What is Your Destiny?
I've been told by reliable sources that Robert Congel has
a summer house in Skaneateles.
In case you haven't heard of or don't know much about
Skaneateles, it's a village in central New York state on the tip of a lake
bearing the same name, situated about 20 miles southwest of Syracuse. Part
small town, part suburb and part tourist destination, it's a handsome
village full of restored historic buildings housing small, locally owned
shops, galleries and restaurants, where people gather to shop and eat but
also to stroll on the plentiful sidewalks, rest on benches or make use of
bike and jogging paths and well-kept parks. In short, the village of
Skaneateles is historic, walkable, human-scale-and because of that,
attractive to residents, visitors and entrepreneurs alike.
Oh, and the town of Skaneateles has an interesting little
rule governing development within its borders: a zoning restriction limiting
retail stores to no more than 45,000 square feet and shopping-center sites
to no more than 15 acres.
In case you haven't heard of Robert Congel, he's the
founder and CEO of Pyramid, the corporation that builds very large enclosed
malls, one of them being Crossgates Mall in Guilderland. Pyramid also built
the Carousel Center shopping mall in Syracuse, which Congel now wants to
triple in size, creating the largest mall/resort/hotel in North America.
"Destiny USA" would cover 13 million square feet, or about 300 acres. And
its scope would far exceed that of your average, run-of-the-mill enclosed
shopping complex: Destiny would feature the expected retail stores (400) and
restaurants (30) but also a 100-acre enclosed park, a six-story rock- and
ice-climbing wall, theaters to accommodate Broadway and fashion shows,
20,000 hotel rooms, and what the Web site describes as the "world's largest
marine life experience."
Plans for Destiny USA currently are on hold, because
during the legislative session that ended last week, the New York State
Legislature failed to act on state guarantees Pyramid had sought, which
would have brought the developer up to $52 million a year in tax credits.
Pyramid still has a shot at getting its share of the corporate-welfare pie
if the Legislature decides to return for a special session later in the
year, but just in case state lawmakers think Congel and co. are going to
take last week's insult lying down, they've already dropped loud hints that
if New York doesn't ante up soon, they might just take their $2.2 billion
project and thousands of new jobs to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania.
What amuses me most about all of this is not the absurd
scale of the project, the idea that families by the thousands will flock to
such a place for vacations, the amount of cash Pyramid already has dropped
on its so-far-unsuccessful lobbying efforts, or even the fact that the
project's name sounds like a stripper. No, it's the fact that Destiny is
being pitched by Pyramid, touted by supporters and portrayed in the media as
the solution to central New York's economic woes.
Now I'll be the first to admit that my crystal ball isn't
any better than anyone else's. And god knows you can never underestimate the
possibility that hordes of people will flock to Destiny simply because it's
bigger than anything they've ever seen. But it does make me wonder what kind
of community Syracuse wants to be-or maybe I should say, what kind of
community Robert Congel wants Syracuse to be. Because if Destiny is built,
and if it is even remotely successful, Syracuse will become, more so than it
already may be, a community of chain stores and chain restaurants and prefab
entertainment and cars, cars, cars, as far as the eye can see.
Recently, I became interested in a book that came out a
year or so ago, Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, and the
theories the author has been developing, particularly around the issue of
how communities try to improve their short- and long-term economic
prospects. One of Florida's main points is that many of the people who hold
sway over urban planning don't understand the significant shifts that have
taken place in the American workforce over the last several decades and what
they might mean for a city's long-term vitality. Specifically, he details
the significant increase in the percentage of the workforce who work in
occupations that fall under his broad umbrella of creativity: artists,
musicians and writers, of course, but also many educators, editors, software
designers, new-economy entrepreneurs, etc.-in short, anyone working on the
development of new ideas and new technologies.
As this class rises and the manufacturing class declines,
Florida argues, the old paradigms of economic development may no longer
function the way old-school elected officials, planners and developers think
they will. For example, if you dangle money in front of a company so they'll
come to your city and build something big -- a factory, a mall, an
entertainment complex complete with IMAX theater, brew pub, etc. -- you
might get an initial boost in the local economy, only to wind up scratching
your heads a few years later when the new development(s) fail to change the
character of the city, spur more growth and/or reverse the trend of creative
people leaving the city for someplace that has more to offer than malls,
chain restaurants and brew pubs.
What Florida has found is that the members of the growing
creative class gravitate toward places that reward their thirst for
diversity, unique local culture, thriving arts, aesthetically pleasing
neighborhoods and architecture, and the company of like- minded people --
and in turn add to those places' vibrancy with their own creative
contributions. Cities that lack these qualities likely will lose some of
their brightest and most energetic young adults to more interesting cities,
but also -- and Florida already has begun to document this -- will lose
whole companies whose leaders have realized that they can find and keep
better employees in places where the creative class congregates.
If Florida is on to something, then Congel and the
supporters of Destiny are not. A huge shopping mall with hundreds of chain
stores and restaurants and 20,000 hotel rooms surrounded by acres of parking
lots and connector roads will not help to make Syracuse the kind of place
that creative people will flock to -- quite the opposite, it will help make
Syracuse the kind of place creative people flee.
All of that probably matters little to Bob Congel, who
doesn't live in Syracuse. And besides, whenever he really needs to kick
back, he can relax at his summer home in Skaneateles, whose quality of life,
he can rest assured, will never be threatened by enormous shopping malls.