Syracuse New Times 

Eastwood's Last Stand

An old-fashioned neighborhood embraces
urban planning to control its destiny

By Molly English
Syracuse New Times

August 30, 2000

After Dunkin' Donuts started selling Coolattas and Munchkins in the heart of Eastwood earlier this year, many residents figured it wouldn't take long for James Street to become one big drive-thru. The thought of their own neighborhood artery teeming with the same vehicle-heavy sprawl as Erie Boulevard, the main drag from hell, didn't sit well.

Eastwood residents were also alarmed about development proposals they heard for the parcel across the street from Dunkin' Donuts, the L-shaped lot near James Street and Midler Avenue where the neighborhood landmark Eastwood Sport Center stood until the bowling alley was razed last November. And, by extension, they began to worry about the rest of James Street, and if willy-nilly development--allowable under current city zoning ordinances--would turn their walkable thoroughfare into one dominated by parking lots, SUVs and impossible left-hand turns.

"We have a traffic problem on that corner to begin with, and the last thing the community needed was another business that could add to congestion," says James O'Brien, parish priest at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church, which pulls 98 percent of its parishioners from Eastwood. "It would break down the community feeling in that area. So it became a question of how do we get the community involved and maybe exert a little control over what happens in the neighborhood we live in."

Eastwooders had every reason for concern. Syracuse's zoning ordinances date as far back as 1926, according to Karen Kitney, planning director of the Syracuse Onondaga County Planning Agency (SOCPA). "Zoning still assumes usages that are dated," she says.

While zoning law revision is a long-term process, Eastwood couldn't wait. Interested parties from the Eastwood Chamber of Commerce and the city's Tomorrow's Neighborhoods Today (TNT) initiative, desirous of preserving their "village within the city," put their collective foot down in March. They declared a six-month moratorium on development in a 19-block area along James Street from Shotwell Park east to the city line at Thompson Road. The moratorium expires Sept. 16.

Despite its ominous ring, the moratorium wasn't meant to kill development, but rather to buy time. It's the same tactic the Armory Square Association and Downtown Committee--with Common Council approval--used in 1998 to halt the bars that invaded the district quicker than mosquitoes in July.

"It's basically a method that gives the planning commission and Common Council time to look at the issue and adopt new strategies and regulations," explains Dave Mankiewiecz, deputy director of the Downtown Committee. "A moratorium provides breathing space while the study of an issue is under way. You can't use a moratorium as a backhanded method to try to stop someone from doing something."

At the same time, Vito Sciscioli, city economic and community development director, contacted SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry landscape architecture professor George Curry about the situation in Eastwood. Curry assigned his spring 2000 urban design class to study the neighborhood and develop a comprehensive plan for it.

"When we analyzed the current zoning ordinance, {we found} the commercial zone that Eastwood is in would allow everything that {neighborhood residents} don't want," Curry says. "The whole street could become McDonald's, because current zoning allows that."

Trying Something New

Revamping antiquated zoning rules is an aim of what's been dubbed the New Urbanism, a current movement to reform urban planning in America's cities and towns. Its principles are simple: To be livable, neighborhoods must be diverse in land use and population, scaled for the pedestrian and capable of accommodating the automobile and mass transit. They must have well-defined public space supported by architecture that reflects the environment and culture of the region. Eastwood fits the bill.

While many urban planners and architects are proponents of the New Urbanism, its best-known advocates are the married couple Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Duany, based in Miami, has visited Syracuse several times, most recently in fall 1999, when he and a team of 20 architects and planners spent eight days studying seven neighborhoods in Central New York.

Onondaga County invited and paid Duany and company to visit as part of what County Legislature chair Bill Sanford called an economic development effort. The outlay totaled $250,000. "We wanted an urban planner to take a look at our community to see if there was some way to market our community throughout the United States," Sanford says. "We're very happy with the quality of life we have here, but we wanted to see if we could improve upon that. We wanted an urban planner who would go into our different communities and come up with plans that we here couldn't come up with because we're too close to it. We put out a request for proposal {RFP}, and two or three came back that had good credentials. Duany's stood out."

