September 14, 2003

Downtown "Transformation" Must be Guided by Urban Vision

by Elizabeth Kamell and Jacob Roberts

Economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote, "The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and do them a little bit better...but to do those things which at present are not done at all."

Syracuse could become a model for urban development in cities like ours. It can set a realistic course for growth and sustainability by encouraging new development that supports the principals of adaptive reuse, restoration of architecturally significant buildings and urban infill.

On Aug. 10, Mayor Matt Driscoll announced a plan to "transform the core of the city's center" by replacing "a hodgepodge of six buildings of varying heights" with a new, $30 million structure that will offer upscale housing options, new retail venues and a 1,000-car parking garage on the 300 block of South Salina Street. While we applaud the administration's effort to mollify a despondent corporate tenant (Excellus) by supplying new parking space for workers and visitors, and simultaneously to retain and attract new jobs to the area, develop new residences and "rejuvenate downtown's core," we fundamentally believe this approach is misguided, for a number of reasons:

  • Vision: Once again, plans for demolition and construction are being made without the benefit of a master plan for downtown. Without a comprehensive understanding of the delicate balance among many constituencies, sometimes-conflicting uses and the need to build upon existing strengths, decisions are being made on a project-by-project basis. A road map is vital to build community support and create lasting progress.

    Furthermore, we shouldn't just "hope" that the demolition of an architecturally significant part of downtown and the construction of a new building in its place will encourage other development. Rather, we encourage the city to craft a vision and set standards for development and construction which respond to values that support sustainable development patterns and sound planning. Before the mayor's office decides to demolish a part of our valuable urban landscape and initiate "the biggest construction project downtown in more than a decade," we should consider its long-term effect and alternate solutions.

  • Public Input: The public wants to contribute, and it should. Involving the community early and often in the planning process improves public support for development projects, and often leads to innovative strategies that fit the unique needs of the citizenry. In addition to various community organizations, the existing TNT network provides a great way to channel community input.

    The city also should seek the expertise of the university community. The recent Citistates consultants' report argues, "what SU does in this decade may be the single most critical factor in shaping the economy and quality of life of Central New York. The brainpower the community needs to excel in a competitive global economy is there on the Hill. But it won't be tapped, the connections won't be made, without conscious effort on both sides." A serious collaboration between city agencies, students and faculty for both visioning and technical assistance would serve us all well.

  • History: Neil Pierce and Curtis Johnson also advised us in the Citistates report that in Central New York, "you have the kind of villages, the small-town atmosphere that much of America is clamoring to build or restore." We need to recognize and respect the value of our assets. Many of the buildings on the 300 block of South Salina Street are good urban buildings with elegant facades and thoughtful detailing. At a minimum, the Salina Street project should save and restore these distinctive commercial facades.

    It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the protection of architectural and cultural heritage is a powerful economic development tool. Towns and cities that protect their historic areas help to create more attractive places to live, work and visit, inviting people to stay longer and spend more, significantly adding to the city's quality of life.

  • Responsibility: Why destroy a good urban block, when we could construct new, mixed-use buildings on a number of vacant sites that currently disrupt the flow of downtown street-wall continuity? For example, the surface parking lots around City Hall are begging for new development that would contribute to the "densification" of downtown, add new skyline and produce streetscape continuity.

    We could also avoid the traffic catastrophe that would ensue from a 1,000-car parking garage located on our main street. If Excellus employees walked two blocks to and from their cars, we would be promoting important pedestrian activity.

    Walkable communities are desirable places to live, work, learn and play. We should support walking, cycling and public transit - and ultimately the transformation of our cities, towns and villages into environments rich in public space and community life.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in the guise of "urban renewal," neighborhoods were razed. Entire districts were bulldozed to make way for a new urban order. In the process, cities all over America lost large districts and many excellent buildings. Not all of them were significant architectural works, but they made substantial contributions to the collective character of the urban landscape.

Once gone, these buildings, blocks, streets and neighborhoods cannot be replaced. Today, we collectively regret their loss. Here's hoping we've learned our lesson.

Elizabeth Kamell is director of the Community Design Center at Syracuse University

Jacob Roberts is executive director of ThINC - The Institute of a Now Culture - in Syracuse.

Copyright, 2003, The Herald Company