Friday, June 27, 2008

June 30, 1949

As a marathoner, I am obsessed with times. Unfortunately, as a slow marathoner, I am also obsessed with figuring out how my times fall apart. For some marathoners, it is "the wall": a sudden and dramatic energy loss around mile 20. Yet for me, it is a gradual decline: a one-minute walk through the water stop at mile 5 turns to two minutes by ten, and before I know it, I'm walking the entire distance from mile 22 to 23. But where did I go wrong? Did I start too fast? Did I not hydrate properly? Am I just not genetically cut out to run marathons, and therefore always be doomed to this ending?

On a similar note, whenever I look at the history of Downtown Syracuse, I want to know: when did it unravel? Was it a sudden hit like the marathoner's wall; a banner headline that instantly spelled out the demise of the area? (Such as the front page news of October 15, 1990, when the opening of the Carousel Center sealed the fate of the area's remaining enclosed suburban malls?) Or was it a creeping fatigue, a year-by-year slow down that eventually left the formerly thriving city at a complete standstill? Was "Realistic Planner from Fayetteville" being prescient or obvious when he stated "the city is on its way out" in a May 12, 1957 letter to the Syracuse Herald American editorial page? ("I suggest instead of urban renewal you have urban displacement...that's the handwriting on the shaky city walls which I read.") While nostalgia makes me think the former, the reality is probably closer to the latter: Realistic Planner already had five years to chew on a July 1, 1952 Post Standard editorial which decried the rapid growth of the Syracuse suburbs, communities such as DeWitt and North Syracuse that were "choking [themselves] with growth...too many people, too soon." With every request for a zoning change, with every house advertised in relationship to the nearest shopping center, there had to be an awareness that downtown Syracuse was losing its relevance. But was there one day, one moment when the handwriting was on the then-sturdy city of Syracuse walls for all - and not just late-to-the-table Realistic Planner-- to see?

I'm still searching for an answer to this one, so in the meantime, let's look at the history of the abandoned building at 321 South Warren Street, the construction plans for which were announced fifty-nine years ago today.

The land on which 321 South Warren Street sits was once home to the circa-1889 Warner Building, owned by Charles Warner, head of the Warner Sugar Refining Company nd the Warner-Quinlan Asphalt Company. Warner leased part of the building to the Syracuse Herald (as well as Dakin's Business Institute). In 1903, the Syracuse Herald moved out, and the Post-Standard moved in. The newspaper bought the building three years later, and it remained its headquarters until the Post-Standard relocated to a newly constructed building on East Fayette and Montgomery Streets in June, 1940. In typical downtown Syracuse fashion, the Warner/Post-Standard building was demolished, and the site was turned into a parking lot.

The rapid growth of the post-WWII Syracuse suburbs led to increased business for the city's banks, all of which were (ironically) headquartered downtown. Industrial Bank of Central New York was no exception to this explosion, quickly outgrowing its office space at 221 East Fayette Street. The Bank announced its plans to construct a two-story, 14,000 square foot, $500,000 building on the parking lot purchased from the Post Standard, complete with the new rage in banking at the time: the drive-thru window. (Although due to the building's location, the drive through looked more like the entrance to a loading dock, with cars entering on South Warren, and exiting in an alley in the back which led to East Fayette). Space on the second floor was leased to Dun & Bradstreet, as well as two insurance companies. Construction began in fall of 1949, and in January, 1950, the bank advertised its plans to bury a time capsule* beneath the building. With a scheduled unearthing date of January, 2050.

To be honest, I don't know what's sadder: the knowledge that artifacts representing the pride and enthusiasm of a generation are (currently?) buried underneath this building that has barely made it fifty, let alone one hundred, years, or that bank president Warren R. Bentley was so naive to believe that his building's fate would be any different than that of the fifty-year old Warner/Post-Standard building which had been razed a mere decade earlier. To wit: less than three years after the grand opening of 321 South Warren Street, the Industrial Bank of Central New York merged with Lincoln National Bank & Trust Company. Lincoln Bank kept the office in operation until December, 1969, when it sold the building to First Federal Savings and Loan Association (which itself had been forced to find a new location due to the Edwards-Lincoln urban renewal project, which entailed demolishing standing structures in the Clinton Square area so that a new Edwards department store and 22-story headquarters for Lincoln Bank--the current One Lincoln Center --could be constructed). Most recently, the building housed the off-site data storage (read: no humans) for a financial services company. And in 2006, when Excellus BlueCross BlueShield demanded more parking as a condition to keep their offices downtown, the city found its answer by looking to its past. Of course, they did not remember the June 30, 1949 Post-Standard editorial which enthusiastically declared the bright future of South Warren Street business signified by the Industrial Bank land purchase, but instead fondly recalled the grand old days when 321 South Warren Street best served the city as a parking lot.

