October 11, 2001
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
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
Most of the Loew's
apartments are rented. The rest of Armory's are full, according to the
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
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."
2001, The Herald Company