In Destiny's Shadow
Businesses in limbo while
megamall gets planned
December 08, 2002
By Frederic Pierce, Staff writer
For 47 years, the Little Gem Diner has been a 24-hour oasis for hungry
insomniacs, at Spencer and Liberty streets in the triangle of Syracuse once
known as Oil City.
But the landmark eatery with the spinning counter seats and the
steel-plated sides might not make it to a 50th anniversary if The Pyramid
Cos.' master plan for Destiny USA and the area around it becomes reality.
Under the developer's ultimate vision, Doc's Little Gem Diner would be re
placed by the fairway of the 16th hole of a new golf course.
That same vision would level the five-story building that houses the
thriving Syracuse Antiques Exchange and replace it with a convention center
four times as big as Onondaga County's Oncenter, in downtown Syracuse.
And the plan would bury the traditional working-class neighborhood known
as Maciejowa beneath more golf greens, and new residential and commercial
"This is a bold vision, a dynamic project that has the ability to shape
the city for several decades, probably several generations," said Pyramid
executive David Aitken. "It is not without difficulty (that) change is to be
made, on everybody's part."
Destiny, Pyramid's proposed $2.2 billion tourist attraction, could grant
the unfulfilled promise of the original Carousel Center mall and Franklin
Square projects by filling the 800-acre triangle of underused industrial
land and polluted "brownfields" with hotels, offices, shops - and people,
To make that happen, Pyramid officials say, city leaders must be willing
to clear the way for what Aitken calls "critical" elements of Destiny,
including the massive convention center covering five blocks of North Salina
Street, and a
PGA-quality golf course stretching from the base of the Inner Harbor
north to the state fairgrounds.
"At some point, this project went from being a retail center to being a
destination," Aitken said. "For a destination, you need a total package. You
need the convention center, you need the golf course, you need access to
water, you need continuity between the destination and all of its
Syracuse, like other cities that have created successful waterfront
tourist destinations, must be willing to use its powers of eminent domain to
gain control of property needed for the project, Aitken said.
The city's industrial development agency used those powers to push oil
companies off the land Pyramid needed to expand Carousel Center mall, across
But city officials last week said they aren't ready to commit to - or
rule out - helping Pyramid move reluctant property owners outside of the
original footprint of Destiny USA.
"We need something that's site-specific and calls for specific reuse,"
Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll said, noting that they've seen nothing but
conceptual drawings of "extras" such as the golf course. "I'm willing to
look at anything. In the meantime, we have our own goals and plans."
The city's Lakefront Development Corp. last week unveiled its own updated
master plan for the area in response to the constantly evolving Destiny
The city's new vision calls for the gradual elimination of industrial
uses in the former Oil City. The machinery-filled lots, vacant land,
operating businesses and generations-old homes destined for golf turf in
Pyramid's plan are a patchwork of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the
The city's plan for change is long-term and slow-moving. All existing
owners can continue doing what they're doing, and a transformation isn't
expected for two or three decades.
Aitken said he isn't worried about the seeming conflict between
the two master plans and their differing timetables. Pyramid wants to open
Destiny in 2004.
City officials have said they wanted a plan that would remain viable if
Destiny's grandest incarnations fell short, or if the development failed to
materialize at all.
Aitken, who served as head of the Lakefront Development Corp. under Mayor
Roy Bernardi, said he understands that, and might have produced a similar
master plan if he was working in his old job.
The key to Destiny's future isn't the city's vision - which shares the
same goals of waterfront redevelopment and job creation as Pyramid - but its
redrawn zoning map for the area, Aitken said. That map is expected in
"To accomplish goals, you need visions," he said. "But for visions to
become reality, you've got to have something that has teeth."
Pyramid officials hope the new zoning map gives them enough flexibility
to build the features they say they need to turn Syracuse's North Side into
a world-class vacation and business destination, Aitken said.
A designated tourism zone, for example, could accommodate both the
mixture of residential and commercial projects that the city sees to the
west of the Inner Harbor, and the golf course that Pyramid's experts tell
them hotels and vacation destinations need to attract people.
"There's a way to blend the things we want to do with their plans,"
Driscoll said. "There's room for a golf course in the area, and we've had
discussions about that."
Driscoll said one of his goals for the area is to involve companies other
than Pyramid in developing the waterfront.
Pyramid plans to submit specific proposals for the golf course, the
convention center and other projects, Aitken said. Ideally, the developer
would like to do them all at once, but realistically, he sees them happening
a piece at a time, similar to the way a homeowner renovates his or her
property one room at a time.
