Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 18, 1990

I always feel a bit of a phony in these Downtown discussions. Truth is, I never really spent much time Downtown. As a child of the early 80s, downtown had by then failed under the '60s/'70s fad of urban renewal, and had moved on to the new fad of the time: Wacky Wall Walkers. Just like that infamous cereal toy , leaders would throw an idea at downtown, watch it stick for a minute or two, and then fall abruptly to the ground. (From the February 4, 1980 Post-Standard Progress Edition: "An encouraging the recent application by the city for federal funds to be used as a second mortgage on a privately financed proposal to convert the upper floors of Dorset Building on East Onondaga Street into luxury executive housing"—the very Dorset Building that was targeted for demolition by the city two years later in preparation for The Galleries.)

So my Fifth Avenue of Syracuse was never Warren or South Salina Streets, but the simple, mundane corridor of Fairmount Fair Mall. I grew up in Fairmount Fair—progressing from Irene Shop to Lerners, Kaybee Toy and Hobby to Waldenbooks, Fluf 'N Stuff to Great Games. When it first started to decline, I didn't care much because I, like all the other shoppers from the West Suburbs, had taken to admiring herself in the mirrored tiles of the new Camillus Mall. Yet as the already dim mall grew darker, I started to get a sense of what was happening. When my mom had to make a quick trip to one of the few remaining tenants, I opted to remain in the car. Curiosity got the better of me, though, and one afternoon I did accompany my mother inside. While she dropped her shoes off at Midtown Shoe Repair to be dyed, I wandered down the side hallway to the main corridor. By then 15 or 16 years old, I stood at the playground of my youth and saw this: shuttered gates, eerie silence, total darkness. I knew what I was looking at that day, and it was far more sobering than any afterschool special on the fragility of life.

On the bright side, there was plenty of free parking!

The only thing lazier than people who say more parking is the way to save a downtown is the argument itself. A downtown, by definition, is a tightly condensed area of buildings. Where, pray tell, would the suburban-sized parking lots be built in Downtown, that wouldn't, in essence, destroy Downtown itself? And yet parking—or lack thereof—is often the issue that is front and center in every debate regarding the revival of Downtown. On February 18, 1990, the Syracuse Herald-American posed the very same question that Sean Kirst recently did in his February 9 column: Can We Save Downtown? In the offline days of 1990, all answers were published in the paper as part of their "Sunday Soapbox" series. Despite the nineteen-year passage of time, the answers read very similar:

"Parking is terrible. Who would like to pay to park in a garage or risk getting a ticket at a meter when parking at malls are plentiful and free? Downtown should get rid of the meters and allow free parking." (1990)

"I'll tell you what would bring my family downtown: free parking. The parking right now is expensive, and it's confusing, and the chances of getting a ticket make everything even worse. If you want to know what would get people like me downtown, it's free and easy parking." (2009)

"Perhaps a free parking plan with new stores might attract some, but I doubt it." (1990)

"As long as cities value their real estate so highly that they can not offer free convenient parking then they will struggle and beg to get people to come downtown. City planners need to focus on easy, fast, free, nearby parking or they are wasting their time and taxpayer money on any other tease." (2009)

Four months after the 1990 article, the city did open two free (for up to two hours) parking areas Downtown: a free lot at South Clinton and West Washington, and the Sibley's garage. During the course of the summer, approximately 1200 people who parked in the lot or garage were surveyed by the city regarding the question of free parking and visiting Downtown. According to the study results published in the October 18, 1990 Syracuse Herald-Journal, 95 percent of the people that pulled into the free parking areas said that they would have been Downtown regardless of parking cost, as most were there on business. When asked about their shopping habits downtown, only 9 percent of the people said they avoided shopping Downtown due to poor parking. Two-thirds of the respondents said they didn't shop downtown because of a poor selection of stores.

