Group Gets Glimpse of What Syracuse Might Be

First taste offered of guide to aid government, schools, residents in improving city.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

By Teri Weaver, Staff writer

It was an image that made you want to call for reservations: A busy restaurant with outdoor seating next to a cobblestone patio bordering a canal. Foliage neatly tucked in planters matched the cafe's green awnings.

About 50 people crowded into a downtown office conference room stared at the picture Friday morning, trying to figure out where in Syracuse this restaurant was.

Mary Burgoon finally explained.

"This is San Antonio, Texas," she told the people gathered in the offices of FOCUS Greater Syracuse, a community group created to improve living in the area. The crowd laughed as she explained her point. This is what Syracuse should be, she said.

Burgoon, a senior planner at Clough, Harbour & Associates LLP, was at FOCUS' monthly meeting to give a first glimpse of Syracuse's attempt to create a "comprehensive plan."

The plan, the city's first in 85 years, is meant to give businesses, governments, schools and residents a guidebook that defines what needs improving in Syracuse and how to make those improvements happen.

From bike paths and downtown housing to better water pipes and schools, the plan should help draw more people to live, work and spend money inside the city's limits, said Chuckie Holstein, the executive director of FOCUS.

"This is just the first taste," Holstein said of Friday's discussion. "This is chapter one."

The city hired Clough, Harbour for about $150,000 to put together the plan. Friday's discussion was a preview of a draft plan, Burgoon said. She hopes to present the full plan to city officials in early fall.

"Comprehensive plans are very important documents for cities and communities," said Charles Everett, the city's director of operations. "The policies adopted in the plan are used in the everyday decision-making in the community."

Much of the plan's success relies on finding government and private money to make the improvements happen. Burgoon said after the meeting that the plan she'll hand over to the city won't include details about where to find the money or estimates on how much some of these visions will cost.

But having a plan - an actual document that explains the city's goals for the next 20 years - will help the city go after more grant money from the federal government and from private foundations, she said.

"They require that a municipality has a comprehensive plan, a vision for the future," she said. "They want to know about the specific project and that it fits within a larger scheme. It does definitely open the doors."

Everett agreed.

"That is very true," he said later Friday afternoon, adding that cities are more likely to win grant money if they prove the proposed improvement is part of a long-term goal. "It's important for a municipality to have a plan. Even if it's maintaining infrastructure."

Still, money will be a sticking point, many acknowledged Friday.

"The big bottleneck, as I see it, is going to be money," Holstein said.

Burgoon's draft plan includes emphasis on five areas in Syracuse: the Lakefront, downtown, University Hill, the area where Interstates 81 and 481 intersect and Erie Boulevard East.

Erie Boulevard, for instance, "is just a road into the city," Burgoon said. "It could become a major gateway."

The crowd responded with comments ranging from keeping graduating students in Syracuse to revamping the city's water system. Both Burgoon and Holstein said those thoughts are in the plan. Both also acknowledged that not every idea will ultimately be implemented.

"We know everything can't be done," Holstein said after the meeting. But, she added, residents shouldn't wait for the government to act or to pay for lifestyle improvements. "There are things citizens can do," she said.

Don Hughes rode his Trek mountain bicycle to the early morning meeting. After the meeting, he unlocked his bike from a sidewalk railing. There are few bike paths or designated bike stands throughout the city, he said.

"We got them to add one on Comstock two years ago," he said of a street in the university area. "It's a half-mile long."

2004 The Post-Standard.