Thursday, October 14, 2004

City new owner of Wilson Building

Mayor hopes site will offer walkway between Armory Square, S. Salina Street.

By Frederic Pierce, Staff writer

The city of Syracuse on Wednesday took title to a troubled downtown building that officials hope will eventually serve as a pedestrian connection from vibrant Armory Square to a stretch of South Salina Street that's hoping for rebirth.

The Wilson Building, at 306 S. Salina St., was sold to the city for the $736,000 it was owed in unpaid property taxes and about $3,000 to cover the costs of the building's bankruptcy trustee, city officials said.

City officials said they have been trying to foreclose on the seven- story, stone structure for years because they see its redevelopment as a way to transfer some of the action of Armory Square to the city's traditional main street.

"It has always been the mayor's goal to create a pedestrian walkway that would link Armory Square to Salina Street," said Christine Fix, Mayor Matt Driscoll's director of intergovernmental affairs. "This is part of his vision, and it sends a clear signal that the mayor is committed to the 300 block (of South Salina Street.)

The building has three arched storefronts that contain an Indian restaurant, a tattoo parlor and a nail salon. The rear of the structure opens into a courtyard and an alley connecting to Clinton Street and Armory Square.

With some imagination and investment, a developer could create an attractive passageway that could funnel pedestrian traffic between the two downtown business areas, city Economic Development Director David Michel said.

"It's going to take some creative work by an architect to figure out how to do it, but I think the opportunity is there," Michel said. "It's an interesting building, and I think it has a lot of potential."

The city has not yet decided how it will try to put the building in the hands of a developer with similar vision, said Charles Everett, city operations director.

In January, Driscoll told staffers he wanted all valuable, city-owned buildings to go through a formal request for proposals instead of simply being sold to the first interested buyer.

But the first building the city tried to sell through that process - Columbus Circle's nearly century-old Mizpah Towers - needed to be put through the bidding process twice.

The first time through, a mingling of different procedures led to confusion and a staged bid opening in front of local television cameras. Eventually, both proposals submitted were tossed out and two top city officials lost their jobs.

The second time, only one of the three interested developers made a proposal that met the city's criteria. That potential buyer, a church group, does not appear to have the money needed to renovate - or even winterize - that structure.

The Wilson Building, however, should be a much easier building to market than the Mizpah, a unique combination of church and hotel that has been vacant and neglected for more than a decade, Michel said.

The Wilson Building has been neglected, too, but it appears structurally sound, and the roof seems to be solid, Michel said.

City officials plan to do more detailed assessments of the building and begin securing it for winter as soon as possible, Everett said. City workers will board up broken windows in the vacant upper floors and begin clearing out junk, he said.

The city was the only bidder for the Wilson Building, Michel said. Syracuse officials figured they would make out better selling the structure than trying to wring back taxes out of a new owner, Everett said.

The city's tax woes with the Wilson Building began in 1991.

The building's former owner, Onondaga Plaza Maintenance, went to court and declared bankruptcy twice to keep the city from taking their property for nonpayment of taxes, said John Stone, a city attorney.

In late May, the company finally lost its deed to a bankruptcy court trustee. By that time, the elevator was inoperable and everything from the furnace to the plumbing had been in a state of disrepair for years, former tenants said.

Tenants renting office space in the building's upper floors were evicted. The three businesses on the street level went to court and were allowed to stay open.

Driscoll visited those tenants Wednesday and assured them that the city would let them continue to operate there, Fix said.

2004 The Post-Standard.