"Public transportation to and from downtown should be inviting to families, students, seniors and all visitors. What about evening buses planned around concert, theater and event schedules?" (1990)

"Centro could go a long way toward solving that problem if there were inexpensive (maybe even free) perimeter parking lots/garages on all sides of downtown with easily available, convenient mass transit to all key downtown locations and the mess at Salina and Fayette was gone." (2009)

"If it is true that the Plaza cannot be saved, why not put a parking lot there? The trolleys could run a shuttle to the downtown shopping district from Midtown Plaza."

"I remember not too many years ago Centro had free rides within a certain area right around downtown. People could jump on any bus and ride for free within the immediate downtown area. So instead of walking from your car to your area of work you can ride for free." (2009)

At the time of the 1990 article, two Salt City Trolley buses had been circulating downtown on a Park and Ride route for almost three years, nearly empty. While the Salt City Trolley—or Salt City Folly, as opponents liked to call it— is really a story in and of itself (Common Councilor Robert Cecile quoted in an October 16, 1988 Syracuse Herald-American article: "The way I look at it the idea seemed very interesting and unique when we first proposed might be one of those things you put up on the flagpole and wait and see if anybody shoots at it"— The Wacky Wall Walker Plan at its finest), one supposed purpose of the trolley was to act as a shuttle bus from a 480-car parking lot near Armory Square to the Downtown core area. For a $20 month pass, cars could park in the lot all day and ride the trolley for free. Any other riders picked up along the route could board for a 10-cent fare. Within the first year, 56,000 riders rode the trolley, at a cost of $3.48 per rider. An October 16, 1988 Syracuse Herald-American article determined that the city would have been better off financially if it had paid for the cab fare of every passenger ($2.48 along the same route). Yet despite Common Councilor Cecile's quote, the idea itself was not completely pulled from thin air. In February 1966, four thousand area residents were questioned by the Chamber of Commerce Mass Transit Committee regarding their transportation habits into Downtown, and nearly half stated that they drove in their own cars (Syracuse Herald-American, February 6, 1966). Of the fifty percent that took the bus, one of their biggest complaints was that it did not drop them in front of their workplace. The committee then looked into the possibility of creating a circulating bus route—running every five minutes, with up to six buses, so that "there would always be a bus in sight"—to transport riders from their downtown bus stop to their downtown place of employment.

And here I thought 2009 people were lazy.

Let's face it: as long as Downtown has the slightest hint of despair or decay, like the dying Fairmount Fair all those years ago, only the toughest of souls will want to venture its streets. Camillus Commons or Fayetteville Towne Center may be aesthetically depressing, but they don't make you feel the weight of the world at every turn. And isn't that what this is really all about? To read many of the suggestions at Sean Kirst's blog: ample free parking at every doorstep, eliminate the panhandlers and homeless, remove the Centro Bus Stop from sight, add a few national chain stores like the nondescript Gap—by the time this wish list is fulfilled, we won't have to worry about luring Cicero to Downtown Syracuse, as Downtown Syracuse will be Cicero.

As someone who doesn't currently live in Syracuse—and never appreciated Downtown when I did—I feel pretty confident in saying this: the problem with Downtown isn't parking, it's perspective. As a car-free city dweller for the past 17 years, the notion of not wanting to walk several blocks from a parking space to a store or restaurant seems incomprehensible. I walk about a mile to the supermarket each way several times a week, without a second thought. (Then again, perspective: I'm a healthy, able-bodied person, and I know that this would not be possible for many others.) I suppose if I had lived these past years in the Syracuse suburban neighborhood where I grew up— with its lack of sidewalks or anywhere to even walk to—the notion of walking "several blocks" might seem equally as inconceivable to me. (The unit of measure alone is unique to the city; otherwise, it sounds like it might as well be "several miles.")

