September 14, 2003

Huge S. Salina St. facelift on hold

Saving historic facades too costly. Future of Excellus expansion uncertain.

Friday, December 03, 2004

By Marnie Eisenstadt, Staff writer

The Excellus parking garage project was pitched as a win-win for the city ó the new 1,000-spot complex would keep the insurance company in the city while giving the 300 block of South Salina Street a needed facelift.

It was an elaborate plan that would have replaced a row of old buildings with seven stories of parking, apartments, condominiums and retail at a cost of $30 million.

Building owners put their renovations on hold and shopkeepers began looking for new storefronts.

But after two years on the drawing board, the plan has fallen apart. City officials are working with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield to find a new spot for the parking garage elsewhere in the city, but South Salina Street will not be part of the project. And plans for a 40,000-square-foot expansion at Excellus, originally expected to bring 175 new jobs, are uncertain.

"We still expect to proceed with an expansion, but the size and scope is currently being reviewed in light of the city's proposal," said Liz Martin, a spokeswoman for Excellus, which employs about 1,000 people on South Warren Street.

The South Salina Street plan crumbled after the city found it would be too expensive to keep the facades of the old buildings, something required by the state Historic Preservation Office.

Neither Martin nor City Operations Director Charles Everett would discuss where the new parking complex will be. But both said they expected to reach an agreement on it in the near future.

Everett said the change doesn't mean the city plans to leave South Salina Street the way it is.

"The mayor's economic development initiative still includes that area of Salina Street, however it will not be part of the Excellus project," he said.

Though Mayor Matthew Driscoll's office called the South Salina Street building project a concept, he had it thought out down to the colors he wanted to see on the massive building red brick, gray stone and a green metal roof.

That project has been dropped, leaving the city without a clear plan for that part of South Salina Street.

Everett said the mayor has been talking with the Metropolitan Development Association about getting funds to rehabilitate some of the buildings.

Irwin Davis, president of the MDA, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Everett said the mayor also has been talking with Centro about moving its hub to another area of the city, a project thatís already received federal funding. And he is working on a plan to link South Salina Street to Armory Square using the Wilson Building, which the city owns.

State Sen. John DeFrancisco, who helped obtain $5 million from the stateís Empire Opportunity Fund for the garage project, said his primary concern was keeping Excellus from leaving the city. But one of the reasons he liked the garage plan so much was that it fixed two problems at once by satisfying Excellusí parking needs and fixing up South Salina Street.

"I hope thereís some way to clean up the 300 block," DeFrancisco said. He said the availability of the money is not likely to be affected by the change in plans.

The city also received $2 million for a similar garage project for Hartford Insurance. Everett said the mayor has been talking with that company and the MDA about possible sites, but it will likely take months to reach an agreement.

"The critical element is making sure Hartford as well as Excellus stay in the downtown locations that they are still in," Everett said.

As the city scraps one set of plans for the Excellus garage and moves to finalize another, building owners on South Salina Street said a lack of communication about the project has left them in limbo. They said city officials never contacted them to say the garage plan no longer included their buildings.

Roni Hoque , who owns Dollar Wise at 313 S. Salina St., said he has kept plans for his business on hold because he wasnít sure what would become of his building. "Itís been hard for us to predict, project," Hoque said. "If this didnít come, I wouldíve upgraded."

Peter Elitzer, who owns the Label Shopper at 317 S. Salina St., had used the upper floors of his building for storage in the past. But for the last two years, he hasnít because of the cityís plans. He also has put renovation plans on hold, he said.

"Itís been frustrating to say the least. The city hasnít communicated," Elitzer said. "It would have been hard to handle it worse."

Betsy VanBramer, too, has been struggling with the current situation.

She works for Excellus and has been getting rides to work when she can instead of dealing with parking. She had been parking in the garage across from Excellus, but it is being renovated right now, so spots are limited and the ones that are available are often a mess.

"I would love to see (Excellus) go outside the city with a big garage," she said.

© 2004 The Post-Standard.