Garage Plan Aims To Save 1,000 Syracuse Jobs

Warren Street project fell through, but new developer revives its chances

Friday, February 10, 2006

By Rick Moriarty and Frederic Pierce
Staff writers

A private developer Thursday proposed building a seven-story, 500- space addition to the Warren Street parking garage with nearly half the cost paid with government grants to help keep one of downtown's largest employers, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, in place.

Anthony Fiorito, who owns several downtown office buildings and parking garages, said he is negotiating to buy the Warren Street garage from Eli Hadad and to purchase two other properties between the garage and East Fayette Street. Fiorito hopes to start construction this year.

The addition, which would be built between the existing garage and East Fayette Street, would bring the number of parking spaces in the garage to 945.

Excellus, which employs 1,000 people in its offices across Warren Street from the garage, would lease 800 of the spaces, Fiorito said. The remaining 145 would be made available to the public and other downtown businesses. A covered pedestrian bridge would connect the Excellus building to the garage.

The work will cost up to $15 million, he said.

Fiorito and his partners in Warren Parking Associates, John Funiciello and Charles Sangster of J.F. Real Estate Inc., will finance $8 million privately, he said. The rest could come from state and local government.

The state in 2002 approved $5 million for a parking garage to help keep Excellus downtown, and city officials said the state has told them the grant could be used for Fiorito's project.

The state has agreed to let the city shift $1 million of a $2 million grant awarded to build a similar garage for The Hartford Financial Services Group to the Excellus project, said Dave Michel, the city's economic development director. Because the state's terms don't let the grant cover more than 25 percent of a project's cost, the city can't shift all of that money, Michel said.

In addition to the state's $6 million, the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency might provide about $1.6 million, Michel said. That money comes from fees paid to SIDA by businesses, not from tax revenue.

The agency might consider, if negotiations fail, using its eminent domain power, he said.

Although the site has long been favored by Excellus as the solution to its parking problems, it was not until recently considered a realistic option because Excellus refused to go into any project with Hadad, Fiorito said.

Hadad, a controversial investor from Israel, bought the Warren Street garage and other downtown properties in the past few years. He fell behind on taxes for most of them, and his properties were hit with $20,000 in fines for code violations.

Two summers ago, Hadad began $900,000 in structural repairs to the garage, only to have his contractor walk off the job half a year later because he hadn't been paid.

Management of the garage was passed to former city business consultant Charlie Vinal, who quit his city job in late 2004 to open a management company with Hadad as a primary client. Little more work on the garage was done.

In December, Hadad said he was pulling out of Syracuse and selling his local holdings. Vinal said he no longer worked for Hadad.

Fiorito said Thursday he is negotiating with Hadad's attorney, Robert Romeo.

The involvement of Hadad and Romeo chairman of the Onondaga County Democratic Party and a close friend of Mayor Matt Driscoll concerns some Syracuse Common Councilors.

"It definitely makes me very uncomfortable," said Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Miner, a Democrat. "As far as I know, everything has been done properly, with the right amount of scrutiny, but the same names and characters keep popping up. It casts a shadow over what is probably a pretty good deal."

"It's so frustrating that this continues to happen," said Councilor- at-Large Bill Ryan, the council's Democratic floor leader. "Once again it raises the question, is Robert Romeo the chairman of the Democratic Party, or is he an attorney who seems to be very well connected?"

Romeo did not return phone calls Thursday.

City officials have been worried for several years that Excellus will move to the suburbs if something is not done to solve the parking shortage.

The insurance company has been adding jobs to its Syracuse operation and has raised the possibility of expanding its offices and adding more jobs, but only if parking can be found nearby.

Liz Martin, speaking for Excellus, said the company will wait until its lease for the 800 parking spaces is complete before deciding whether to expand its offices on Warren Street. She called the garage project a "positive first step in maintaining our downtown presence."

James Smith, regional president of Excellus, said, "This is a very important thing to the company."

In 2002, Mayor Matt Driscoll proposed demolishing six buildings in the 300 block of South Salina Street and replacing them with a $30 million building of apartments, condos, retail space and a 950- to 1,000-car parking garage.

After winning state support, however, Driscoll's ambitious plan went nowhere, stymied by financing issues and concerns about demolishing potentially historical buildings.

With that plan dead and Excellus unwilling to deal with Hadad, the city looked at building a garage on a parking lot at the southwest corner of Montgomery and Washington streets.

But the best location for a new garage remained Warren Street, because it could be connected to the existing garage and is directly across the street from Excellus, Fiorito said.

"It makes a lot of sense, and it improves an area that has deteriorated," he said.

The new garage and the existing one would have no retail space in Fiorito's plans. The existing garage contains storefronts on the first floor that are mostly vacant, but that space will be converted to maximize the number of parking spots.

The facade of the addition would be made of brick and pre-cast concrete. The existing garage would get a new facade to look like the addition, Fiorito said.

A Syracuse firm, King & King Architects, is designing the addition. FRA Engineering, of the Rochester area, is doing the engineering, and MCK Building Associates, of Syracuse, would build it, Fiorito said.

2006 The Post-Standard.