And perhaps the most telling response of all:

In my opinion, downtown needs to have things that you can't find anywhere else. For example, when my husband and I go downtown, a couple times/month maybe, it is to see an IMAX movie, eat at Sakana Ya or the Dinosaur, or go to a special event, like the car show yesterday. If there was an IMAX theater next to a dinosaur bbq in Camillus or Liverpool, we'd go there instead. People are lazy and want to do the least work possible, including finding the easiest most convenient parking space and shopping/dining somewhere that is "easy" (ie: mall, suburbs etc) So it's all about having unique enough attractions that will force people to come downtown because they can't get it anywhere else, even though it may not be as "easy".

From my point of view, downtown already has things you can't find anywhere else. Can you find an 1893 building designed by Archimedes Russell in Clay or DeWitt? And as heartbreaking as Warren Street currently is, would Lemp Jewelers be Lemp Jewelers if it were located in a storefront between Panera Bread and Dick's Sporting Goods?

But if you don't perceive historic architecture as anything special, then you will never be convinced that Downtown offers something right now that isn't stocked at your local suburban shopping center. If you think Downtown should be rebuilt as a checkerboard pattern, red for buildings, black for parking, then you will never feel great sadness when reading news of another historical building set for demolition. The question isn't how do we save downtown, but rather, who deserves a seat at the table when the decisions are made?

Maybe this is why Downtown Syracuse has been always been shaped by fads and whimsy. Instead of slighting someone, city leaders just offend everyone. And thus a sense of community is born.


sean said...

another magnificent post, and i would pick only the slightest of nits: my question wasn't what would 'save' downtown, but what would work downtown - i think you keenly observe how the original question was often interpeted.

the dinosaur, as i've often noted, breaks every rule of suburban planning: parking is not easy, door to the street, the place is filled with the same characters that folks find so terrifying at the bus stop ... and it works - and would not work, not in the same way, in fayetteville or camillus. why? i think there are some pretty clear answers that i'll leave to others to debate. so if it works, how do you build on that? the ice rink works. people could skate at cicero commons or meachem, etc., but they love to skate downtown. why? again, the answers are actually uplifting and optimistic - but you build on that. the obvious next step - one simple step - is to find an imaginative corollary business that would work, like finding another stone in walk across the brook. same, it seems to me, with armory square: micromanage your next step. use imagination, encourage something with high odds of filling a niche, concentrate on it, promote it, and go one storefront more. muscle to muscle.

your points about architecture - and the fallacy of more and easier parking - ring precisely true. there are still plenty of people - i hear it all the time - who would gladly tear down the hotel syracuse or central high or a multitude of landmarks without a tear. you've got to just hope people with an ethic about why you can't do that have their hands on the levers. as for parking, people walk a long ways through awful mall parking lots with no traffic controls in all sorts of crap - often the equivalent of a couple of blocks. the issue isn't parking. the issue is finding the magnets - the muscle - that make people want parking. there's a whole other take on the challenge there i'll try to get at this week, but anyway, thanks for another fine post.


JoeBass123 said...

great post once again.

if i may answer your question on "who deserves a seat at the table when the decisions are made?"...

i think instead of posing the questions along the line of "what would get you to visit downtown?" or "what changes would you make to downtown?", the one real question that should be asked is "what would make you live downtown?". syracuse needs stronger leadership at all levels that will consistantly stand up for downtown and not elected officials who 1) instantly cave to the needs of the outter villages, towns, and suburbs in a heartbeat and 2) not jump on the first ship that comes to shore in terms of "development" (see carousel mall).

the parking concern or problem or whatever you want to call it is something that i guess i will never understand. why should downtown be bowing to the needs of people who don't even live in it? yes, they should worry about the parking concerns of visitors and non-city residents to an extent (mainly because that's where a large portion of the spending money currently comes from), but not to the point where they are demolishing useful civic infrastructure to accomidate them. i think when you make decisions like that (the recent warren street decision(s) being a more than perfect example), you're making it that much easier for people to live outside the city, drive in, do the one or two things that they need to do downtown, and then drive back home. when the smartest way of pumping the most continuous amount of money into downtown is accomidating its residents (or future residents) and giving them the option to spend their time and money all day long and on every day of the week. this is the objective that needs to be put into place well above any concern about parking lots, parking rates, parking tickets, and parking garages. the minute you sacrifice the needs of downtown residents (as few of us as there may be) you make it that much easier for people to not even live downtown. i mean, if you have a bunch of people driving in to the city and then driving out every day, doesn't that totally contradict the idea of syracuse being an "emerald city"?

