Sunday, September 12, 2010

August 30, 2010

(Continued from Part 1)
"Some years ago the center of the city, namely Clinton Square, was devoted to the parking of cars and the appearance of the city at that place where it should look best to the person driving through was a mess. Now after creating a thing of beauty there to eliminate that horrible mess, our elected officials again want to mess up that spot just to park a measly 60 cars. How thrilling! Just think, all of sixty cars; not a drop in the bucket. It shows a great deal of advancement. Actually, it shows the thinking of small children." (excerpt from a letter to the editor written by Merritt G. Curtis, Syracuse, Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 20, 1950)

In the late 1940s, the Parking Authority made small gains in their parking mission.  In 1949, municipal parking lots opened on the northern and southern edges of downtown, at the corner of Oswego Boulevard and North Salina Street and Oneida and West Adams Streets. Each lot offered approximately 200 spaces. But as the Post-Standard had predicted several years earlier, the number of cars on the streets of Syracuse was increasing exponentially. Furthermore, building materials were no longer in short supply as they had been in the years immediately following WWII, resulting in a burst of suburban home and business construction. Yet despite this rapid growth, the Parking Authority's 1950 proposed parking site was decidedly retro:

Despite being shot down for a similar proposal two years earlier, the Parking Authority resurrected their wish to use Clinton Square for parking, though this time around they added Forman Park to the mix as well. According to a June 21, 1950 Post-Standard article, the authority had "abandoned all thoughts suggested last year of double- and triple-decker parking facilities preferring to use street level accommodations solely." In other words, perhaps in an effort to mimic the suburban parking lots, the parking authority sought open land where there was none. As the Post-Standard realized, "Fayette and Columbus parks and other similar spots of green in the community appear in danger of elimination to serve as space for cars."

Granted, Syracusans may have loved their cars, but they didn't want "the sight of 62 cars, even though all are of the latest model" taking over the downtown parks (from letter to the editor, Post-Standard, June 20, 1950). Residents took up their pens in protest:

To the Herald Journal:

A characteristic nibble at the edge of a big problem is the plan to turn Clinton Square into a parking lot. Syracuse is still trying to run a big city on a country village level.

The Square, which is not only a welcome spot of beauty in a rushing downtown section, but is supposed to have some memorial significance, will park a few cars, true. But it will certainly not improve the beauty of our city, which the planners praise about, when it is turned into a car lot.

Syracuse is still living down the reputation as the town where "the trains run through the streets." Now it can build up another as the city which uses its Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Square for a parking lot. (from a letter signed Cross-Town Pedestrian, June 20, 1950)

To the editor of the Post-Standard:

The following is a letter I have sent to Mayor Corcoran:

As a descendant of two of the pioneers of Syracuse, I wish to add my protest to the many others you have received, against the destroying of two of the few remaining beauty spots now left in downtown Syracuse: namely, the fountain in Clinton Square and Forman Park, established in honor of another of the founders of our city.

My ancestor, Oliver Teall, was one of the engineers instrumental in building the Erie Canal through this area.

My father, Timothy H. Teall, exhibited the first electric light in Syracuse.

It will take a lot of parking revenue to reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the Clinton Square fountain, as was reported in this week's paper. Then, too, we will not have a little place for our municipal Christmas tree, which is one of the pleasant items in a cold winter. Don't sacrifice everything for a little more money.

Also, have you the legal right to destroy our property?

(from a letter signed H.L. Teall, Post-Standard, June 27, 1950 - also printed in Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 28, 1950)

Letters appeared daily on the editorial pages, as well as editorials from both the Post-Standard and Herald-Journal condemning the decision. Initially, even in the face of this opposition, Mayor Thomas Corcoran "sided with the authority, declaring parking space is more necessary than beauty, especially when it will produce revenue from parking meters." (Post-Standard, June 22, 1950). But exactly one week after the triumphant headlines, the Sunday paper carried far different news:

From Syracuse Herald-American, June 25, 1950
The following week, the paper once again confirmed the news, stating that "the Parking Authority will meet Thursday to reject the proposal for converting Clinton Square and Forman Park into municipal parking lots" (Syracuse Herald-American, July 2, 1950). When you consider this swift reconsideration by the city after the overwhelming protest by Syracuse residents, you can't help but wonder if the razing of buildings that occurred during the urban renewal years would have had a different outcome had there been similar unified outrage. Unfortunately, the answer can be found within the same letters and editorials:

The city has broached the idea of turning Forman Park and part of Clinton Square into parking areas.

