September 14, 2003
Downtown "Transformation" Must be Guided by Urban
by Elizabeth Kamell and Jacob Roberts
Economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote, "The important
thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing
already, and do them a little bit better...but to do those things which at
present are not done at all."
Syracuse could become a model for urban development in
cities like ours. It can set a realistic course for growth and
sustainability by encouraging new development that supports the principals
of adaptive reuse, restoration of architecturally significant buildings and
On Aug. 10, Mayor Matt Driscoll announced a plan to
"transform the core of the city's center" by replacing "a hodgepodge of six
buildings of varying heights" with a new, $30 million structure that will
offer upscale housing options, new retail venues and a 1,000-car parking
garage on the 300 block of South Salina Street. While we applaud the
administration's effort to mollify a despondent corporate tenant (Excellus)
by supplying new parking space for workers and visitors, and simultaneously
to retain and attract new jobs to the area, develop new residences and
"rejuvenate downtown's core," we fundamentally believe this approach is
misguided, for a number of reasons:
Vision: Once again, plans for demolition and
construction are being made without the benefit of a master plan for
downtown. Without a comprehensive understanding of the delicate balance
among many constituencies, sometimes-conflicting uses and the need to
build upon existing strengths, decisions are being made on a
project-by-project basis. A road map is vital to build community support
and create lasting progress.
Furthermore, we shouldn't just "hope" that the demolition of an
architecturally significant part of downtown and the construction of a new
building in its place will encourage other development. Rather, we
encourage the city to craft a vision and set standards for development and
construction which respond to values that support sustainable development
patterns and sound planning. Before the mayor's office decides to demolish
a part of our valuable urban landscape and initiate "the biggest
construction project downtown in more than a decade," we should consider
its long-term effect and alternate solutions.
Public Input: The public wants to contribute, and
it should. Involving the community early and often in the planning process
improves public support for development projects, and often leads to
innovative strategies that fit the unique needs of the citizenry. In
addition to various community organizations, the existing TNT network
provides a great way to channel community input.
The city also should seek the expertise of the university community. The
recent Citistates consultants' report argues, "what SU does in this decade
may be the single most critical factor in shaping the economy and quality
of life of Central New York. The brainpower the community needs to excel
in a competitive global economy is there on the Hill. But it won't be
tapped, the connections won't be made, without conscious effort on both
sides." A serious collaboration between city agencies, students and
faculty for both visioning and technical assistance would serve us all
History: Neil Pierce and Curtis Johnson also
advised us in the Citistates report that in Central New York, "you have
the kind of villages, the small-town atmosphere that much of America is
clamoring to build or restore." We need to recognize and respect the value
of our assets. Many of the buildings on the 300 block of South Salina
Street are good urban buildings with elegant facades and thoughtful
detailing. At a minimum, the Salina Street project should save and restore
these distinctive commercial facades.
It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the protection of architectural
and cultural heritage is a powerful economic development tool. Towns and
cities that protect their historic areas help to create more attractive
places to live, work and visit, inviting people to stay longer and spend
more, significantly adding to the city's quality of life.
Responsibility: Why destroy a good urban block,
when we could construct new, mixed-use buildings on a number of vacant
sites that currently disrupt the flow of downtown street-wall continuity?
For example, the surface parking lots around City Hall are begging for new
development that would contribute to the "densification" of downtown, add
new skyline and produce streetscape continuity.
We could also avoid the traffic catastrophe that would ensue from a
1,000-car parking garage located on our main street. If Excellus employees
walked two blocks to and from their cars, we would be promoting important
Walkable communities are desirable places to live, work, learn and play.
We should support walking, cycling and public transit - and ultimately the
transformation of our cities, towns and villages into environments rich in
public space and community life.