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.