In Destiny's Shadow

Businesses in limbo while megamall gets planned

December 08, 2002

By Frederic Pierce, Staff writer

For 47 years, the Little Gem Diner has been a 24-hour oasis for hungry insomniacs, at Spencer and Liberty streets in the triangle of Syracuse once known as Oil City.

But the landmark eatery with the spinning counter seats and the steel-plated sides might not make it to a 50th anniversary if The Pyramid Cos.' master plan for Destiny USA and the area around it becomes reality.

Under the developer's ultimate vision, Doc's Little Gem Diner would be re placed by the fairway of the 16th hole of a new golf course.

That same vision would level the five-story building that houses the thriving Syracuse Antiques Exchange and replace it with a convention center four times as big as Onondaga County's Oncenter, in downtown Syracuse.

And the plan would bury the traditional working-class neighborhood known as Maciejowa beneath more golf greens, and new residential and commercial buildings.

"This is a bold vision, a dynamic project that has the ability to shape the city for several decades, probably several generations," said Pyramid executive David Aitken. "It is not without difficulty (that) change is to be made, on everybody's part."

Destiny, Pyramid's proposed $2.2 billion tourist attraction, could grant the unfulfilled promise of the original Carousel Center mall and Franklin Square projects by filling the 800-acre triangle of underused industrial land and polluted "brownfields" with hotels, offices, shops - and people, Aitken said.

To make that happen, Pyramid officials say, city leaders must be willing to clear the way for what Aitken calls "critical" elements of Destiny, including the massive convention center covering five blocks of North Salina Street, and a

PGA-quality golf course stretching from the base of the Inner Harbor north to the state fairgrounds.

"At some point, this project went from being a retail center to being a destination," Aitken said. "For a destination, you need a total package. You need the convention center, you need the golf course, you need access to water, you need continuity between the destination and all of its surroundings."

Syracuse, like other cities that have created successful waterfront tourist destinations, must be willing to use its powers of eminent domain to gain control of property needed for the project, Aitken said.

The city's industrial development agency used those powers to push oil companies off the land Pyramid needed to expand Carousel Center mall, across Hiawatha Boulevard.

But city officials last week said they aren't ready to commit to - or rule out - helping Pyramid move reluctant property owners outside of the original footprint of Destiny USA.

"We need something that's site-specific and calls for specific reuse," Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll said, noting that they've seen nothing but conceptual drawings of "extras" such as the golf course. "I'm willing to look at anything. In the meantime, we have our own goals and plans."

The city's Lakefront Development Corp. last week unveiled its own updated master plan for the area in response to the constantly evolving Destiny project.

The city's new vision calls for the gradual elimination of industrial uses in the former Oil City. The machinery-filled lots, vacant land, operating businesses and generations-old homes destined for golf turf in Pyramid's plan are a patchwork of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the city's blueprint.

The city's plan for change is long-term and slow-moving. All existing owners can continue doing what they're doing, and a transformation isn't expected for two or three decades.

Aitken said he isn't worried about the seeming conflict between the two master plans and their differing timetables. Pyramid wants to open Destiny in 2004.

City officials have said they wanted a plan that would remain viable if Destiny's grandest incarnations fell short, or if the development failed to materialize at all.

Aitken, who served as head of the Lakefront Development Corp. under Mayor Roy Bernardi, said he understands that, and might have produced a similar master plan if he was working in his old job.

The key to Destiny's future isn't the city's vision - which shares the same goals of waterfront redevelopment and job creation as Pyramid - but its redrawn zoning map for the area, Aitken said. That map is expected in January.

"To accomplish goals, you need visions," he said. "But for visions to become reality, you've got to have something that has teeth."

Pyramid officials hope the new zoning map gives them enough flexibility to build the features they say they need to turn Syracuse's North Side into a world-class vacation and business destination, Aitken said.

A designated tourism zone, for example, could accommodate both the mixture of residential and commercial projects that the city sees to the west of the Inner Harbor, and the golf course that Pyramid's experts tell them hotels and vacation destinations need to attract people.

"There's a way to blend the things we want to do with their plans," Driscoll said. "There's room for a golf course in the area, and we've had discussions about that."

Driscoll said one of his goals for the area is to involve companies other than Pyramid in developing the waterfront.

Pyramid plans to submit specific proposals for the golf course, the convention center and other projects, Aitken said. Ideally, the developer would like to do them all at once, but realistically, he sees them happening a piece at a time, similar to the way a homeowner renovates his or her property one room at a time.

