New Destiny plan eyes chunk of North Side

Some landmarks would go in favor of a plan that includes a huge convention center

January 05, 2004

By Frederic Pierce, Staff writer

The oldest neighborhood in the city of Syracuse is in the path of Destiny.

So is historic North Salina Street - including the city's brand-new Little Italy district - as well as Franklin Square, the regional market and P&C Stadium.

The latest footprint of the resort complex now known as "The Destiny Initiative" includes the entire triangle of land between Interstates 690 and 81 and Onondaga Lake, according to a map submitted to the Syracuse Planning Commission.

It also would include all city land north of Wolf Street between Crouse Hinds and Carousel Center, as well as the entire length of North Salina Street for several blocks on either side.

The new boundaries, filed with the city in response to the city's plan to create a special zoning district for the project, are meant to ensure that the city landscape surrounding Destiny is compatible with the one-of-a-kind attraction, Destiny team members said.

"There's an environment we're trying to create," explained Destiny executive David Aitken. "We're spending an awful lot of time working to make sure the community itself benefits because we are all part of the community. We're taking a comprehensive look at how to make a physical connection with the community."

By expanding Destiny east of I-81, the developers hope to spur additional development on that side of the city, create an attractive transition from city neighborhoods to a massive, high-tech resort and make better use of community assets like Little Italy and P&C Stadium, Aitken said.

Some local landmarks that are included in the new Destiny development area - like Assumption Church and Our Lady of Pompei school and church - aren't in any danger, Aitken said.

Others, however, appear slated for demolition, with new buildings and roads taking their place on Destiny's latest map. They include Washington Square Park - the oldest park in the city - the Pastime Athletic Club, Westminster Presbyterian Church and at least three North Side funeral homes, according to Destiny's latest map.

"You can't just come in and superimpose an idea on an entire neighborhood," said former Councilor-at-Large Kate O'Connell, after seeing the plan. "They simply can't come in and scoop it up because it's in their interest."

O'Connell, who officially left the council Thursday, isn't the only city official disturbed by the plan.

Mayor Matt Driscoll said he felt he had already accommodated the developers by proposing a "resort overlay" zoning district that included several city blocks between I-81 and upper North Salina Street. That plan, based on the footprint Destiny shared with the city last summer, also does not include Franklin Square.

40 million tourists a year

"At this time, any discussions outside of this proposed zoned area are premature and will impact the approvals needed by the planning commission and the common council," Driscoll said in a written statement.

". . . From the inception of the project, the city has consistently worked with the Destiny team's vision. However, additional revisions will not be considered until the developer has secured all legislation and has proposed to the city a full construction plan, built to specifications, with financing."

Destiny executives want Driscoll and other officials to keep their eyes on the big picture.

If successful, the developers of the $2.2 billion Destiny USA initiative say it would transform Syracuse and Central New York into a world-class tourism destination capable of drawing 40 million visitors a year.

The resort - planned as an unrivaled showcase for environmental achievement, new technology, top entertainment and high-tech security - would become an economic engine to drive the creation of 56,000 regional jobs and pump nearly $13 billion a year into the Central New York economy, the developers say.

Widening the boundaries

By widening the boundaries of the city's proposed resort overlay, Syracuse officials can make it easier for developers to continue the transformation that's already begun in Franklin Square and North Salina Street, Aitken said.

The proposed district would allow anyone interested in developing 30 acres or more in the area to suggest a master plan to the Syracuse Planning Commission. If the plan is approved, individual projects within it can be built with a minimum of city red tape and no more input from the planning commission or Syracuse Common Council.

The Destiny team would be interested in submitting a master development plan for the entire area, Aitken said.

It's a possibility welcomed by several property owners in the area, who said they have seen nearby neighborhoods change and decline over the last several decades.

"If they give me the right price, why not?" said Rose Morris, who lives in the nearly 150-year-old home she and her husband bought 22 years ago at 514 Bear St. "We'd move. There's nothing any of us can do about it any way."

The Morris' home is the only octagon house left in Syracuse and is on the national register of historic places. Under Destiny's new plan, a building larger than Carousel Center mall covers the property.

Other North Side property owners said they would stay and become part of the resort complex, believing Destiny's involvement would bring additional resources and investment.