The most immediate result of Duany's visit was settlement plans that he proposed for the seven areas he studied. "The big things he developed--the settlement plans--these are templates that can be used in any community," Sanford adds. "For example, he studied the Inner Harbor and now he has agreed to look at the new Carousel proposal and give his ideas about it; he'll do that without charge."

New Urbanists urge getting around antiquated zoning regulations by maneuvering around them. Rather than vetting existing zoning laws--a lengthy bureaucratic process--municipalities could redefine them for specific areas, creating new zoning districts on top of existing grids. Creating such "zoning overlays" requires less bureaucratic legwork than rewriting citywide zoning ordinances. This is the tactic recommended for Eastwood by Curry's class in a 120-page report.

So, while the construction moratorium was in effect, Syracuse city planner Donia Zilles, city zoning administrator Chuck Ladd and the city's corporation counsel office helped neighborhood residents develop a zoning overlay for the James Street commercial district. Kitney offered SOCPA's help in finalizing Eastwood's proposal, which the Syracuse Planning Commission approved on Aug. 14.

The principles of New Urbanism are not new to ESF's landscape architecture curriculum. "We've been teaching these things for years," Curry says. "The wonderful thing about Duany is that he's got the ear of the general public, and politicians and people are recognizing that they're good ideas."

In the case of Eastwood, the zoning overlay outlines such design principles as building setbacks from James Street, building alignment and configuration, driveway and parking space placement, signs, facades and building materials, color of buildings, plantings and visual barriers. It pertains to a 1.5-mile stretch of James Street.

While total rewriting of zoning regulations would be preferable, says Jamie Williams, president of the Central New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and an architect at Holmes King Kallquist & Associates, zoning overlays facilitate progress in the short run. "Under the most ideal circumstances, Syracuse should be rewriting its zoning, which is based on post-World War II suburban growth," he explains. "But getting a community to rewrite its zoning is like pulling teeth. A zoning overlay is a way to expedite the process. Overlay zoning is something we'd like to see throughout the city."

Homogeneous Eastwood is the perfect neighborhood to get the ball rolling. With the possible exception of the Valley, no other Syracuse neighborhood enjoys such symbiosis among its business and residential districts, schools and parks, churches and youth sports groups.

"Because Eastwood is such a wonderfully tight neighborhood within the city, it certainly had all the pieces that Duany talks about with New Urbanism," Curry says. "There's no question in my mind that it is unique in the city. {But} in talking with the people in zoning and reviewing what other cities have done with these overlays, the basic idea {a zoning overlay} is something that any neighborhood could use."

Zoning overlays don't wipe out old regulations; they supplant them. "Usually overlays are more restrictive than general zoning regulations," Curry points out. A Design Review Board, composed of seven members who are city residents appointed by the mayor, reviews all plans for property development and improvement to decide if they fall within requirements established for the district. As outlined in the Eastwood overlay district report, one member of this design board would be a licensed architect, two would be Eastwood residents, three would be business owners within the zoning overlay district and the final one would be an ex-officio member, such as the director of the Neighborhood Planning Office or similar city officer. The board would have final authority on any property changes within the district.

Public hearings will be held at the discretion of the board, and the board will also have the authority to grant exceptions. The job of the city's Board of Zoning Appeals won't change for Eastwood; appeals for variances can still be made at the municipal level. However, any approved variances must still adhere to the zoning overlay standards, and the BZA will have no authority to review appeals after the Design Review Board has made its decision.

Fifth District Councilor Bill Simmons, who represents Eastwood, expects the Common Council to approve the overlay district in September. "I have been keeping council members apprised of what's been happening from the beginning," Simmons says. "I think people are looking forward to it."

