National Academy of Public Administration

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Can the Biggest Mall Ever Help, Not Hurt Its City?

by Neil R. Peirce

SYRACUSE, N.Y. Can a driven, sometimes ruthless developer of big regional malls the kind of shopping emporia that typically devour downtown retail bases turn in his golden years into the savior of Syracuse, his historic but job-short home community?

That's just one of the fascinating questions introduced by the plans of Robert J. Congel, super-wealthy CEO/owner of the Pyramid Management Group, past creator of 19 shopping centers across the Northeast.

One of Congel's most successful projects is the decade-old Carousel Center, which has drawn patronage from far and wide even though it's built in Syracuse's decayed "Oil City" area, beside Onondaga Lake, one of America's most polluted bodies of water.

Now Congel wants to expand Carousel into "DestiNY USA," a $2.2 billion combination shop-store-restaurant-theater-tourist-hotel center, complete with such features as a 65-acre enclosed park, a 15,000-seat amphitheater, an aquarium, a six-story "climbing wall" and a re-creation of the Erie Canal.

At over 4 million square feet, DestiNY would well exceed Minnesota's Mal of America.  A Pyramid-sponsored consultant's report claims it will attract 35 million annual "visits," including 12 million from outside New York and 2 million international tourists.  Some $12.5 billion in annual economic activity, including as many as 12,000 jobs at an average wage of $31,000, is projected.

Mayor Matt Driscoll says the city double-checked the developer's figures, finding them credible.   He adds: "If half of what they estimate comes true, it's a home run."

Clearly, it was local officials' thirst for jobs and economic development that led them to approve massive tax write-offs Pyramid demanded for DestiNY not only a 30-year exemption from local property taxes but even more tax breaks by inclusion in the New York State's Empire Zone and a federal Empowerment Zone.  A disillusioned, in some cases embittered group of opponents has for years been critical of Pyramid's demands for concessions and "take-it-or-leave-it" tactics all designed, they claim, to reduce developer risk at the expense of already hard-pressed local taxpayers, schools and services.

But sit down and talk with Congel in his headquarters Syracuse's former Clinton Square Post Office, now a restored gem of polished brass, stone and vaulted ceilings and you're quickly exposed to an executive engaged in other-than-bottom-line thoughts.

First there's Syracuse loyalty.  "Destiny is being driven by passion and personal goals, not business," asserts Congel, now 66 with an estimated personal wealth of $700 million.  All the incentives were in place to do a Destiny-like deal in Bethlehem, PA, he notes, "But we live here in Syracuse, and you have to give back."

And, he adds, Syracuse needs future opportunities:  "I have 17 grandchildren, all nine or younger.  I have a gas with them.  I don't want to see them have to leave."

So Destiny comes with surprising non-entertainment features.   First, Congel intends Destiny to be America's largest "green" building powered entirely by non-fossil fuel energy sources ranging from solar panels to hydrogen fuel cells.  No oil or gas heating, even on winter's coldest days.

Next door, Congel proposes that an international developer put up a $500 million clean-energy research park a world-class R&D center for non-oil energy.  The goal is to draw scientists and engineers to Syracuse, first for Destiny's own megastructure, then other projects worthy of the proposed title: "Petroleum Addition Rehabilitation Park."  Think of it, says Congel, as "a Betty Ford Center for the petroleum addicted."

Next, Destiny is to include a 50,000-square foot International Tourism/Exposition Center focused on Upstate New York's multiple attractions, from the Finger Lakes to Niagara Falls to the Erie Canal.  This is unusual anything inside a mall that suggests going outside to the real world.  But the plan's to do just that through "an experimental, multimedia immersion environment."

Finally assuming all financing falls into place there's the huge unknown: How will Destiny relate to the old city of Syracuse?  Congel talks fondly of the old, transitional neighborhoods like close-by North Salina Street.  Salina has the potential, notes Syracuse historian Dennis Connors, "to become an historic enclave of small shops, antique stores, coffeehouses with local character and ethnic restaurants."

Yet without careful city planning, and thoughtful assistance by Pyramid, Destiny could be surrounded by a massive ring of pedestrian-hostile highways, parking garages and fast-food outlets.

I queried Congel on connections to central Syracuse and he named the ideas: a monorail (also linked to the airport), a new landscaped roadway, a waterway connection.  But these connections won't be financed and can't succeed unless the city and Congel focus skill and resources on them.

Could it be successful links between old downtown Syracuse, a bit threadbare these days but home to rich architectural and cultural treasures, and shiny new Destiny?

My theory:  The uncertainties are humongous.  But only by trying such combinations can we start inventing successful new 21st-century cities.

Neil Peirce is chairman of Citistates Group, which visited Central New York last fall and recently offered its conclusions and suggestions for constructive change.   He wrote this for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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