Creating Poetry with City's Buildings

October 11, 2001

Dick Case

We've got a poet rebuilding downtown Syracuse.

Bob Doucette is also credentialed as a lawyer, sociologist, real estate developer and teacher; maybe even a philosopher. He's a passionate advocate of cities, and his adopted hometown in particular. Bob's president of Armory Development and Management. He settled here in the 1980s and went into real estate, packing degrees in law and public administration. Some people tell us he's the guy who planted the seed that sprouted into Armory Square.

He grew up in the Mohawk Valley and Rockland County, but Syracuse is where he wants to be.

"The longer I'm here, the better I like it," Bob told me the other day over coffee in Armory Square. He says he can't stand it to hear our neighbors talk down the community and threaten to leave.

The poet in Bob made a quick appearance recently when he was invited to give his first talk to the Thursday Morning Roundtable. He talked about cities and closed with a poem he admitted was inspired by Carl Sandburg's "Chicago."

"Ode to Syracuse" begins: "Syracuse, salt-maker to the world ..."

Bob admits to writing a few poems back when, adding, "There are poetic things to be said about Syracuse."

These days, he concentrates on his own master plan to transform downtown, little by little. He and his partners have rehabilitated four buildings and constructed a fifth (Center Armory) in the past 20 years.

The latest project's almost finished: creating 15 apartments from office space in the upper floors of the 1928 Loew Building at Jefferson and Salina streets, above the Landmark Theatre. Loew's Residential Suites reflects Bob's belief there are people who want to live downtown.

He and partner George Curry believed that 17 years ago when they redid the Syracuse Labor Temple on Franklin Street as a place to live. Recently, there's a small boom in converting business space to living space in our central business district.

Most of the Loew's apartments are rented. The rest of Armory's are full, according to the boss.

Now Bob and another partner, lawyer Ed Green, want to raise a complex of twin towers for 80 apartments at Washington and Salina, above the farmers market lot.

Bob's invested in Syracuse and invites others to join him as financial and spiritual partners: "We need to invest in Syracuse," he told the Thursday Morning Roundtable audience. "Invest with public resources and our will. The city makes good business sense. It always was a place where people made money; we need to get back to that."

He mentioned the Labor Temple project as an example.

"Before George and I bought it, it wasn't paying any taxes," he explained. "Now, it's paying $65,000 to $80,000 a year. That means in 12 years, we've paid for two teachers and activated a corner of Syracuse."

I got Bob to reminisce about how it began. He said it was over dinner at Phoebe's, when he and his friend George, a professor of landscape architecture and city planner, talked about trips they'd taken to Boston and New York.

"We talked about city life and wondered why we couldn't have that here," Bob recalled. "We decided to see if we could do something about it in Syracuse.

"The idea was to develop an urban neighborhood of pedestrians, first-floor retail and apartments above... residential city life."

The partners scouted neighborhoods for the right place to start. The Hawley-Burnet area looked good for a while, but then they settled on the old factory district at the western edge of downtown, around the state armory. It seemed to have the right combination of derelict buildings ready to be saved, size and closeness to the city center.

"We cataloged what we had and drew up plans to create a historic district," Bob continued. "Eventually it came together, although it was tough sledding in the beginning. The thing is, you have to stick by your plan."

The plan was simple: Each building would have mixed use - commercial on the ground floor, living space above. The challenges were many.

Bankers weren't easily convinced. Retailers wondered where customers would come from. Right off, people wanted to break with the plan.

"I had to refuse a friend of mine who wanted to open a law office in one of the first-floor spaces," Bob said. "A plan's nothing without the will to implement it."

Early support came from the Downtown Committee and Mayor Tom Young, although Bob points out the owners paid for most of the improvements outside their buildings, such as sidewalks and street lamps. Historic tax credits helped, too.

He thinks the dream came true, mostly, although he said, "We never anticipated so many taverns and restaurants. But yes, there are people in the streets. It's a community."

He's not sure if the Labor Temple project would have clicked without Patrick and Karyn Heagerty signing on early. He persuaded them to move their Pastabilities restaurant into the building's commercial space, one of the first retail flags planted in the renewed neighborhood.

Bob has nothing but good things to say about our new Clinton Square. "I've never seen a better use of public money," he said. "We need beauty in our lives. This is our true village green."

He teaches the sociology of cities at LeMoyne College. Part of the class is a trip to Kingston, Ontario, a city of 50,000 that Bob uses as an example that "you don't need a huge population to have an urban lifestyle."

Bob's friend Russ Andrews runs an insurance agency on the eastern edge of downtown. The former county legislator is a loud urban cheerleader and he's about to put his money where his mouth is.

Russ and his wife are selling their house in Sedgwick and renting one of Bob's Loew's suites. He's looking to invest in a downtown property, also.

"That's the lifestyle we think we want," Russ explained Wednesday. "It's happening all over and Bob's doing it here."

Copyright, 2001, The Herald Company

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