Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The first major step in revitalizing downtown

This a little late but I have been busy at work. I will be leaving tomorrow for the urban sprawl of Fabulous Las Vegas. I will leave the blog in the hands of my Co Captain, TheAlumnus.

Centro announced earlier this week that they would be eventually be moving the bus exchange from the corner of Salina and Fayette down to Warren Street near the Red Cross building. This is truly the fist step in revitalization downtown. The bus exchange creates so much congestion both traffic and pedestrian wise in this area. This creates a lot of people milling around, litter, and pollution from the busses. The area looks very dirty and rundown With this gone, it will allow for development in this area and and a cleaner less congested "Heart of the City". I have been saying for a long time that this is the fist step that needs to be taken in order to transform the S. Salina Street corridor. Right now, at its peak of business, you cannot drive or walk through the intersection without nearly getting hit by a bus or fighting the crowds. The crowds also block access to the businesses that surround it. Not to mention that the bus riders have to wait outside in the elements with no shelter to wait for their next bus. With the exchange gone it will open more opportunity to develop this critical part of downtown.

Monday, October 16, 2006

October Surprise

Well, after a solid month and a half of blogging, it seems Garrett and I have hit somewhat of a creative wall...I'll tell ya, I don't know how blogs like NYCO can maintain the torrid pace they do!

But for those readers who are still checking in, don't give up on us yet! We're just catching our breath, and will get back up to full speed shortly.

Some quick takes to tide you over that you wouldn't have seen in the P-S...

- It seems S.U. is now actively soliciting comments from the public on the Connective Corridor. Sound off about gondolas, or trains, or Segways, or space elevators, or whatever the plan is this week, here.

-Bull & Bear Pub in Hanover Square got in some hot water over its use of unlicensed music during Wednesday night karaoke. I only mention it because honestly, I've never in all my days of haunting small city pubs, found as good a group of karaoke singers as those at B&B. It seems the matter has been resolved, which hopefully means the fun will continue in Syracuse's OTHER nightlife entertainment district.

-I just finished an interesting book called Look Homeward, America by upstate author Bill Kauffman. In many ways, Kauffman's work is diametrically opposed to that of the infamous Mr. Florida's Rise of the Creative Class. Kauffman celebrates what he calls "radical reactionaries" and "front porch anarchists" - essentially, those who reject the modern, the corporate, the Big, in favor of the traditional, the human-scaled, the Small. The emphasis with Look Homeward is on growing roots in a community over generations, as opposed to attracting vagrant talent workers seeking lifestyle centers and Starbucks.

I enjoyed Mr. Kauffman's profiles of these characters, who might best be described as lovable curmudgeons. Not to be missed is his recounting of a mid-morning booze session with the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the bar of the Hotel Syracuse. Nevertheless, I found myself disagreeing strenuously with the book in several spots. While I consider myself a small-government guy, I'm definitely not a no-government guy, nor am I convinced that returning to the land is the best solution for all of society's ills. And as a committed free-marketeer, distributism (which appears the author's preferred economic system) smells less like true capitalism and more like a watered-down socialism.

Still, I think Mr. Kauffman gets something that Mr. Florida, for all his insights, misses: we need to revitalize Syracuse, but not by selling out. What is old in Syracuse is not necessarily bad - in fact, our traditions our past, may be really be our future. But there is also nothing wrong with throwing a couple new coats of paint on it, either.

If you want to talk about lovable curmudgeons, by the way, this guy is today's winner, easy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I went down to the SOHO Show today put on by bizeventz. The show was for Small and home based businesses. It was really a great showcase of the companies and services for someone who is starting a small business. Theres not too much there for an already well established company, but for people who are starting out, it would be a great way find all of the suppliers that they needed to get on their feet. It was great to go out and see what is available to small businesses starting out in the area and the admission was basically free.

We need to have more events and initiatives locally to help the growing and start up companies succeed. I think that it would be great to run this show 2 times a year to really catch everyone who is starting a business and help them find out where to get the items and support that they need. I know when I helped start the company I work for now, we had a difficult time knowing what it is we needed and then going out and trying to find the best place to obtain it. It took about 1-2 years to actually get a solid handle on suppliers. With something like the SoHo show available it could cut 6 months off that lead time and really give small companies a step up in the market.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What Wisco Can Teach Us

As I mentioned on Thursday, I spent the weekend in America’s Dairyland, the great state of Wisconsin. Of the many cool things I did and saw on my first Midwestern trip, Saturday in particular features some things that I think are relevant to Salt(ed) City. We headed west on I-94, out of the greater Milwaukee area, to the state’s capital city, Madison.