"I would welcome it, because if Destiny comes in, they would have the funding for all the little businesses that can't afford to fix their properties," said Tom Constantin, the owner of T.J.C.'s restaurant at 717 N. Salina St. "They can't knock my building down because it's historic, so they'd have to improve it. They have experience with this kind of development."

The building Constantin has owned for the last quarter century, like many of the storefront structures along North Salina Street, is part of a nationally recognized historic district.

Hinges on convention center

The proposed resort district wouldn't trump any of the restrictions placed on designated historic properties, said Chuck Ladd of the Syracuse/Onondaga Planning Agency. Historic properties can be renovated, extensively changed, and even demolished, but only according to certain conditions and after time-consuming evaluations, Ladd said.

Most of the area in the expanded Destiny area, however, does not have a historic designation, leaving open the question of just what would happen to it under the plan.

"I appreciate the developer wanting the neighborhoods to fit in with what he's trying to do, but the question is, does the developer's plan fit in with what the city wants to do?" asked former Common Councilor Steve DeRegis, who represented the area until his term expired Thursday.

"We want to keep the historic feel of the street and the neighborhood," DeRegis said. "If you're going to put in something that's plastic, it's going to be plastic."

In fact, just about everything north of Kirkpatrick Street inside the proposed district would be radically changed, according to Destiny's latest drawing.

Several community assets - from historic landmarks like Washington Square Park to institutions like the Pastime Athletic Club and the little house on top of the Penfield Manufacturing building - no longer exist in the most recent incarnation of Destiny.

The plan shows all city streets and buildings between I-81 and Spring Street erased as far south as Court, Danforth or Kirkpatrick streets. In their place is a giant convention center, hotel and stadium complex circled by a new, four-lane roadway looping east from Spencer Street back to what is now Hiawatha Boulevard.

'This is the start'

"None of this is set in stone," cautioned Destiny Executive Michael Lorenz, when asked about the drawing. "This is the start. It's an idea on how to help change our city. It needs a lot more input and feedback from the community."

Although components of the proposed development can be shifted a bit to accommodate some concerns, the success of the project hinges on the construction of a convention facility capable of hosting 100,000 people at a time, Lorenz said.

That element has to be built somewhere, and nothing on the land Destiny would like to use for it has the potential to become the kind of transformational economic force Lorenz believes Destiny will be.

"If we were building this on farmland, there wouldn't be a problem," Lorenz said. "In an urban setting, there are going to be some people who are going to have to leave something behind. But people have to look at what the city can become."

Some city officials, however, said they are tired of looking at the big picture.

"At what point do they stop sucking on the laughing gas?" said Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Miner after looking at the latest drawing. "Reality doesn't seem to be part of this project. It's been two years, and they have done nothing."

Newly elected 1st District Councilor Jeff DeFrancisco, DeRegis' successor, said the plan was unrealistic and could hurt the developer's chances at getting state legislation needed for the project approved.

"I just can't imagine every single property owner will do exactly what Destiny wants them to do," DeFrancisco said. "Just because it's a proposal doesn't mean they're going to do everything that they say they will."

DeFrancisco is the son of state Sen. John DeFrancisco, the project's most vocal and effective critic. Legislation guaranteeing up to $52 million in state Empire Zone benefits a year is needed to finance the project, but is stalled in the state legislature.

Drawing the line

The Destiny team needs to begin construction of at least an 800,000-square-foot addition to Carousel Center mall by the end of 2004 to qualify for a 30-year city tax exemption on the shopping mall. It also needs to press for an extension of the deadline given by the state to qualify for the creation of a massive state tourism center funded by sales taxes from Destiny USA.

Council President Bea Gonzalez is a Destiny supporter who traveled to Albany last year to lobby for the Empire Zone legislation. Last week, after reviewing the latest map, she said she was ready to draw the line.

"It's not going to happen," she said, referring to the proposed site of Destiny's convention complex. "We're not going to dislocate all these people for Destiny. No way. This isn't the same thing as developing on an oil field."

The city's economic development agency used its power of eminent domain to relocate more than a dozen giant fuel tanks from the property known as Oil City to accommodate an expansion of Carousel Center mall. That proposed expansion eventually evolved into Destiny USA.

Destiny officials in the past have said they might ask the city to use those powers again to acquire other property needed for the project.

"We want to encourage everyone to think about what Syracuse and Central New York could be," Lorenz said. "The past is what we know. Today is what it is. What could the future be if we had a blank piece of paper?"

2004 The Post-Standard.

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