Destiny's Plans Sour Urban-Planning Architect

October 27, 2004

Sean Kirst, Post-Standard Columnist

Andres Duany dislikes the overall plans for Destiny USA, and he dislikes Destiny's vision for developing the Syracuse Inner Harbor.

In truth, the word "dislikes" puts it much too mildly.

The father of "New Urbanism" reviewed Destiny's harbor renderings Wednesday. He also looked over a map for Destiny USA released this year by company executives, a map that shows the project spilling from Oil City into the North Side.

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Duany described the plans as "heartbreaking" and called them "silver bullets."

He agreed to talk about the projects in the middle of a noisy public standoff between Destiny officials and Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll. As usual, the dispute boils down to the way some public incentives will be handed out, and whether one side is misleading the other.

The clash makes it easy for the community to take its eye off the ball, which — from start to finish — has always been design.

Cities can rise and fall on the way major projects are designed, on what gets knocked down, how visitors park, the way they get in and out. Those issues are a passion for Duany, a Miami architect whose name evokes reverence among many urban planners. His life's work, in this automobile age, is developing livable and walkable neighborhoods and shopping districts.

After looking over the Destiny proposals, Duany reacted with a profanity, then sent us this e- mail:

"The plan ... is that of a suburban theme park. It bears very little relationship to the urban fabric of Syracuse, to the point of being contemptuous of it. This is the kind of plan that devalues the qualities of an existing traditional city, by inserting a competing model that is slicker and highly subsidized. It is obvious that Destiny has little intention of sharing much with the City of Syracuse, beyond the highways.

"To propose a Florida-style theme park as a salvation for a city is the kind of simplistic idea that, from time to time, has bamboozled elected officials. The long, sad sequence (Duany wrote out a long list of such typical projects as space needles, aquaria, and convention centers) is a history of failure. They proved to be nothing more than one silver bullet after another. They all failed to deliver because what a city requires is slow, patient work by excellent government and many small investors.

"A mall can help a city to move forward, but a plan to achieve that would be very different from the one currently proposed by Destiny. The current plan is, in fact, so inept that it doesn't even do well what its developers intend it to do. The conception is passé and it will be the laughingstock of the design world."

Duany knows Syracuse. He came here in 1999 to create a plan for eight locations in Onondaga County, including a Syracuse neighborhood near the harbor. Those memories helped him when he offered this guess about the relationship between Destiny and City Hall:

"The city knows it wants something but can't say exactly what it is," Duany said by telephone, after sending the e-mail. "The developer has the entire discourse on its side." In other words, if Destiny is offering all the proposals, city leaders appear to be obstructionists whenever they object.

He doesn't dismiss all the ideas put forth by Destiny, whose officials could not be reached Tuesday night. Duany just doesn't like the concept of putting every attraction and hotel room under one central umbrella. He described Destiny USA as a "1980s project." He said the scale is too big, and he predicted the development — as it's proposed right now — would not succeed.

The negotiating dynamic, he said, needs to be reversed. Because of the level of public tax breaks and incentives, Duany said, Destiny USA has "an obligation" to lift up the city around it, including downtown. Once Syracuse officials figure out how they want to do that, Duany said, they should go to the developer and demand a plan that fits.

He also invited Driscoll to give him a call. Duany said he could talk to the mayor about other cities that might serve as good models, and he could provide a list of planners who'd help Syracuse articulate what it really needs. If Destiny ever began to fall apart, Duany said, he could also suggest developers who would race to Central New York for a shot at the public incentives.

Duany is not without critics of his own, and you can find urban planners who disagree with him. But he is certainly right when he says our community emphasis should be on design — on making sure Destiny melds with existing neighborhoods, on making sure the whole venture benefits the greater city.

As a start, as soon as City Hall opens today, maybe Driscoll should go to his desk and make that call.

© 2004 The Post-Standard.

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