Madison is of course both a university town (home of the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin) and a state capital, packing a lot of stuff in a relatively small space between the large and lovely Mendota and Menona Lakes. Madison really is the idealized Syracuse, at least in terms of physical layout and urban design. The university flows seamlessly into downtown, without any highway overpasses or other infrastructure getting in the way. Pedestrian-friendly State Street, a diagonal avenue that runs from campus to the capitol, is closed to all traffic except buses and emergency vehicles.

From historic Bascom Hall at the university, it’s a short walk down State Street, which is lined with quirky shops, great bars and restaurants (State Street Brats could be my new favorite sports bar), and some terrific public spaces like the brand new Overture Center for the Arts.

The mall empties out into the capitol square, which on Saturdays features an extensive local farmers market surrounding the capitol. The capitol itself is an attractive building, but the really cool part is that it is completely open to the public. We climbed to the observation level for a great view of the city and surrounding country. Finally, we headed over to the student union and its famous Rathskeller and terrace, overlooking one of the lakes. Not a bad place to go to school. Oh, yeah, did I mention Camp Randall Stadium, where tens of thousands of crazy Badgers fans cheered Wisco on to a big win over Northwestern? And then the party spills over to Regent Street, with makeshift bars set up in driveways, parking lots, carwashes, etc. etc. Beers and brats everywhere you look – not a bad way to live.

So what does Madison have to teach Syracuse? Well, we all know that having a downtown that is physically, as well as socially, connected to a university can create a lot of synergy. Being situated next to a lake (or two) also provides scenic and recreational benefits. But this stuff we already know. If the Connective Corridor works out, we’re on our way to achieving the first objective; if the Lakefront Development Corp. can build on this summer’s successful Inner Harbor events and development really gets going, we’ll be closer to the second goal.

But I think the real take home lesson is the idea of a Main Street; ideally, a pedestrian-friendly, possibly closed to traffic, city mall. Building on my thoughts from last week, it seems S. Salina Street, even if just for a few blocks, could be the perfect place to do this. Now, I’m not a traffic engineer, and I’m sure there are all sorts of logistical problems with the idea. But just think about it; Clinton and Hanover Squares, connected to Armory; renovated buildings, a la 40 Below’s Wilson renovations, featuring retail and restaurants on the ground floor, with housing above. Attractive landscaping, a brick-paved street, bike paths…the works. Maybe extend it all the way past the P-S building to meet up with Little Italy. It could work.

So Madison offers a lot of food for thought. While I can do without the socialist agitators and Legalize It Now! Characters that hang out there, I think this Midwestern main street could serve a good model for a creative, connective heart to downtown Syracuse.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

An Early Columbus Day

I'll be flying out to the great state of Wisconsin for the long weekend, my first trip to the Upper Midwest. I'm anxious to check out Madison, which I understand is a pretty "progressive" city when it comes to urban planning. I'll report back on Monday evening if there is anything 'Cuse-worthy. In the meantime, my capable co-pilot Garrett will keep Salt(ed) City fully manned.

Quickly, quite a bit of interesting news today. First, just when we thought last week all the legal obstacles to Congel's Ditch had been removed...ok, well, no one really thought that. But the Carousel Ten - the ten retailers who filed suit to prevent the abrogation of their leases by the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency - are pursuing their case with the New York State Court of Appeals in response to last week's unfavorable lower court ruling. As the article - and the retailers' legal briefs - note, this case could have far reaching implications. Should the Appeals Court refuse to hear the case, or if it upholds the lower court ruling, it seems a pretty frightening precedent will be in place. What ever you feel about Destiny, no one should be in favor of this gross abuse of the power of eminent domain.

...Might AXA bail out of its eponymous downtown towers after all? It appears the Towers Realty, the buildings' owners, are seeking a sweetener package from the city (PILOT agreement extensions, public parking space rights), using the threat of AXA pulling out as leverage. AXA, on the other hand, seems to be saying it wants to stay, and that the city doesn't need to bend over backwards for Towers.

...the Connective Corridor shuttle had its soft opening tonight, and will start providing free service along the route on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with eventual full week service. You might remember a vague hint I offered on Monday that we'd see some significant development in the C2 this week. I didn't want to compromise my source, so I left it vague, but uh, trust me, I uh, had the scoop on this. (I can see how fortune tellers make their money...)

