Onondaga Commons: Near Westside Community Partner Since 1978

February 06, 2013 at 4:41 PM

As planning continues to move forward on the Onondaga Commons Comprehensive Expansion & Job Creation efforts, we look to draw from a rich tradition and long track record of success and community involvement.

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Central New York Business Journal, October 1989

ONONDAGA COMMONS

Syracuse's Human Services Mini-Mall

In one of Syracuse's most depressed areas, camouflaged among the shabby houses, sits a blue, "L"-shaped building with mauve trim. Though it appears no different than most of the other structures, the modest edifice is one of a kind.

Dead center in the city's one-square mile Economic Development Zone, The Onondaga Commons is what Martin Yenawine, president of Eastern Ambulance in Syracuse called "a human services center" for the state and city's urban renewal program. "It's not a one-stop-shopping service center for people in the area, but it's certainly a wonderful focus for a lot of human services," he says.

Inside, Onondaga Commons does appear a "shopping mall" of community services, containing everything from a day-care facility to a minority business-owner assistance center. It was built on the same concept as the ED Zone program: by taking a specific area of a city and developing businesses, jobs and housing, while providing human services, you can bring it back to life. "You can start the ball rolling," says Yenawine.

The program, instituted on July 21, 1987, was designed "to encourage business creation, expansion and renovation; stimulate increased employment; and foster improvement in general living conditions of a badly deteriorated neighborhood on Syracuse's westside. The idea is to target a small area rather than an entire section of a city.

Yenawine became involved with the project while seeking financial assistance from the city for remodeling Eastern Ambulance's facilities. The city not only agreed to help him, but also decided to build a human services center there, since Eastern Ambulance happened to be located in the center of the Zone.

In 1978, the developers, Yenawine and Eastern Ambulance's Chief Operating Officer Robert A. Barnes II, acquired the three acre site and renovated the dilapidated building Eastern had previously occupied in order to include a human services center. Eastern Ambulance was moved to the back of the facility and, in 1988, Onondaga Commons was constructed in its place using $1.9M in investments. Yenawine explains that the tax abatements and credits offered by the city to businesses within the Zone made the plan possible. Niagara Mohawk and New York Telephone offer lower utility and telephone rates to businesses within the Zone. Also, businesses that make improvements in their facilities in the Zone don't get reappraised for 10 years, which puts off property tax increases.

"If we had to pass on those increases in taxes to our tenants, we couldn't have done the project," says Yenawine.

Once the center opened in August 1988, it soon filled with a host of not-for-profit renters. The first tenant, Spaulding Support Services, develops group homes for the mentally disabled. I'm Smart, another tenant, provides alternatives to drinking and driving; it offers risk control services to businesses, fraternities, sororities, and over 130 bars, restaurants, private clubs and bowling centers, and services as an alternative transport service.

The other wing of the building, the official human services center, houses a number of human services for members of the community. The health clinic provides medical care and daily clinics for residents. Across the hall, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program counsels mothers on health and nutrition for themselves and their babies. WIC also offers "food vouchers" or checks to pregnant, post-partum or nursing mothers and their children under five years old, for products such as baby formula, milk and eggs. The Enterprise Assistance Center provides management and technical assistance to minority and women -owned business owners.

Also, in this "public service mini-mall" is the Commons, a community meeting room, and the Onondaga Commons Day Care Center, which holds up to 100 children from the ages of two months to five years. Sixty percent of the center's slots are reserved for children whose mothers belong to the Comprehensive Employment Opportunity Support Center, which provides counseling right in the day-care center to mothers on public assistance who are returning to the work force.

Although parents' fees are usually subsidized, the retail costs are $75 per week for infants under three years old and $70 per week for children older than three.

Rebuild Syracuse, Inc., the home office of the facility and of the ED Zone itself, works with everyone from Zone residents to business owners, and coordinates alternative housing lotteries for low-income families.

The Homestead Program finds local, vacant, dilapidated structures which the city "takes" on a tax deed and renovates using New York State Housing trust funds and Community Development Block Funds. The buildings are remodeled into homes and placed in a lottery for qualified families. The homestead lottery is reserved for residents with very low incomes. In order to qualify, a four-person family, for example, cannot make over $17,200 per year. If the family wins, it must agree to live at least 15 years in the home. After that, the occupants may sell the house and keep the proceeds. Costs to the family include only property tax, homeowners insurance, utility bills and annual inspections, although the Zone office is currently looking for a city donation to cover the inspection fees.

The ED Zone office also handles the Affordable Housing Program, which constructs new homes on some of the 176 vacant lots (which have at least a 40-foot frontage) in the Zone. This program provides homes for families with a $20,000 to $32,000 yearly income who are tired of renting apartments and want a home of their own. The average home,  which comes with three bedrooms, and and a half bathroom and a basement, costs $65,000 to $67,000 to construct. The winning family, however, only pays about $45,000, due to a $20,000 grant from the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation.

The purpose of these programs, says Rebuild Syracuse, Inc. Coordinator Christine Abate, is to increase the current 20 percent homeownership ratio in the Zone to an ideal, long-range goal of 50 percent. "You can't have a stable neighborhood with that kind of figure," says Abate. "We need more homeowners with a vested interest in the neighborhood." Once they can increase stability in the neighborhood through homeownership, more business owners will be attracted to the area, creating more jobs. Twenty-nine businesses are certified in the Zone, eight of which are "new" firms, and 20 percent of the jobs they create must go to Zone residents. The ED Zone office facilitates this too by matching trained job seekers with available positions.

But those working in the office and in the Onondaga Commons itself share a goal other than to create jobs provide services, and build new homes in the Zone. Onondaga Commons' modest, drab structure serves as proof that they are not interested solely in improving the Zone's outward appearance. They hope that their efforts will generate positive, productive attitudes in those who live and work in the area.

"If we can develop jobs and start to deal with the whole issue of urban renewal, the economic and physical renewal of a targeted area, we can also do a lot of spiritual renewal," says Yenawine. "Great things can happen. You begin  to build hope. Jobs develop dignity, dignity creates hope. When you've got hope, then you start to develop things like neighborhood pride and respect."

Once residents have a sense of pride in their neighborhood, Yenawine says, they develop a lack of tolerance for all kinds of anti social behavior, from graffiti to child abuse and sexual assaults. And to its neighborhood residents, the Onondaga Commons delivers a message: hope for a better place to live lies not outside, but right in the middle of one's own neighborhood.

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