In 2006, Warren Parking Associates bought the building from Cadaret, Grant, & Co. Inc. with a plan to demolish it as well as several other neighboring properties for a new parking garage. Less than a year later, when Excellus decided to move to DeWitt, the group of developers attempted to sell back the blighted properties back to the city. The city one again readily agreed, and though the purchase has yet to be finalized, the reported price that the city will pay for the building - as well as two other properties-- is $1.05 million, which works out to approximately $350,000 for 321 South Warren Street. Adjusting for inflation, the 1949 $500,000 construction price of the Industrial Bank of Central New York headquarters equals $4.5 million in today's dollars. Yet the city of Syracuse will be balancing out that number a bit more, after they spend an estimated $345,950 for asbestos removal and, yes, $100,000 for demolition costs. After all, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and in Syracuse, parking lots to parking lots.

*As far as I know, the 4.5-foot copper time capsule is still buried in concrete beneath 321 South Warren Street. One can only hope that if/when the building meets the wrecking ball, the contractors will take note to locate and remove the capsule. If you don't want to wait that long, here's a list of what's included in the capsule:

According to a Sunday, January 22, 1950 Post-Standard article, the bank wanted to assemble a collection of items that best represented mid-century life in Syracuse. These artifacts include:


· pictures of city officials
· copies of the city's newspapers · "modern" drugs · WSYR and WHEN films showing the progress of television as well as 1949 news highlights · news and style magazines · plastic items and a note describing the importance of plastic · coins and currency · 1950's style woman's hat, specially designed for the capsule · list of Onondaga county manufacturers · pictures and bulletins from Syracuse University and LeMoyne College · pictures of the Centennial Program of 1918 · pictures of a 1950 car · pictures of athletic teams · pictures of Syracuse Symphony Society orchestra · pictures of Syracuse architecture at the time, including homes, apartments and buildings · 1945 postwar report by the Syracuse Onondaga postwar planning council · a baton (and photo) from the Syracuse University majorette · a recorded commentary by E.R. Vadeboncoeur of WSYR about the trends in Syracuse · recorded messages from community members to the Syracusans of 2050 · recorded messages from bank employees to the employees of the bank in 2050 · plans and specifications of the building · photos of the time capsule event, taken with a Polaroid Land Camera

As you can see, there is a remarkable historical archive of 1950 Syracuse buried beneath the current blight at 321 South Warren Street, worth more than the building itself. Which only proves that when contemplating the future of Syracuse, the answers may quite literally be in the foundations of the city.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

June 18, 1984

Before Walmart, Walgreens or the guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there was another W bullying its way through the neighborhood. On this date, Wegmans went public with their plans to build a 88,000 square foot superstore on the Hookway Tract, a 14.4 acre parcel of land on the Syracuse University campus, in the area bordered by Broad Street, Meadowbrook Drive, Westmoreland Avenue and Colvin Street. Fearing that the area would turn into a shopping strip similar to Erie Boulevard, six neighborhood groups — Drumlins Terrace, Meadowbrook, Outer Comstock, Sherman Park, Southeast University and Westcott East banded together to fight Wegmans' plan to change zoning from residential to commercial, just as they had nine years earlier when Wegmans first hoped to build on the site. Yet not comfortable with wholly rejecting the Wegmans jackpot, an alternate location was suggested: Nottingham Road in DeWitt, near the 481 interchange. Wegmans rejected this proposal, citing that there were no people in that immediate area, and wished to be more integrated in the neighborhood. In November 1984, Wegmans' option to purchase the land expired, and the company abandoned its plans for the store. The southern part of the Hookway tract now serves as practice fields for Syracuse University, and the rest remains undeveloped.

I am a big proponent of walkable neighborhoods, independent businesses and generally hate the big boxes. In fact, I currently live in such an area myself, about 300 miles to the east of the nearest Wegmans. Which is to say, I would gladly bulldoze my own building if Wegmans wanted to build a store on the site. And while I may be doing this because it's WEGMANS, DO YOU REALIZE HOW LUCKY YOU ARE PEOPLE, I would also welcome a supermarket that wanted to open inside city limits, rather than in the great sprawl of the suburbs. When is the last time that Wegmans built a store that shoppers can walk to? The proposed Hookway Wegmans would have been the largest in Syracuse at that time. There is something to be admired about the residents of the area coming together to not only fight big business from turning open space into a concrete box and parking, but to win - twice. And yet, let's not overlook the significance of the Wegmans proposal, and the statement it would have made if completed: a belief in the future of the city.