Co-op brings stability to old neighborhood

October 31, 2002

Dick Case, Post-Standard Columnist

The Syracusans who live at 377 W. Onondaga St. threw themselves a party at Hotel Syracuse Wednesday night. They think they have something to celebrate.

They do.

The ''377 Building,'' as it's now called, is Syracuse's only co-op apartment building. This is the fifth anniversary of 377 officially becoming the property of the people who live in its 29 apartments above a row of storefronts near where Onondaga meets West Street.

 

The owner-occupants, who have shares in the 377 corporation, also saluted the 75th anniversary of their building.

It opened Oct. 21, 1927, as ''Onondaga Luxury Apartments, under scientific management.''

No. 377 is in the black and fully occupied, according to Tim Wentworth, who moved in in 1987 and is corporation president and building manager. Residents credit Tim with making the downtown landmark a winner.

''We're proud of this building,'' Tim says.

Solid as it is today, even Tim admits the place looked to be on its way out 16 years ago. The owners were behind in taxes and mortgage payments. Many tenants were Social Services clients who abused their apartments. In one year, there were six fires.

''I couldn't believe what it looked like when I moved in,'' Beth Kellogg explains. She's a director of the corporation and owner of a spiffy apartment overlooking Onondaga Street.

''The rent was cheap and I wanted to live downtown.''

Tim says other residents told him to forget it; let the moneylender repossess it and move on.

''I fell in love with the building,'' he continues. ''I knew I wanted to do something.''

He helped organize a co-op corporation, began major repairs and redecorating, ''weeded out'' tenants who weren't with the program and began paying off overdue bills. In time, ''we created our own little neighborhood,'' according to Tim.

''In 2000, we paid off all the back taxes; we have perfect credit.''

377 recently spent $10,000 for an electronic gate to the tenant parking lot behind the building and $37,000 for elevator repairs. Sometimes directors put repair costs on their own credit cards, then are paid back out of monthly fees from residents.

Folks who were in the building before the co-op status became shareholders with their security deposits. Shares vary with apartment size; 377 has mostly one-bedrooms with a few efficiencies. Monthly fees - covering mortgage payments, heat, taxes - range from $300 to $405.

When an owner sells an apartment, sale prices go from $6,000 to $15,000.

Storefronts, which are straight rentals, contribute to the income. The senior tenant is Unity Kitchen, in its 17th year. Two of the regular Kitchen guests - Helen Bean and Willy Daniels - also are shareholders upstairs or ''our landlords,'' according to Peter King, one of the workers.

There are also a beauty salon, an upholstery shop, a church congregation and soon, Abajava, a coffee cafe that Tim's almost ready to open. He's stepping back from his wallpaper business.

377's tenants are an interesting mix, much like the residents, by Tim and Beth's measure. The range in age is 21 to 85; those who are still working mostly work downtown: They include a psychologist, a social worker, a factory worker, the owner of a small business, and a forestry college scientist.

''After you live here, you're very committed,'' Beth is saying as she serves us tea in a living room decorated with a built-in fish tank and an old-fashioned telephone booth. ''People ask me if I know everyone and I say I do. It's not like living in an apartment building.''

Residents are responsible for their own decorating. Apartments range from spare to out of here. Beth has a deck on the roof. The back lot stretches to Onondaga Creek, where residents run their dogs, have summer picnics and raise flowers.

''This is urban living,'' Tim says with a grin.

More and more of us seem to want to live downtown. 377 is a pioneer in that respect. Gretchen and Dan Leary came later, but they're pioneers, too, in their office-town house on North Warren Street.

The Learys are friends of Tim's, and fellow panelists on the downtown TNT committee. Dan says he thinks urban living has a foothold in Syracuse, ''although I'd like to see more owner-occupied places; we certainly need a grocery and deli.''

West Onondaga Street used to be one of the city's finest addresses, ''second to none,'' according to an ad in 1879. Apartment houses and businesses started at Clinton Street, the elegant homes at West Street. Elegance fades.

Beth's and Tim's windows look out on the Calumet Apartments across the street, boards on the windows, and the mansion that used to be Whelan Bros. Funeral Home; it's just been sold again and may be demolished, like its neighbor, the Breed house, recently lost to a fire.

Still, neighbors seem positive about the street, particularly the restoration of old Victorian homes from South Avenue west to Leavenworth Circle Park. It's not the ''combat zone'' it used to be, according to resident Peter Jacobs, chairman of the West Onondaga Street Alliance.

''I don't think we're going downhill anymore,'' Peter told me this week.

Atlantic States Legal Foundation owns two connected mansions at 652 and 658 West Onondaga which have been fixed up for offices and a residence. The foundation's also working to find a new use for its next-door neighbor, the ''666'' apartment house, now boarded up and waiting for a change in life.

Ric Bruno, meanwhile, has his own urban improvement district at the end of the 700 block, where he owns five properties, including his own showcase home.

Ric is not upbeat on the future of his 2½ acres this week, mainly because he hasn't been able to get the city to move on demolishing the Berkley, an apartment house that opened the same year as 377. It's empty, with every window smashed, a serious crack in the rear wall and $467,000 in back taxes.

City officials can't take down No. 735 because it's in a proposed national historic preservation district under review by the state. Demolition requires state approval.

The Preservation Association of Central New York asked state experts to review an application for a district, which would run from West Street to the Leavenworth Circle.

As far as Ric Bruno's concerned, the preservationists are standing in the way of removing an eyesore from a neighborhood he's improved and heavily invested in. He says he's bought a place in Florida ''and I'm moving as soon as I can.''

Three blocks east, Tim Wentworth and Beth Kellogg have finished hanging Halloween decorations and Beth's photographs of downtown in the foyer of 377. They're here for the duration.

''I love this neighborhood,'' Tim says.

2002 The Post-Standard.