i guess to a certain extent it's the chicken or the egg theory. you can't just ask thousands of people to move downtown (though in my opinion, that's all it would take to spur proper development and more resident necessities and amenities like a better walkable environment, a movie theater, a grocery store, etc...). somebody needs to figure out a target audience for downtown (i.e. are we aiming to attract empty nesters? new families? artists? or are we aiming to attract non-residents? out-of-area visitors? people who remember what downtown was like in the 1950's?). personally, i think the target should be single, young adults. and in order to attract them you need more affordable apartments of high quality. yes, most of them are paying off college loans, but these are the people who have the most money to spend - and will spend it on things like shopping, food, restaurants, music, and cultural activities - especially if those options are available in the imediate area where they live.

for what it's worth, i have a few pro-resident solutions that would help them feel more valued and less like second class citizens in their own neighborhood - these could also be done cheaply and quickly.

1) improve the traffic flow. no more "no turns" signs on salina. "no turn" signs are fine, but they need to say "monday-friday 7am to 5pm" as there is no need to have this restriction in place at night (all of the salina traffic has left for the suburbs by then).

2) the entire traffic lighting system needs to be re-timed. it works during the rush-hour and on weekdays afternoons, but does not work at all for residents on weekends and weekday evenings and nights. it's crazy to make your residents sit at a red light that's timed for rush-hour on a desolate street with no cars anywhere at night. every time it happens to me i suddenly think i'm at the nexus of the universe.

3) change the traffic grid. get rid of most, if not all one-way strets downtown as they only benefit motorists. i'm not really sure when the current pattern was put into place (1950's?), but it's a mess and actually quite annoying and off-putting to visitors. sure, this may actually slow down car travel in and out of the city, but it makes the street feel more like a public place where the pedestrian is valued and less like a highway where you wonder if you are going to be blindsided by a car going whizzing through a bunch of green lights.

4) improve crosswalks. for starters, the crosswalk lights are not in-sync with the traffic lights. they need to be reconfigured to coincide with yellow and red lights. the second that "do not walk" stops blinking, a yellow light should appear on the traffic light overhead.

5) implement traffic calming techniques - create a few raised crosswalks at specific intersections (salina/jefferson, for instance).

6) it might be out of the city's jurisdiction, but centro needs to be more user-friendly. the website needs a total overhaul and needs to display a realistic, google-style system map. also, display the entire bus system map at more stops (not just a few). and more importantly, redo the signage - instead of a blue sign that indicates a bus stop, put up an additional sign below it that indicates what bus numbers stop there.

7) stop paying for these costly study groups that do research on parking and development and just be more self-proactive about what decisions to make. i know it's easier said than done, but if the mayor of syracuse doesn't know what makes a sucessful downtown he needs to first do a whole bunch of reading ("the death and life of great american cities" (jacobs) and "the american city: what works and what doesn't" (garvin)) and secondly needs to go visit other cities and downtowns nearby (saratoga springs, ithaca, ottawa, montreal, toronto, philadelphia). if the mayor still can't implement ideas from these cities (such as cleanliness, traffic orginization, proper store-fronts, parking, parks, mixed building usage, etc...) then he needs to be impeached based on stupidity and blindness.

8) create an architectural review board for downtown. yes, the city does not need any more barriers to stall progress, but a review board would make sure that rash decisions do not get made that would end up hurting the city in the long run. no more surface parking lots. no more ridiculous and out of place buildings that don't blend in with their surroundings. sure, you'd end up having to pass on a few development projects, but it would make the ones that did comply with the architecture ordinances that much more grand and dare i say, perfect additions for downtown.

