July 31, 2003


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.

-Stephen Leon