Clinton Square - The Future

How will the New Clinton Square Function as a Public Space?

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a non-profit organization specializing in the "planning, design and management of the public realm." Founded in 1975, it has evaluated over 1,000 public spaces around the world. As a result of their research, PPS has identified four qualities that are critical for any public space:

  1. The space must be accessible and well connected to its surroundings, both visually and physically.

  2. People need to be engaged in activities there,

  3. The space must be comfortable, and have a good image, and

  4. It should be a sociable place, one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.

Below are some questions PPS suggests you can ask when evaluating a public space. As you read them, think about our local public spaces -- particularly Clinton Square and Hanover Square.

Photo: Preservation Association of Central New York

Access & Linkages:

You can judge the accessibility of a place by its connections to its surroundings, both visual and physical. A successful public space is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. The edges of a space are important as well: For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Accessible spaces have a high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit.

  • Can you see the space from a distance? Can you see into its interior from the outside?

  • Is there a good connection between the space and the adjacent buildings, or is it surrounded by blank walls? Do occupants of adjacent buildings use the space?

  • Can people easily walk to the place? For example, do they have to dart between moving cars to get there?

  • Do sidewalks lead to and from the adjacent areas?

  • Does the space function for people with special needs?

  • Are there roads and paths through the space and do they take people where they actually want to go?

  • Can people use a variety of transportation options -- bus train, car, bicycle, etc. -- to reach the place?

  • Are transit stops conveniently located next to destinations such as libraries, post offices, park entrances, etc.?

    Comfort & Image

    Whether a space is comfortable and presents itself well - has a good image - is key to its success. Comfort includes perceptions about safety, cleanliness, and the availability of places to sit -- the importance of giving people a choice of where to sit is generally underestimated. Women in particular are good judges of comfort and image and tend to be more discriminating about the public spaces they use.

    Questions to consider regarding Comfort & Image:

  • Does the place make a good first impression?

  • Are there as many women as men?

  • Are there enough places to sit? Are seats conveniently located? Do people have a choice of places to sit, either in the sun or shade?

  • Are spaces clean and free of litter? Who is responsible for maintenance? What do they do? When?

  • Does the area feel safe? Is there a security presence? If so, what do these people do? When are they on duty?

  • Are people taking pictures? Are there many photo opportunities available?

  • Do vehicles dominate the space, or prevent pedestrians from easily getting to the space?

    Uses & Activities

    Activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Having something to do gives people a reason to come -- and return. When there is nothing to do, a space will generally be empty.

    Principles to keep in mind in evaluating the uses and activities of a place:

  • The more activities going on, and that people have an opportunity to participate in, the better.

  • There should be a good balance between men and women (women are more particular about the spaces that they use).

  • People of different ages should use the space (retired people and people with young children can use a space during the day when others are working).

  • The space should be used throughout the day.

  • A space that is used by both singles and people in groups is better than one that is used just by single people -- it means that there are places for people to sit with friends, there is more socializing, and it is more fun.

  • The ultimate success of a space is determined by how well it is managed.

    Questions to consider about Uses & Activities:

  • Are people using the space or is it empty?

  • Is it used by people of different ages?

  • Are people in groups or alone?

  • How many different types of activities are occurring -- people walking, eating, playing baseball, chess, relaxing, reading?

  • Which parts of the space are used and which are not?

  • Are there choices of things to do?

  • Is there a management presence, can you identify that anyone is in charge of the space?


    This is a difficult quality for a place to achieve, but once attained it becomes an unmistakable feature. When people see friends, meet and greet their neighbors, and feel comfortable interacting with strangers, they tend to feel a stronger sense of place or attachment to their community - and to the place that fosters these types of social activities.

    Questions to consider about Sociability:

  • Is this a place where you would choose to meet your friends? Are others meeting friends here or running into them?

  • Are people in groups? Are they talking with one another?

  • Do people seem to know each other by face or by name?

  • Do people bring their friends and relatives to see the place or do they point to one of its features with pride?

  • Are people smiling? Do people make eye contact with each other?

  • Do people use the place regularly and by choice?

  • Is there a mix of ages and ethnic groups that generally reflects the community at large?

  • Do people tend to pick up litter when they see it?

  • (The information here comes from What Makes a Successful Place? at PPS's website. If you'd like to read more, go here:

    The Verdict

    • Clinton Square and, to a lesser extent, Hanover Square have excellent visibility from a distance particularly from the west and east but also from north and south. Walking to the squares from various places downtown usually isn't a problem, although city traffic has to be negotiated when the city has not temporarily closed streets on the perimeter. Parking downtown for events in Clinton square can be a problem. Because the square is mostly open, walking through it isn't difficult except when it is full of people. Mass transit to the square is only as good as that for the city in general barely adequate.

