Our Grand Old Buildings Can Anchor City's Renewal

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Opinion Section

By Michael Stanton
Preservation Association of Central New York

Richard Florida’s ideas about economic development have been the talk of the town these last few weeks. The Metropolitan Development Association asked Florida’s company Catalitix, and the Battelle Memorial Institute, to develop a roadmap for Central New York’s economic development efforts through the year 2020. Their final report was delivered to a packed Convention Center audience last month in the form of an elaborate multi-media presentation.

Dr Florida is the H. John Heinz III Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University. If you’ve somehow missed the many summaries of his thinking in the local press, here it is in a nut shell: forget the business attraction incentives; forget the new sports arenas and convention centers. These days, the long-term financial prosperity of any region depends on its ability to attract and retain creative people.

At the turn of the century fewer than five percent of Americans worked in the creative sector: art, architecture, design, engineering, information technology, science, and the knowledge-based professions such as law, health care, and finance. By 1980 the creative sector had grown to 15%. Today, Florida says, more than one third of all Americans are part of the creative class. During the current recession, as we continue to lose manufacturing jobs, we continue to grow creative sector jobs.

What does a region need to attract and retain creative workers? It’s what Florida calls the Three Ts: Talent, Technology and Tolerance. Creative workers are looking for communities that have talented people, are technologically advanced, and are tolerant of new ideas and alternative lifestyles.

A generation ago, many people worked their whole lives for the same company. Today people change jobs, on average, every three years; those under 30 change jobs more than once a year. That’s why creative people, and creative companies, want to settle in an area with a variety of creative employment opportunities.

What draws creative people to a community? Florida says creative people want places that are “authentic.” That’s where historic architecture comes in.

From his many interviews with creative people, Florida has found that creatives look for communities with something to connect with. When people move to a city where they don’t know anyone, where they have to build a career or a business, they don’t want generica, they want something unique and filled with history.

In his address to the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year, Florida quoted Jane Jacobs’ famous phrase: “New ideas require old buildings.” What this means, he says, is that historic buildings provide “…the authenticity, the credibility, the sense of community, the sense of history that bind people in a fast-moving, 24/7, ever-changing world. They ground us. They provide sense of self, a sense of identity in this creative age that we are moving into.”

“We can’t innovate,” he says, “we can’t grow, we can’t be competitive, we can’t increase our living standards and provide a prosperous and sustainable future for our children and our grandchildren unless we preserve and protect and use our history.”

So what implications do Dr. Florida’s findings have for the future growth and development of Syracuse? There are many, but here are just a couple.

A complete restoration of the 1924 Hotel Syracuse would be a triumph for the city and a much needed anchor in the southwest corner of downtown. It would also be a much better investment in the city’s long-term prosperity than the bland new hotel the County hopes to build a few blocks away. A restored Hotel Syracuse would not be just a thing of beauty (which it most certainly would be), it would also be a reaffirmation of our city’s history and “sense of place.”

Later this year the City hopes to begin demolition on three quarters of a city block in the very heart of downtown. It would be the largest wholesale destruction of downtown architecture since the “urban renewal” era of the 1960s and ‘70s. Some of the buildings to be removed are among the finest to ever grace our main street, and have stood witness to our City’s history for over a century. These buildings are being sacrificed to a new parking garage which, it is hoped, will keep Excellus and its 1,000 jobs from moving to the suburbs.

The city’s original plan was to preserve the facades of these buildings, constructing new structures behind and above them. Apparently this proved too difficult or expensive; perhaps they found the design would accommodate more parking spaces if the facades were dispensed with. But it is buildings like these, with character and history, which can ultimately fuel the revitalization of downtown. If the buildings themselves can’t be saved, the facades at least should be preserved.

Richard Florida’s findings require a reassessment of the value we place on our city’s architectural inheritance. But it’s a message we’ve heard before, and apparently have trouble accepting. Two years ago, in a series of articles in the Post-Standard, the CitiStates consultants admonished us to preserve what’s left of our “precious” historic architecture. The year before that, New Urbanist planner Andres Duany delivered a similar message.

We need to understand that these old, beautiful and endangered structures are not just remnants of our City’s past wealth and prosperity, they may be the key to our future wealth and prosperity as well.

© 2004 The Post-Standard.