And Eastwood residents are looking forward to the controlled development it will bring to their neighborhood. "We're very much for development, especially at that corner," insists Joseph Nastri Jr., Eastwood resident, owner of Nastri Real Estate on James Street and a TNT facilitator. "We would just like to see the kind of development that maintains a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. The TNT group asked Dunkin' Donuts to landscape its site, but it's so suburban looking. It really doesn't fit with Eastwood. {We were} concerned about what might go in the Sport Center space or how a building might be placed on the lot. There were rumors flying all over about Byrne Dairy taking down half a block and putting in a strip mall or a stop-and-shop-type place with gas pumps and parking spaces out front, or Kentucky Fried Chicken or an Auto Zone: exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid. And again, we don't have a problem with those businesses; it's the blue plastic front and red signs, the plastic Eckerd look."

Approval of the zoning overlay should stem rumors, Simmons says, because it will eliminate ambiguity. "A zoning district lays out some basic standards that any developer knows about going in, and it avoids conflict with the neighbors," he explains. "It is a unique opportunity to empower neighbors to be proactive. This model is a good one for other neighborhoods to emulate."

Change Is Good

Eastwood residents believe their neighborhood's main corridor would benefit from another family restaurant or a professional building. "We originally thought that the Sport Center could be obtained before it was torn down and renovated into a community center or a small facility with three or four shops in it," pastor O'Brien says. "This community needs more accessible and available professional services. A doctor's office, perhaps. Or some way to create some small shops that would be conducive to people walking and shopping and visiting."

Nastri agrees. "I think that's more in keeping with what we'd like to see," he says. "Instead of one, we might get four businesses on that {Sport Center} site, maybe office space with some apartments above it."

They want to retain the essence of Eastwood. "We want to keep the balance of business and commercial interests along with those of the residents," O'Brien says. "We want all to coexist in a way that keeps that quality of life and the uniqueness of the neighborhood."

If Eastwood's trailblazing zoning proposal achieves the desired effect--controlled development along a healthy business district--the same kind of plan could work in other city neighborhoods and even in suburban towns. "If this zoning overlay initiative works well here, it could certainly apply to other neighborhoods," says Sheila Weed, a landscape architect and Eastwood TNT participant. "One zoning district doesn't have to cover all the city. What they might want in Tipperary Hill is not what we might want in Eastwood."

And whether or not other local neighborhoods adopt zoning overlays tailored to their needs, at least--pending expected Common Council approval--James Street as we know it will remain just as it is, or perhaps even better. "Eastwood, having a unique tradition, had an opportunity to protect that uniqueness," Simmons says. "And I think other neighborhoods that feel they have a historical uniqueness will also want to protect what they envision their neighborhood should be."

Changing Zoning Forever

As a result of New Urbanism advocate Andres Duany and his company's visit here last fall, the Syracuse Onondaga County Planning Agency (SOCPA), formed in 1970 when the city and county merged their planning departments, has been busy with the next step in controlling sprawl: coming up with a new Integrated Traditional Neighborhood Development Code. This document seeks to redress current zoning shortcomings and help preserve the flavor of each individual neighborhood and community.

We are developing a zoning code for each type of neighborhood with the idea that you can have different activities, ranges of incomes and housing needs in close proximity. In fact, that's desirable," says SOCPA planning director Karen Kitney. The finalized integrated code will be submitted to SOCPA's planning commission, approximately 20 representatives from both the city and county, for its approval.

Since state law prevents any entity other than the municipality from mandating zoning in that municipality, the code SOCPA is developing is merely suggestive. "Through this we are providing a model code which all towns could adopt, a new tool for towns to use in their planning," Kitney explains. "They can tailor the code model to their needs."

Such a comprehensive document takes time to develop. Still, SOCPA is preparing final comments to forward to Duany's Miami firm before its representatives visit again in October. "December is a realistic time frame for us to submit the final copy to the steering committee," Kitney says. "It's taken longer than I anticipated, but a document of this type is so novel for us. I'm happy with the product, but I didn't think it would take this long."

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