    • The lack of connection with adjoining buildings is Clinton Square's largest problem. A glance at the 1912 Clinton Square panorama shows that virtually all of the buildings on the square once faced into the square offering multiple connections and services. Many of those buildings have been lost and those erected since have been oriented away from the noise and traffic that had characterized Erie Boulevard the main thoroughfare through town.

      • This effect is particularly evident with the Syracuse Newspapers building which now occupies the entire north side of the square, yet offers not a single door facing into the square.

      • The Clinton Exchange building was saved from destruction and converted to offices after it sat vacant for several years.  Today it serves as the corporate headquarters of the Pyramid Corporation. But in its previous lives this building served much more public functions as the Federal Building and then the major downtown post office.

      • The Jerry Rescue building that once faced into the square is now gone, leaving only a parking lot with a windowless brick wall behind it.

      • Even the little four story building at the northwest corner of West Genesee and Clinton, the Kearnby Building, has been demolished in recent years.

      However, there still are opportunities to increase connections between the square and the buildings on its perimeter.

      • The Gridley Building has a large, vacant space on the first floor. This is elevated well above ground level and offers a commanding view of both Clinton Square and the entrance into Hanover square.  Several restaurants have come and gone in the lower level of the Gridley Building.

      • Although it isn't "historic," The Atrium, on the south side of the square may offer the best potential for establishing connections into the square.  Its internal space could be readily reconfigured to this purpose and traffic between the Atrium and the square is restricted and infrequent.

      • Here's a more ambitious idea: the Jerry Rescue building could be recreated on its original site at the southwest corner of the square, with the majority of the new building devoted to an abolition and underground railroad museum.

    • In Hanover Square, many more of the original buildings have survived and there is excellent potential for connections between these buildings and the square -- but only potential.  New apartments have been developed in several buildings on both the north and south sides of the square and these filled up almost as quickly as they were completed.  Having these "eyes on the street" will greatly further the development of the area.

    Photo courtesy of Syracuse Blueprint

    • Ice skating returned to Clinton Square in 2001, an activity that hadn't been witnessed there since the 1920's.  The number of ice skaters visiting the square has exceeded expectations -- but this won't be enough, even in winter.

      The activity most needed on the square now is dining.  In winter, many who would never think of skating would find it pleasant to watch the skaters from the comfort of an indoor window.  And skaters need a place to escape into from the cold.  In the summer, some will prefer a view into the square from air-conditioned comfort; others will prefer to dine in the square itself.

      The Gridley and Arcade Buildings appear to be the best candidates in Clinton Square for indoor dining; outdoor dining may only be possible from the Arcade building.

    • The center of Hanover Square needs to be redesigned, perhaps returning it to something more like its state in the 1920's; the current fountain and related structures are more of an impediment to activities in the Square than an enhancement. The square would be better off without the access lane through its heart, and its perpetual line of parked cars. This should be space for pedestrians.

      Like Armory Square, the most immediate danger for Hanover Square is that taverns will come to dominate, frightening away other types of shops and other types of visitors -- remember what PPS had to say about spaces that attract only singles. The square's nickname of 100 years ago could return: "Hangover Square."

    • The new Clinton square is hosting special events nearly every week now. Between events the square sits empty. Clinton square needs services and attractions that can draw visitors every day. The two squares will have succeeded when Syracuse residents of all ages believe they can drop into the area, day or night, and always find something to eat and something to do.

    Some thoughts on public space design from William H. Whyte:

    "My foundation-supported group, the Street Life Project, was set up to learn how city spaces are used. One of the first findings was that the 'overcrowded city' is a myth. Most of the spaces observed were not overused: They were underused. Conversely, the spaces that people most enjoyed and found most restful were the most intensely used. The street is a surprisingly sociable place, and high density is a condition of its vitality. A successful street has a critical mass of activity and of people. Pedestrian malls that have failed have done so in part because they diffused people and activities over too expansive a space.

    "Successful spaces are not cut off from the street; they are not elevated high above it, nor are they sunk down beneath it. Sunken plazas are usually empty.

    "The elements of a good city space, then, are basics, and it is interesting to note how many of them are natural -- people to watch, sun to bask in, trees to sit under, water to splash in and listen to. Nowhere does nature seem so important to people as in the city, and enjoyment of the city outdoors is increasing.

    "Small, winding streets are a treasure. Among other things, they slow down cars enough to let pedestrians bully them to a dead stop. The grid system has advantages, too. In most cases, the blocks are small enough to establish a repetitive pattern of cross streets that interrupts what might otherwise be single projects of immense size. It is significant that the most successful large complex in the U.S. did not eliminate streets but actually added some. This, of course, is Rockefeller Center.

    "...The city is losing the function for which it is no longer suited -- manufacturing -- but reaffirming its great and most basic function as a place for people to come together. This is the street: busy, noisy, crowded, tacky, but full of life and vitality. And full of continuity -- the sense of where we are and where we've come from. There's our future."

    William H. Whyte, in "The Humble Street." Historic Preservation. January, 1980. pp. 34-41.

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