"Big Picture Must Put Syracuse before Destiny"

January 05, 2004

Sean Kirst, Post-Standard Columnist

"Look at the big picture."

In essence, that's what we're hearing again from the folks at Destiny USA, whose latest proposal would turn the most historic piece of land in Syracuse - the North Side triangle bordered by Interstates 690 and 81 and Onondaga Lake - into a sandbox for a mega-baby that keeps growing without leaving the womb.

Imagine, to quote one Destiny official, "what could the future be if we had a blank piece of paper?"

Boy. Just imagine. In this incarnation, it is a future in which the Pastime Athletic Club and Westminster Presbyterian Church and other landmarks vanish from the map. So here, at least, is one response:

The continued reference to the "big picture" feels an awful lot like disrespect. As a community, we've already offered enormous support for this project in tax breaks and incentives. Are we not allowed, as thinking citizens, to look at other cities and admire their "big pictures"? Is it possible that we're bright enough to envision our own way for integrating this massive development into our city? Can we not draw a line at demolishing churches or public parks?

"If we were building this on farmland, there wouldn't be a problem," Mike Lorenz, a Destiny executive, told reporter Frederic Pierce of The Post-Standard. "In an urban setting, there are some people who are going to have to leave something behind. But people have to look at what the city can become."

As Charlie Brown used to say: "Arrggghhh!" You read those quotes, and you want to bang your head against the concrete bones of Urban Renewal. Yes, malls are traditionally big white buildings, built on cornfields. Shoppers park in a big lot and walk inside, a pattern followed at the Carousel Center, which rose up on an old scrap yard. The place works well enough as a mall, but it does little for the city around it.

Here's the deal: When a mall developer wants to sprawl into ancient neighborhoods, then the neighborhoods take priority, not the mall. That obligation is ethically, logically, physically and in this case (see: losing churches in favor of Destiny) theologically incumbent. It is up to this developer - who's won massive public subsidies by promising to revive Syracuse - to make a dollar while enhancing, not traumatizing, the city.

Yet a happy ending is possible. Old commercial districts have thrived, thanks to new growth, in many places our leaders see as progressive: Portland, Denver, Seattle, and on and on. It is also true that many renowned independent planners are available to help make sure we do this right.

Is it time for the same local officials who pay such reverent lip service to New Urbanists Andres Duany and Jeff Speck to actually bring those guys in for a Destiny review? Or are our politicians afraid of what Duany and Speck might really say?

The spookiest part of this new plan would be to shift our civic focus from downtown to Destiny. A gigantic North Side convention center (paid for by whom, may we ask?) would trump our teensy-weensy Oncenter. Destiny visitors would eat, sleep and make merry beneath Destiny's extended roof. If they bothered to take a whiff of outside air, they'd do it in nearby Destiny neighborhoods.

Hmmm. Is that the best means of spreading around the wealth? The wary should take a quick ride to Niagara Falls, N.Y., where a new Seneca casino brings a stream of visitors into what had been a dead downtown. The casino is doing so well that the Senecas want to put up their own tax-free, upscale hotel.

One problem: Taxpaying neighborhoods near the casino remain gray and dismal. According to a recent story in the Niagara Gazette, hotel and motel operators in that area aren't gaining any business. Those business owners say most gamblers walk into the casino, stay there to eat and drink, then get back in their cars and return home.

As for those who want to stay the night, the casino operators want to claim them for their own.

That is a scary ghost of what could happen if Destiny goes wrong, making it intensely relevant to the "big picture." Destiny officials insist they want to help nearby neighborhoods, and that their plans are flexible. Good. Now's the time to consider ways of making sure the whole community cashes in:

What about turning some of those old North Side factories and warehouses into upscale hotel, commercial and apartment space?

What about an effective program to encourage thousands of potential Destiny employees to live in the historic neighborhoods around the project?

What about considering a massive expansion of the Oncenter - rather than dropping a giant convention center onto the North Side? That way, any convention business attracted by Destiny would be centered downtown, thus guaranteeing a brisk trade for downtown hotels, while boosting OnTrack or whatever "people mover" feeds into Destiny.

Destiny executives might respond that none of those choices are optimal for profit. Maybe not, but they'd sure be optimal for Syracuse.

And that, to a lot of us, is always the big picture.

2004 The Post-Standard.

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