About 25 people sat and stood around a small table in the cafeteria of the STEAM School at Dr. King Elementary School on Saturday.
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh sat next to Victor Dover — a co-founder of Dover, Kohl & Partners, the design firm helping Syracuse plan for what to do as Interstate 81 comes down.
Across from them were residents of Pioneer Homes and Central Village, two public housing projects that could be demolished as the city and Syracuse Housing Authority plan to redevelop its public housing.
“That place could be beautiful,” said resident Katherine Fudge. “We don’t want to move.”
Dover heard feedback similar to Fudge’s nearly all week during its “design studio,” a process meant to engage residents on changes they’d like to see. The meetings seeking input from residents wrapped up on Saturday.
Residents and advocates weighed in all week with big-picture considerations. They recommended not entirely removing the existing public housing and building a grocery store on the South Side.
The firm also laid out a bit of its own hopes for the project. They pinned up diagrams of narrowed lanes, expanded medians and more trees along the community grid.
Some of the designs began to reveal what downtown could look like. Designers outlined what a new walkable downtown community might entail, and drew rough sketches of where housing might be located.
The firm will make recommendations to the city on everything from streetscapes to how to handle the South Side housing projects.
Josh Frank, project manager for Dover, Kohl & Partners, said the firm — which is under contract for about three years — will be prepared to share some of the recommendations sooner than others.
“This is especially real and especially imminent,” Dover said.
Dover likened the firm’s role to fans cheering in the stands at a hockey game. They have suggestions and hopes for the project but ultimately, other players will get to make the final decisions.
Those players include Syracuse Housing Authority, the city of Syracuse, McCormack Baron Salazar and designers at Urban Design Associates.
Representatives from Dover repeated that everything is still on the table in their recommendations, even if the suggestions they make could end up being more idealistic than realistic.
The most prominent example that emerged over the course of the weeklong design studio was a desire to keep some public housing that already exists.
Dover officials said they would consider recommending keeping some current public housing, which would be a deviation from plans floated by the city and housing authority.
Longtime residents pushed for the city to maintain the current housing rather than redevelop. Some said they see the buildings as structurally sound and believe they just need fixing up. Others say they’ve created a sense of neighborhood they don’t want fractured.
Dover officials heard that refrain repeatedly this week. They echoed it back on Saturday.
“The fear of losing the neighborhood,” Dover described it as.
Walsh made clear to residents they should expect change to be coming to the area. The housing authority does not have enough federal funding to refurbish all public housing, he said.
“The status quo, keeping it the way it is, isn’t an option, so how can we use the new resources that are available to make the investments that we need?” Walsh said.
He also emphasized that he hoped to keep as many people as possible in place who want to stay, “even if we have to make some changes to the building, whether it’s minor changes like new floors or major changes like new buildings.”
Designers noted another challenges with redevelopment, such as loss of green space in the immediate future.
One of the planners said in a Tuesday meeting that he’d helped redesign a neighborhood in Baltimore using federal funds.
While the redesign won national awards, he felt after that it hurt the neighborhood. He cautioned the other planners to take heed of the community’s recommendations.
“We have questions and we’ve started raising them,” Dover said.
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