The bottom line, he said, is that those specific elements must be
built, whether the work is spearheaded by Pyramid or some other group.
Meanwhile, the owners of more than 200 properties between Interstates 81
and 690, and dozens more between I-690 and upper North Salina Street, wait
"I've invested a lot of my money in this building, and I've put a lot of
sweat-equity into it," said David Jenks, who turned an 1880s-era building at
North Salina and Wolf streets into an antiques showroom that attracts
customers from out of state. "If someone comes along now and says they're
taking it by eminent domain, I am not going to be happy."
Jenks has his own vision: a street of well-kept antique stores and shops
stretching from Hiawatha Boulevard south to the Little Italy project on the
opposite end of North Salina Street.
Pyramid's plan, however, would empty Jenks' side of North Salina Street
from the current Carousel Center mall to Court Street to build a
500,000-square-foot convention center that crosses over Interstate 81 to
connect with Destiny.
It would demolish blocks of old warehouses and single-family and rental
Part of the convention center project includes several blocks of
"mixed-use" structures: buildings similar to those in Franklin Square, with
commercial storefronts, residential apartments, and courtyards filled with
Pyramid envisions those mixed-use projects stretching between the harbor
and Franklin Square, then running west between Interstate 690 and Spencer
Street to Hiawatha Boulevard.
Part of the total package is parking. When Jim Kraft, the owner of Harbor
View Liquors on North Clinton Street, got a peek at Pyramid's master plan,
he was surprised to see that the building he bought and renovated five years
ago was slated to become a parking garage.
"It looked good to me until I saw that," Kraft said. "But this keeps
evolving. I don't get too excited about it. I've been listening to it now
for five years, and the only thing I've seen is them driving some pilings
into the ground. And then they stopped that."
Next-door to Harbor View is a building owned by the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, Local 43. According to the Pyramid
plan, it is destined to become a parking lot and walkway.
The union has been a strong supporter of Pyramid's project. James
Corbett, an Onondaga County legislator who works for the IBEW, voted for
local and state tax incentives for Destiny. Last week, he said he was
waiting to see how realistic Pyramid's latest plan was.
"I'm going with the flow," he said Friday. "It's still just a concept."
Corbett said the proposal had, though, stalled the union's plans for an
"We're trying to decide whether to add on to our training center," he
said. "This has thrown a monkey wrench into it."
Even if it wanted to, the union couldn't get a building permit for the
project. The city slapped a moratorium on all new construction work in the
area until midsummer to give planners time to come up with zoning and
P.J. Schmid's plans to expand his business are also on hold, even though
his Hiawatha Boulevard body shop is outside the Lakefront moratorium zone.
Pyramid's plans to close Bear Street between I-81 and I-690 would cut off
convenient access to Rudy Schmid's Body Shop, the family business P.J.
Schmid's grandfather started in 1930, he said. Until he knows whether that's
going to happen, he's not going to invest in a planned expansion of his
"We're looking to knock out the walls again, but we're not going to do it
if we're not going to get the customers," P.J. Schmid said.
The expansion is needed for the truck body work he now does at space he
leases on Park Street across from the Regional Market. That property is part
of Pyramid's expansion plans, which show it as a hotel parking lot.
The hotel would be built at Hiawatha Boulevard and Park Street, on the
site where a brand-new Babies R Us building went up a year ago.
Other businesses that recently made investments are also slated
for removal under the Pyramid plan, most of them to accommodate the golf
Anoplate, a business that employs 150, is no longer welcome under either
the city's or Pyramid's plan. The company's buildings now span both sides of
Pulaski Street, areas that Pyramid would like to see turned into fairways
for the third and fourth holes.
"Our plans are to stay as long as we can until something else comes along
with an offer or an opportunity," said Milton Stevenson Jr., the company's
Some property owners in the area don't plan to leave without a struggle.
Francis "Doc" Good bought the Little Gem Diner in 1997. He said he was
attracted by its uniqueness, its history, and the possibility of turning it
over to his son some day.
Until he was contacted by a reporter last week, he said he had no idea
anyone was thinking of making his property part of a golf course.
"It's become a matter of greed, as far as I can see," the retired
engineer-turned-restaurateur said. "If they think that a 69-year-old codger
won't stand up to them and fight, they've got another think coming."
© 2002 The Post-Standard.