals to emerging neighborhoods. In October of last year, the mixed-use Lincoln Apartments by Brininstool + Lynch opened—a renovation of a 100-year-old warehouse into a 30,000-square-foot development that includes live-work spaces for artists. Older, decrepit housing stock is available for a song through the “dollar homes” program, which lets would-be homeowners purchase tax-delinquent homes for $1, provided they plan to live in the house, can qualify for a loan (typically $50,000 or above) for the renovations, and can finish the project in 18 months. Just last month, the city of Syracuse put more than 3,500 tax-delinquent properties in an online database for the public, in order to make sure that neighborhood residents have a chance to acquire properties made available by nonprofits and developers.
On Nov. 11, the Near Westside Initiative celebrated the LEED certification of three new homes. The house designs were the winning entrants in an international design competition called “From the Ground Up: Innovative Green Homes.” This competition is an example of the kind of partnership Robbins talks about: It was jointly sponsored by the architecture school, housing nonprofit Home HeadQuarters, and the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (SyracuseCoE). Robbins is eager to share credit with partners and stakeholders, saying that these efforts to reactivate the city’s urban core are “in and of themselves not all that novel. What I find interesting in Syracuse is that multiple methods are being brought to bear at the same time on multiple strategic levels.”
For the architecture student, one attraction has to be the way that Syracuse is exploring new approaches to urbanism, by using architecture as a way to alter the prevailing narrative of urban decline. By involving the school and Upstate as an engine for growth, Robbins believes that the projects have been able to attain a “higher level of design and a higher level of design exploration than would have otherwise been possible,” by luring innovative architectural firms to design and complete single-family homes in a transitional neighborhood in a small city.
At the same time, Robbins points out that the small size of Syracuse means that projects that would lack impact in a larger city’s downtown, such as Detroit or St. Louis, have more influence on the economy here. Scale is a factor that works in Syracuse’s favor. “We’ve been able to spark the market,” he says. In Syracuse, Robbins points out that “moving 500 people downtown has a big effect,” and that “there are bigger holes to fill in other places.”