It is simply an admission of defeat.

There are plenty of ramshackle old buildings that could be torn down in congested areas and the sites turned into parking spaces, without turning to the few bits of nature that Syracuse owns. (from Post-Standard editorial, June 20, 1950)

To the editor of the Post-Standard:

I wish to protest against the plans of the city to use part of Clinton Square and Forman Park for parking lots. Why couldn't some of the old unsightly buildings in the downtown area be condemned and torn down and the land used for parking areas, thereby improving the community. (from letter signed J.B., Post-Standard, June 25, 1950)

To the Herald-Journal:

Why don't we tear down some of the ramshackle old buildings around town and build a real building for parking of cars instead of making an ugly blot out of that little beauty spot and putting us back in the horse and buggy era. (from a letter signed Isha, Herald-Journal, June 24, 1950)


By 1953, the downtown parking situation had become so dire that a 15-part (yes, fifteen part) series about the problem was published in the Post-Standard.   In Part 1, reporter Luther Bliven summarized the problem quite succinctly:

The average driver is an eternal optimist, certain that if he keeps circling long enough he will find a parking space reasonably near where he wants to go.  If parking is completely prohibited in the area of his destination, he may have a passenger go in and do his errand. Meanwhile he circles the block until the errand is completed. Both maneuvers produce more traffic congestion.
Unless the people can enter and leave the central business district without being unduly delayed by traffic congestion, and can find a place to park reasonably near their destination, they will purchase merchandise and commercial and professional services elsewhere, usually in suburban shopping centers. (Post-Standard, April 19, 1953)

Unfortuntately for Mr. Bliven and the Post-Standard, the next 14 articles in the series weren't devoted to reimagining downtown as an alternative to the suburbs, but rather, the hopeless cause of trying to compete with suburban parking. Certainly, Bliven engaged in an extensive amount of research:

During his preparation of the series, Mr. Bliven compared the Syracuse situation with that of 15 other cities from coast to coast; analyzed reports on the problem prepared by Syracuse and other cities; held personal interviews with more than 30 Syracusans closely acquainted with the parking and traffic needs of the city.

He also consulted at length with two nationally-recognized authorities on the subject; interviewed 23 persons in Allentown and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; corresponded with municipal, chamber of commerce and merchants' parking group authorities in 12 other cities; studied articles dealing with the subject in such magazines as Architectural Forum, Life, Collier's and other publications; conferred with many persons who have called in with suggestions since the series started. (Post-Standard, May 3, 1953)

Bliven's final recommendation? "Private individuals—investors, bankers or real estate men—should promote construction of one or two ramp garages to accommodate 800 cars." (Post-Standard, May 3, 1953)  15 articles and countless hours of interviews and research, and Bliven thought the problem could be solved with an 800-car garage? Six months earlier, an A&P had opened at the new Valley Plaza, highlighting its 800-car parking lot:

Post-Standard, December 3, 1952

Suburban supermarkets and shopping centers routinely advertised the availability of free parking, almost mocking the downtown situation:

from A&P ad, Post-Standard, December 3, 1952

Granted, 800 cars probably never parked at Valley Plaza, and an 800-car garage downtown would have gone a long way to alleviating the parking shortage for shoppers and workers. But drivers weren't relating to numbers, but promises:
Syracuse Herald-Journal, February 14, 1951

800 or 8,000 car garage: the numbers made no difference. Downtown could never guarantee a parking spot steps from the store as the suburbs could. Bliven concluded as much in Part 2:

The city's parking shortage and traffic congestion problems are compounded by the fact that 70 percent of more than 30,000 drivers who enter the main business area daily insist on parking at the curb where only about one-seventh of the total downtown parking space is available.