The bottom line, he said, is that those specific elements must be built, whether the work is spearheaded by Pyramid or some other group.

Meanwhile, the owners of more than 200 properties between Interstates 81 and 690, and dozens more between I-690 and upper North Salina Street, wait in limbo.

"I've invested a lot of my money in this building, and I've put a lot of sweat-equity into it," said David Jenks, who turned an 1880s-era building at North Salina and Wolf streets into an antiques showroom that attracts customers from out of state. "If someone comes along now and says they're taking it by eminent domain, I am not going to be happy."

Jenks has his own vision: a street of well-kept antique stores and shops stretching from Hiawatha Boulevard south to the Little Italy project on the opposite end of North Salina Street.

Pyramid's plan, however, would empty Jenks' side of North Salina Street from the current Carousel Center mall to Court Street to build a 500,000-square-foot convention center that crosses over Interstate 81 to connect with Destiny.

It would demolish blocks of old warehouses and single-family and rental homes.

Part of the convention center project includes several blocks of "mixed-use" structures: buildings similar to those in Franklin Square, with commercial storefronts, residential apartments, and courtyards filled with hidden parking.

Pyramid envisions those mixed-use projects stretching between the harbor and Franklin Square, then running west between Interstate 690 and Spencer Street to Hiawatha Boulevard.

Part of the total package is parking. When Jim Kraft, the owner of Harbor View Liquors on North Clinton Street, got a peek at Pyramid's master plan, he was surprised to see that the building he bought and renovated five years ago was slated to become a parking garage.

"It looked good to me until I saw that," Kraft said. "But this keeps evolving. I don't get too excited about it. I've been listening to it now for five years, and the only thing I've seen is them driving some pilings into the ground. And then they stopped that."

Next-door to Harbor View is a building owned by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, Local 43. According to the Pyramid plan, it is destined to become a parking lot and walkway.

The union has been a strong supporter of Pyramid's project. James Corbett, an Onondaga County legislator who works for the IBEW, voted for local and state tax incentives for Destiny. Last week, he said he was waiting to see how realistic Pyramid's latest plan was.

"I'm going with the flow," he said Friday. "It's still just a concept."

Corbett said the proposal had, though, stalled the union's plans for an addition.

"We're trying to decide whether to add on to our training center," he said. "This has thrown a monkey wrench into it."

Even if it wanted to, the union couldn't get a building permit for the project. The city slapped a moratorium on all new construction work in the area until midsummer to give planners time to come up with zoning and traffic proposals.

P.J. Schmid's plans to expand his business are also on hold, even though his Hiawatha Boulevard body shop is outside the Lakefront moratorium zone.

Pyramid's plans to close Bear Street between I-81 and I-690 would cut off convenient access to Rudy Schmid's Body Shop, the family business P.J. Schmid's grandfather started in 1930, he said. Until he knows whether that's going to happen, he's not going to invest in a planned expansion of his garage.

"We're looking to knock out the walls again, but we're not going to do it if we're not going to get the customers," P.J. Schmid said.

The expansion is needed for the truck body work he now does at space he leases on Park Street across from the Regional Market. That property is part of Pyramid's expansion plans, which show it as a hotel parking lot.

The hotel would be built at Hiawatha Boulevard and Park Street, on the site where a brand-new Babies R Us building went up a year ago.

Other businesses that recently made investments are also slated for removal under the Pyramid plan, most of them to accommodate the golf course.

Anoplate, a business that employs 150, is no longer welcome under either the city's or Pyramid's plan. The company's buildings now span both sides of Pulaski Street, areas that Pyramid would like to see turned into fairways for the third and fourth holes.

"Our plans are to stay as long as we can until something else comes along with an offer or an opportunity," said Milton Stevenson Jr., the company's president.

Some property owners in the area don't plan to leave without a struggle.

Francis "Doc" Good bought the Little Gem Diner in 1997. He said he was attracted by its uniqueness, its history, and the possibility of turning it over to his son some day.

Until he was contacted by a reporter last week, he said he had no idea anyone was thinking of making his property part of a golf course.

"It's become a matter of greed, as far as I can see," the retired engineer-turned-restaurateur said. "If they think that a 69-year-old codger won't stand up to them and fight, they've got another think coming."

2002 The Post-Standard.

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