May 17, 2002
Solving Syracuse "A Big If"
National Group Examines Challenges Facing the Region
Jennifer Jacobs, Staff writer
They're looking around Syracuse with a trained eye, and listening with a trained ear.
"If we can solve Syracuse, there are an awful lot of cities that can benefit from that information as well," said Peter Katz, one of the five outside experts visiting Syracuse this week. "And that's a big "if."' The Citistates Group, a national group that specializes in challenges facing metropolitan regions, is in the midst of a three-day, intensive examination of critical problems and conditions facing the region. They'll share some thoughts at a public forum Saturday, then prepare a written report.
In small groups Thursday, the five visitors chatted with local leaders about livability, economic development, poverty and student retention. They plan similar chats today.
Sometimes the problems seem so formidable, "You don't know if you're going to come up with a solution," Katz said. "Then something comes forward. You get in a room with smart people, and ideas start flying."
Katz said they've met many Central New Yorkers with intelligence and vision. He theorized that there's such a diversity of strong views that, "They may be canceling each other out. Maybe if we can get all these people rowing in one direction..."
On a tour through Syracuse Thursday in a 16-passenger bus, Dennis J. Connors, curator of the Onondaga Historical Association, pointed out areas where historic houses have been "obliterated" by urban development. A back-to-the-city movement to restore old Victorians never caught on, he said.
The Strathmore neighborhood has "pretty much stayed a desirable neighborhood," Connors said, but the houses at the fringes are deteriorating.
"In general, there's a real concern that if you buy a house in Strathmore, your equity isn't going to grow as much as it would in the suburbs," he said.
The visitors murmured appreciation for the houses in the 300 block of Summit Avenue, where the assessments hover around $150,000.
The tour passed Danforth Elementary School and the youth services trailer on Cannon Street, in a poorer neighborhood that's dealing with youth violence and drug activity, said Brian E. Moore of the Central New York Community Foundation, which is sponsoring the $60,000 Citistates project with the Gifford Foundation and The Post-Standard.
On South Salina Street, the one-time turnpike to the salt works in Salina, Connors pointed out a new Family Dollar store, with its windowless, boxy design.
"Not even the Soviets in their worst hour," commented Curtis Johnson, president of Citistates Group. "That's a cruel choice: You can have some economic development, but it's going to be ugly."
There were clicks of disappointment at the Interstate 81 overpass, which separates downtown from the university neighborhood, Connors said.
The visitors liked the houses on East Genesee Street, some renovated by Housing Visions Unlimited. There was a groan when Connors pointed to the Rite Aid at Pine Street where Jermain Loguen's house, a stop on the Underground Railroad, once stood.
The pink-and-blue University Tower at Almond Street drew some chuckles. "Wild colors," Henderson said. Originally a Holiday Inn, the 1960s hotel is about to undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The tour continued through the Hawley-Green neighborhood, and down James Street, "the premier street in terms of giant millionaire mansions," Connors said.
The houses amazed Citistates' Lenneal Henderson, who said, "In San Francisco, you'd pay a million bucks, no questions asked."
Clinton Square drew a "wow." There were nods of approval for Clinton Exchange, the old post office and federal building that's now headquarters for The Pyramid Cos., and for Niagara Mohawk, "our best art deco building," Connors said.
The bus cut through Franklin Square, where abandoned factories are now red-brick apartment buildings and businesses, and past the Inner Harbor.
Katz raised his eyebrows at the lack of public access to Onondaga Lake.
"A lakefront city that has to go to the next town to see the lake?" he said.
Neal Peirce, chairman of Citistates, commented on Carousel Center being so close to downtown. "There's no other place in America, is there?" he asked.
And the tour ended near the North Salina Street business district, poised to become either the next Armory Square, with appealing shops and apartments in historic buildings, or the next Erie Boulevard with modern commercial developments feeding into the mall area, Connors said.
"The Armory Square area is just really fabulous," said Mary Jo Waits of Citistates. "It has a real opportunity to be the model for what can be done."
© 2002 The Post-Standard