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McMahon agrees to Southside housing development in return for vote on aquarium

An empty lot which serves as a potential space for a housing development.
An empty lot which serves as a potential space for a housing development.

A new Onondaga County-funded housing initiative on Syracuse’s Southside will serve to help a community dealing with a severe housing shortage. But it seems the investment was orchestrated, in part, as leverage to get another vote in favor of the aquarium.

Syracuse’s Southside has vacant houses and unused lots lining the streets—the highest percentage in the city. But County Executive Ryan McMahon announced Friday that construction will begin on some of the properties.

“We are going to build 10 new homes. Some of these homes will be for affordable housing, some of these houses will be for first-time home buyers, but also, we will have scatter site homes that will provide case management opportunities and supportive services for folks that would have been facing the decision of being potentially homeless or not,” McMahon said.

McMahon has another headline project in the works: his proposed $85 million aquarium on Syracuse’s Inner Harbor. But some legislators have been hesitant to support the project because they think the focus should be on initiatives like housing. McMahon disagrees.

“You’ve heard throughout the last 10 months, not necessarily from Legislator Garland, but others: 'Invest in this, not that. Invest in this, not that.' What we’ve said is growing communities don’t play the either-or game, that’s what failing communities do. What growing [communities] do is they identify all the challenges, all the opportunities; they build partnerships to address that, and then you do all of the above,” McMahon said.

Legislator Charles Garland represents Syracuse’s Southside in the county's 16th district. He says he came to an agreement with McMahon that he’d vote yes to the aquarium if McMahon delivered on something like the housing initiative.

“This is politics 101. I’ve been very vocal about the aquarium. It’s a wonderful idea in theory and everything else but we’ve always said I represent 28,000 people. I was very specific if you were to do something for the 16th....” Garland said.

Most legislators have not taken Garland’s approach and some are organizing protests against the aquarium. But McMahon says residents of their districts shouldn’t be concerned that they will be penalized if their legislator votes no.

“Those folks have been disingenuous this whole process. You can look in their districts and look at all the investments we still make. And it’s the reality that I represent the whole community and I’m not going to pick winners and losers because their legislators play partisan politics,” McMahon said.

Legislators could vote on the aquarium at their Tuesday session. It’s still not clear if it has the nine votes needed to pass.