9) crack down on illegal parking. this is easy money for the city. i've never seen so many people get away with illegal parking as i have downtown. this is especially prevelant during festivals at clinton square. the last thing you want to do is alienate your visitors, but the garages and on-street parking options are there for a reason.

anyway, thank you for giving me the opportunity to rant about street issues. you have a really great blog and i've loved every post so far. i do have one question for you. you seem to be someone who can dig up hard-to-find facts easily, and i was wondering if you knew in what year warren street was changed to a one-way street? the only reason i'm curious is because i think warren is the perfect example of everything that is right and everything that is wrong with downtown.

NYCO said...

Actually, in my brief comment on Sean's thread, I was asking about how to lure Joe Cicero in toward the city to live, not just to shop (I didn't elaborate and probably should have). I am interested in the question of how to reverse the process that the metro area experienced since WWII; not just in how to restock the city with fresh fish (who we haven't found a solution for - nationally anyway - when these fresh fish get married and have kids and suddenly feel the urgent need to hie out for the suburbs, which aren't going away.)

We certainly shouldn't turn downtown into Cicero, but Joe Cicero shouldn't be left out of the equation.

Syracuse B4 said...

I've been off-line for the past week, so apologies for not posting sooner:

To be honest, I'm not entirely sold on Downtown housing being the solution. There are cities that are decades ahead of Syracuse as far as downtown revitalization goes (e.g. Providence, Hartford), and they are still having trouble attracting people downtown to live. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the same reason that Syracuse doesn't have more people living downtown: overpriced condos, no grocery stores, and an obviously different vibe after the work-crowd departs post-5pm weekdays and on weekends. But I also think that all things considered, downtown living really appeals to only a small demographic, especially when you can find apartments in the urban neighborhoods that border downtowns. I too used to live in Boston, and during the course of my eight years there, lived in Allston, Brighton and the North End. Even if I could have afforded to live in one of the new condo tower projects that have been built/currently under construction in the Downtown Crossing area, I would not have wanted to live there. I prefer a true mix of business and residential, and that could be found in the areas I lived in.

Also, as I sort of referred to in a post last summer, I think the true marketing potential of Syracuse is to people in their late twenties and older, currently living in Northeast coastal cities (e.g. Boston, NY, DC) who want to buy a house, but will never be able to afford it in these areas. They could move to the middle of the country, but wouldn't they want to move to the cheapest housing market closest to these big cities? And the appeal wouldn't be to live downtown (more apartment living, even if you own the condo), but a small house with yard - similar to what can be found in the inner ring suburbs.

Regarding Warren Street being one way - upon a quick search, I couldn't find any specific mention of a date, but there certainly have been a lot of articles complaining about the street (including a November 25, 1965 Syracuse Herald-Journal article about the spectator sport of the time in the State Tower Building: watching people turning the wrong way on Warren Street off of E. Jefferson St. or E. Genesee St. and almost getting plowed down by oncoming traffic). But don't worry: according to a January 26, 1967 Syracuse Herald-Journal article about Warren Street and related traffic issues, "urban renewal" will solve the problems.

NYCO said...

Have you seen the latest "top 10 Least and Most Affordable" cities? Syracuse is No. 6 on "most affordable." So maybe there's hope for the idea of Syracuse being a good place for 20-somethings to find affordable homes.

(I don't really know how they come up with these lists, but personally I think Syracuse has the most to offer of any of the listed cities...)

NYCO said...

One more question... Do you take requests?

If so, I would love to see your take (and prodigious research) on the history of civic groups who came together to "take back downtown." Whatever happened to the UpDowntowners (the previous incarnation of Forty Below)? Were there any similar groups before them? What happened to these groups and did they achieve anything, and what political obstacles did they face...