Two more really interesting stories in the P-S today, both of which deserve much more attention than I give, so I will just link to them in passing and tackle them more justly next week. First, CNYers apparently pay a lot in property taxes, which isn't good for a lot of reasons. Second, a new job initiative had a brainstorming session yesterday at the Chamber, in anticipation of a March "Journey 2 Jobs" summit. I actually may have some good info on this coming soon, so stay tuned (and it will be a lot less vague than my Connective Corridor "scoop", I promise).

And...oh, from News 10 Now, we get an update on the Mizpah Towers project - basically saying it isn't going anywhere. This thing has been mishandled from the start, beginning with the initital bid imbroglio. I love this article though - the developer says its waiting for building permits and then can jump in, the city economic development director saying he's heard the project's had some problems, but thinks it can still happen. Hi, crazy thought, but Syracuse is a pretty small town - my guess is the developer, project financiers, and the city should be able to get into a room and figure out where the roadblocks are pretty easily without having to talk to each other through the local cable news channel...sheesh.

And just because we at The Salt(ed) City always like to end on a positive, plot-advancing note, check out this commentary in the Rochester D&C on the growth of the biosciences industry in Upstate. Info the Western New York Biosciences Summit, currently taking place, can be found here. Syracuse CoE, perhaps an enviro-summit in the near future? Oh, would you look at that...they are way ahead of me.

Enjoy the weekend, all.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bridges in Syracuse

After all the recent talk about getting rid of 81 and how it cuts off downtown, I got to thinking: there are quite a few bridges and highways that cut downtown off from the rest of the city. The West Street artery and the railroad bridge over Fayette cut of the west side. 81 does a great job of cutting off SU and the east side. 690 Cuts off the North Side. There is no way that is actually doable to get rid of the highways. So why don't we work with them? I have been to London a few times and this one bridge always stuck out in my mind. The Tube(London's rail transit system) cuts right through Camden Town and bisects it, but instead of it being an eyesore it becomes a piece of art. As a temporary solution why not get some art students from SU, some buckets and paint, and a lift truck? At least brighten up some of the entrances and exits in and out of the city. Until we really figure out what to do with the bridge problem why not invest a very little amount of money and add some color to a very gray downtown.

We finally have a Convention Center Hotel (sort of)

The money to build the new Convention Hotel has been finally been released allowing the project to finally move forward. After years of controversy and delays the project is finally taking off. Syracuse really does need more hotels downtown. The hotel area right now is concentrated in the Carrier Circle area, keeping travelers and convention dollars out of downtown. We already have the Marx, the Hawthorne, and the Sheraton on The Hill which is a great start.

What a great shot in the arm for downtown. Even though the opening of the hotel is 2 years away this is a great leap forward for progress downtown. I remember when the Hotel Syracuse was still open and my Uncle came into town on business and stayed at the Hotel Syracuse. He couldn't believe that there was a hotel close to great dining, the bars, and downtown in Syracuse. He was used to staying in hotel complexes on the outskirts of town and loved being downtown. He was disappointed with the hotel but loved the location.

As long as the hotel has good parking, coparable rates to the outskirt hotels, and great rooms, travelers will be flocking downtown in droves.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

If I Were The Mayor...

A Sunday blog post by Sean Kirst got me thinking about the frustration we often feel when it seems "we" talk and talk, and issue plans and recommendations and reports and proposals, but never seem to get anything done.

Obviously, our leaders have a lot on their plate, and always limited resources with which to accomplish things. But even still…

This got me thinking – what would I do, Day One, if I were mayor? What concrete actions would I take on the problems we face, the stuff that can be worked on with a phone call and some elbow grease, rather than committees and appropriations?

The first thing I would do is take a yellow legal pad, grab a buddy and a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and hop in my car. I’d drive around the city, and just get a sense of how it flows together, what works, what doesn’t, what needs improvement. Now, since this is something I’ve done quite a few times in reality, I already have some ideas.

What is glaringly obvious when you drive around the ‘Cuse is that there are pockets of development, of success, all over the place – the problem is, they don’t cohere together, they don’t contribute to one another and feed off each other’s energies. For example, the success downtown with Armory, Franklin Square, and Clinton Square has not spread successfully under the overpass and up North Salina. As a North Side boy, I'm biased, but what about Little Italy?

