On July 30, Phyllis Moore went to the Rescue Mission soup kitchen, located among its three homeless shelters, to serve a lunch consisting of hot dogs, sliced potato bread, bags of potato chips and cupcakes. She was joined by six other members of the West Onondaga Street Alliance (WOSA) community outreach crew, all of whom were sporting white T-shirts, emblazoned with the alliance’s motto “Building Our Neighborhood, One Block At a Time,” while they provided meals to over 200 people in need.
Four days earlier, Moore, who retired from the Syracuse City School District as vice principal of Hugues Elementary School, voiced her concerns, about the issue of homelessness during a meeting at the Southwest Community Center. Here, too, she was accompanied by other individuals affiliated with WOSA, including Robert Bucklin-Pierce, its chairman and founding president; Thomas Pierce, Buckling-Pierce’s spouce; Jamie Lou McKinney, an attorney at McKinney Law Office, and Helen Dewey, owner of Dewey Intelligence & Strategy, a business management consulting service company, most of whom had been dishing out meals with Moore at the Rescue Mission.
The meeting had been convened by the City of Syracuse as a public open house and Eminent Domain Procedure Law hearing for the Onondaga Creekwalk Phase 2 Project, and it had three presenters: Russ Houck, from the city’s engineering department, who serves as project manager; Eileen Moore, regional real estate officer for the New York State Department of Transportation, and Chuck Stanton, from C&S Companies, who was responsible for producing a June 2016 design approval document, titled “Transportation Project Report: Draft Design Report.”
According to this document, some of this project objectives are to expand the regional bicycle/pedestrian transportation capability by expanding links from the South Side of the City of Syracuse to Onondaga Lake and the statewide Canalway Trail system and to act as a catalyst for economic development, stimulating growth along the creekwalk corridor, taking full advantage of the Onondaga Creek dynamics.
Houck said that the purpose of phase 2 is to expand the creekwalk two miles from downtown by Armory Square to West Colvin Street by Kirk Park. Federal aid will account for 80 percent of the project costs, and the rest will come from local funds.
Stanton added that the project’s ultimate vision is to have a trail that runs from Onondaga Lake to Dorwin Avenue in the Valley.
Then he discussed the choice between two alternative routes for phase 2: alternative 1, closer to the creek, and; alternative 2, farther away from it.
Alternative 1 was picked by the city as the preferred alternative to meet the project objectives because consistent feedback from the citizen participation process revealed that the public wanted to keep the creekwalk as close to this waterway as possible, he told the audience. The estimated total project cost of the proposed alternative is $11.1 million, $1.9 million of which will be right-of-way cost, destined to acquire 34 parcels along Midland Avenue between Bellevue and West Onondaga Street and four parcels along West Street between West Onondaga and Seymour streets, Staton said.
Then, Eileen Moore elaborated on the acquisition list, which she said comprised one residential building, potentially three commercial buildings, approximately three vacant parcels, and 22 strip acquisitions from private properties.
When the public comment period of the meeting began, Phyllis Moore, PM General Services, was the first to approach the mic. Reading from prepared remarks, she told the audience that, after her retirement, she volunteers as interim executive director of the Dunbar Center. Seven years ago she started investing her capital purchasing four properties along West Onondaga Street and South West Street. Last year, Moore bought at a public auction an empty lot at 393-405 W. Onondaga St., which gives “contiguity” to the property that she already owned at number 415 of the same street, part of which she rents to McKinney for her law practice.
She went on to say that she had plans to redevelop the 400 block of West Onondaga Street by opening a restaurant, named Joe’s Pizza CNY, and a museum dedicated to showcase the African-American experience, history and art. To this latter effect, she has been collecting memorabilia on these topics for 30 years.
Nonetheless, she has faced some bumps in the road, the first of which, she added, is the homeless loitering in their six favorite spots by West Onondaga Street, such as in three intersections (Clinton Street with Temple Street and with Dickerson Street), and at Billings Park, on the 600 block of South Salina Street. The homeless spill out of the nearby Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and Catholic Charities shelters and of the Central New York Services drug recovery program centers, she told the attendees. The second bump is that her property adjacent to the creek has been eyed by the city for acquisition by eminent domain.
Indeed, the “Transportation Project Report” says: “Upon crossing Temple Street, the trail will enter the vacant parcel of 393-405 W. Onondaga St., which is common to both feasible alternatives. Trail user enhancements, which may include plantings, architectural features and/or a meeting area for this 1.4-acre property, will be detailed during final design.
After traversing this property, the trail will enter the West Onondaga Street right-of-way at the intersection of West Onondaga Street and West Street.”
She said that city bureaucracy has told her that this acquisition is necessary to create green space along the creekwalk.
She made an offer to the city to let it take a 30-foot wide strip closer to the creek and keep the rest of her property for herself, but this offer was rejected by the city because it considered it not sufficient, she added.
She went on to say that there is already “enough green space” close by for stragglers to idle during the day, and extra green space on West Onondaga Street will be another magnet for them to hang out, besides causing an “irreparable” damage to her development and revitalization plans.
Robert Bucklin-Pierce said that WOSA currently has 57 members, some of whom have been residents of the area for years, and that the alliance supports the neighbors’ grievances. He warned the government officials present that, if the city administration does not redress these grievances, WOSA will have no choice but to contact the TV program “ABC News” in order to bring the neighbors’ plight to “national attention.” Finally, he recommended that the creekwalk should stay right next to the creek instead of deviating toward West Street.
Thomas Pierce said that WOSA has been cleaning up the West Onondaga corridor. He complained about panhandlers asking for money on this street.
Jamie Lou McKinney agreed. “I’m begged for money three or four times a day every day,” she said. “And, once, I was held at gunpoint in front of my office.”
McKinney added that there is already plenty of green space allocated in the design of the trail for the homeless to use, so it is not required for the city to seize all of 393-405 W. Onondaga St.
The last WOSA member to speak was Helen Dewey, who lives in an apartment in the Co-Op Building at 377 W. Onondaga St. She said that she was “enthusiastic” years ago, when she left suburbia to move to the Southwest of the city, where she renovated an apartment in a building owned with 26 others. She described the building as a “crown jewel,” whose backyard, which includes a perennial garden, goes back to the creek. She added that WOSA has to deal with the homeless, “a percentage of the population that is extremely vulnerable” and that the concentration of people loitering in the vicinity of West Onondaga Street is “affecting the security, privacy and quality of life” of this area. That is one of the reasons she has several concerns with the city taking 393-405 W. Onondaga St. from Moore.
Stanton said the comments received from the public will be evaluated on whether or not “they fit within the project goals.”
Phyllis Moore suggested that her hopes had not been dashed nor her dreams shattered just yet. She concluded, “A once vibrant neighborhood can be vital again.”
– By Miguel Balbuena, community correspondent for The Stand