Sunday, July 28, 2002
Can the Biggest Mall Ever
Help, Not Hurt Its City?
by Neil R.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Can a driven, sometimes ruthless
developer of big regional malls —
the kind of shopping emporia that typically devour downtown retail bases —
turn in his golden years into the savior of Syracuse, his historic but
job-short home community?
That's just one of the fascinating questions
introduced by the plans of Robert J. Congel, super-wealthy CEO/owner of the
Pyramid Management Group, past creator of 19 shopping centers across the
One of Congel's most successful projects is the
decade-old Carousel Center, which has drawn patronage from far and wide even
though it's built in Syracuse's decayed "Oil City" area, beside Onondaga
Lake, one of America's most polluted bodies of water.
Now Congel wants to expand Carousel into "DestiNY
USA," a $2.2 billion combination shop-store-restaurant-theater-tourist-hotel
center, complete with such features as a 65-acre enclosed park, a
15,000-seat amphitheater, an aquarium, a six-story "climbing wall" and a
re-creation of the Erie Canal.
At over 4 million square feet, DestiNY would well
exceed Minnesota's Mal of America. A Pyramid-sponsored consultant's
report claims it will attract 35 million annual "visits," including 12
million from outside New York and 2 million international tourists.
Some $12.5 billion in annual economic activity, including as many as 12,000
jobs at an average wage of $31,000, is projected.
Mayor Matt Driscoll says the city double-checked the
developer's figures, finding them credible. He adds: "If half of
what they estimate comes true, it's a home run."
Clearly, it was local officials' thirst for jobs and
economic development that led them to approve massive tax write-offs Pyramid
demanded for DestiNY — not only a 30-year exemption from local property
taxes but even more tax breaks by inclusion in the New York State's Empire
Zone and a federal Empowerment Zone. A disillusioned, in some cases
embittered group of opponents has for years been critical of Pyramid's
demands for concessions and "take-it-or-leave-it" tactics — all designed,
they claim, to reduce developer risk at the expense of already hard-pressed
local taxpayers, schools and services.
But sit down and talk with Congel in his
headquarters — Syracuse's former Clinton Square Post Office, now a restored
gem of polished brass, stone and vaulted ceilings — and you're quickly
exposed to an executive engaged in other-than-bottom-line thoughts.
First there's Syracuse loyalty. "Destiny is
being driven by passion and personal goals, not business," asserts Congel,
now 66 with an estimated personal wealth of $700 million. All the
incentives were in place to do a Destiny-like deal in Bethlehem, PA, he
notes, "But we live here in Syracuse, and you have to give back."
And, he adds, Syracuse needs future opportunities:
"I have 17 grandchildren, all nine or younger. I have a gas with them.
I don't want to see them have to leave."
So Destiny comes with surprising non-entertainment
features. First, Congel intends Destiny to be America's largest
"green" building — powered entirely by non-fossil fuel energy sources
ranging from solar panels to hydrogen fuel cells. No oil or gas
heating, even on winter's coldest days.
Next door, Congel proposes that an international
developer put up a $500 million clean-energy research park — a world-class
R&D center for non-oil energy. The goal is to draw scientists and
engineers to Syracuse, first for Destiny's own megastructure, then other
projects worthy of the proposed title: "Petroleum Addition Rehabilitation
Park." Think of it, says Congel, as "a Betty Ford Center for the
Next, Destiny is to include a 50,000-square foot
International Tourism/Exposition Center focused on Upstate New York's
multiple attractions, from the Finger Lakes to Niagara Falls to the Erie
Canal. This is unusual — anything inside a mall that suggests going
outside to the real world. But the plan's to do just that through "an
experimental, multimedia immersion environment."
Finally — assuming all financing falls into place —
there's the huge unknown: How will Destiny relate to the old city of
Syracuse? Congel talks fondly of the old, transitional neighborhoods
like close-by North Salina Street. Salina has the potential, notes
Syracuse historian Dennis Connors, "to become an historic enclave of small
shops, antique stores, coffeehouses with local character and ethnic
Yet without careful city planning, and thoughtful
assistance by Pyramid, Destiny could be surrounded by a massive ring of
pedestrian-hostile highways, parking garages and fast-food outlets.
I queried Congel on connections to central Syracuse
and he named the ideas: a monorail (also linked to the airport), a new
landscaped roadway, a waterway connection. But these connections won't
be financed and can't succeed unless the city and Congel focus skill and
resources on them.
Could it be — successful links between old downtown
Syracuse, a bit threadbare these days but home to rich architectural and
cultural treasures, and shiny new Destiny?
My theory: The uncertainties are humongous.
But only by trying such combinations can we start inventing successful new
is chairman of Citistates Group, which visited Central New York last fall
and recently offered its conclusions and suggestions for constructive
change. He wrote this for
Post Writers Group.