I’ve talked about this before. The signage is up, the sidewalks are extended…but something is missing. If we’re committed to doing it, here’s where I’d start. I’d call every Italian restaurateur in the city that wasn’t on the street – Copani’s, Dominick’s, Delmonico’s – I’d get a hold of Lombardi’s Importers over on Butternut – and I’d get’em all into one room. And I’d beg, I’d plead, I’d cajole to the best of my political ability, to get some of them to consider Little Italy. It’s a long shot and a tough sell, but if it happened…Imagine Clinton Square festivals in the summer spilling out to sidewalk cafes and trattorias. Imagine Armory to Clinton/Hanover to Franklin to Little Italy, tied together. Suddenly, the stadium, the market, the mall, the train station, don’t seem so far away from downtown. Maybe Little Hanoi springs up along Butternut Street (more phone calls…). I’d be pushing 24/7 trying to make this happen.

Maybe the mayor and the Common Council have been doing this to no avail. Maybe we can’t come up with the funding, the incentives, to sweeten the deal enough for developers and retailers to take the plunge. But I think a lot of this comes down to passion, to getting people excited. Being a true leader isn’t rolling home the barrels of salted pork – it’s having a vision and putting in the man-hours to make real stuff happen. It’s not about cash. It’s about will. It’s about the everyday courage to ask regular people to contribute, for their own good and the community’s.

But it’s also about the little things – the beat up signs, the waist-high weeds, the broken windows. What about spending a little money for community centers, public libraries, churches even, to have rakes, hedge clippers, maybe even a lawnmower or two, available to rent for a nominal fee? What about going to the Boy Scout troops and suggesting some Eagle Scout projects centered on city beautification? What about hiring a couple of permanent jack-of-all-trade “scouts” who drive around the city all day in a truck, looking for little stuff to fix? If the city can’t/is unwilling to do this, why not get all the downtown offices and stores together in a Business Improvement District to do it? I’m just spinning stuff off the top of my head now.

If I were mayor, I’d forget about the fruit high up in the trees (Congel’s Ditch), and even the lower-hanging fruit (CoE, tCC), just for a little while. I’d start by scooping up the stuff already on the ground, and go from there.

What other “easy” things should be on our fantasy mayor’s to do list?

Monday, October 02, 2006

(Not So) Blue October

Posting has been scant the last few days because I've been struck by the flu and Garrett has been busy at work. But the good news is that a lot of things have happened in our absence. So let's dive in.

1. First, this afternoon's big news is that AXA, the financial firm with 950 employees in downtown Syracuse, will be staying put for the next 18 years. So the MONY Towers (I mean, AXA Towers) will keep their biggest tenant - and downtown dodges what could have been a devastating blow. The first step is reversing commercial flight - the second step is attracting new, major tenants. Progress is definitely being made.

2. Sean Kirst on Friday looked at how some S.U. architectural students are imagining Syracuse without I-81. This is a topic we've covered before, and I gotta admit, I'm still a skeptic. For one thing, wouldn't re-routing the freight haulers that travel the Penn-Can highway, down 690-W to 481-S, cause some serious traffic ties-up potentially? Still, Mr. Kirst make a good point - we've had major transportation links removed from downtown before (see the Erie Canal, the railroad). And it seems that I-81 is due for some renovations. And this blog is dedicated to creative solutions for the 'Cuse. So let's dream about breaking the Downtown Wall. It might even happen.

3. I have a hunch there might be some Connective Corridor developments later this week. Stay tuned.

4. I saved for last the story that really gets me like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. On Friday, a state apellate court refused to block the taking of 12 Carousel Center retailers' lease rights by the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency, basically clearly a major obstacle to Congel's cranes getting back to digging his Ditch.

I try to avoid politics, particularly my own opinions, as much as possible on this blog, but sometimes you gotta get on your soapbox. I'm not a lawyer, nor a constitutional scholar, and maybe some of these nuances are lost on me. But when a government can use eminent domain to seize property and abrogate lawful contracts, not to build firehouses or police stations but rather a shopping mall, something is seriously awry. Private property and the sanctity of contracts are the load-bearing walls of our commercial republic. Every time we chip away at them, even with the intention of serving the public good, we just bring our own downfall a tiny bit closer.

Now this ruling rests on some serious judicial precedent - most recently, this case from last summer. The blame certainly doesn't rest on the shoulders of the court in question, for the continued abuse of the power of eminent domain. Nor should it be said that I am disappointed that Congel's Ditch MAY actually be built. I think it may serve some real good for the city, particularly in terms of what should be the 'Cuse's main economic goal: becoming a center of environmental technology research and development.

But Destiny should not be built like this. Period. If the rights of some of us are violated this way, we are all vulnerable - and we should all be concerned.

End pessimistic ranting - what's next?

Update: Check out the comboxes below, particularly on Garrett's most recent post directly below. Our man J. shares some great ideas about focused development, as well as an update on the CoE. Don't miss it.