Many who would gloss over the knotty problem maintain, "the parker must learn to walk a few blocks farther." Extensive studies in Syracuse, and many other cities, show he is not inclined." (Post-Standard, April 20, 1953)

The knotty problem still remains, as "lack of parking" continues as a reason to avoid downtown to this day, despite the fact that no one has ever seemed to skip a concert or celebrating in Armory Square for lack of a parking spot (except perhaps the 30 O'Brien & Gere employees who had never been downtown, who really need a 15-part series of their own). Yet now as downtown starts to show new signs of life, the parking excuse may start to hold some truth.

Although one of O'Brien & Gere's "downtown orientation sessions" focused on Centro and bike commuting, one would surmise that the majority of the 350 employees of O'Brien & Gere will drive downtown. Winter snow and ice would sideline all but the most experienced bike riders, and Centro—like most city bus systems—limits its riders to schedule and routes. Similarly, one would assume that the majority—if not all—of the condo dwellers downtown also own cars, as the act of buying groceries seems difficult otherwise. As more buildings are converted to condos, and more businesses move downtown, how will this be sustainable? With no convenient alternative means of transportation to and from downtown, how is this any different than sixty years ago?

The recent Post-Standard article about the new O'Brien & Gere downtown office offers walkability as a motive for relocation:

A new generation of employees wants something else, said Dot Hall, a senior manager. Surveying college graduates who declined O’Brien & Gere job offers, Hall learned they wanted to work in cities where they can walk to restaurants, shops and entertainment.

What is unclear, however, is where this walkability begins and ends. Should Downtown merely be a driving destination that is walkable?  Or should it be more reflective of its heyday, when downtown was the crossroads of a city connected by streetcar lines? While there seems to be great excitement into turning Downtown into a full-fledged neighborhood (complete with proposed grocery store in the old Dey's building), how would a Downtown dweller travel to any other neighborhood in the Syracuse area without his/her car? Should the "50 to 70 [O'Brien & Gere] visitors a day — customers and out-of-town employees" be required to rent cars or take taxis? And in these respects, how would a revived downtown be any different than a thriving suburb?


In the years immediately following WWII, Syracuse couldn't consider city planning without cars as the central focus, as doing so would be a step away from a culture fixated on the future. Technology had won the war; how could it not solve a simple problem like parking? Thus the Strand Theater demolition for a mechanical parking garage, never giving thought to the simple problem that if everyone left an event at the same time, waiting for your car to arrive via elevator might be inconvenient. When the elevated portion of the "modern expressway" finally materialized, city leaders seemed more enamored with the availability of parking underneath. And in the throwback to the war years, when factories were converted for use towards the war effort, a 1974 proposal to build a new library to house a parking garage:

The math has never worked on downtown parking because cars were never meant to be part of the downtown equation. Downtowns have tried to adapt, with parking garages and lots, but what results is a confused hybrid of suburban shopping center and downtown, or more appropriately, a city that can't pinpoint its soul. After suffering from this stigma for decades, downtown is now considered "poised" for a comeback. But for all the new development, if the answer to this one old piece of business isn't thoroughly discussed, that little park at Fayette and West street might become "a gathering point" for a revitalized city downtown's newest parking lot.


Don Argus said...

I have a question about a Tweet you made in Sept. You say that "they are tearing down a 200-year-old building for a bank." Tell me more - what is the building and its location?

Don Argus AIA
(another Syracuse expatriate, and a PACNY member)

syracuseb4 said...

The tweet was in reply to NYCO's (@Twentyfour01) earlier tweets about 3700 West Genesee Street (former Green Gate Inn, Walter White's) being the new site of a credit union with a drive-thru (as mentioned in Post Standard Store Front Blog here: NYCO later tweeted that she emailed Store Front reporter Bob Niedt to find out what this meant for the building, but I don't know the latest.

Don Argus said...

It may be good news - the woman who answered the phone at the Camillus Town Clerk's office tells me that they are planning to reuse the building, not demolish it - "just spiff it up a bit," she said.

syracuseb4 said...

Thanks for the update!