Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 2011

Last month, I spent the weekend in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I ran the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon (and beat Drew Carey!). While the course started and finished in Central Park, a retail “power center” that includes almost every big box store and chain restaurant currently in business  (as well as three hotels, an expo center and a two-year old Wegmans), the race also ran through the historic downtown district, past such landmarks as the Fredericksburg Battlefield and Kenmore plantation, once home to George Washington’s sister.

Post-Standard, September 26, 1954

What’s remarkable is that the Town of Onondagawhere I grew up, and where my parents still livehas its own rich history that dates back to the very founding of the city of Syracuse. Unfortunately, the hypothetical trolley tour today might be somewhat sparse: here is site of Onondaga County’s first courthouse, now an intersection; here is the site of the town's first schoolhouse (and later town hall), now the same intersection. True, most of the historic buildings were already gone by the early 20th century:

The oldest of present or former residents of Onondaga Hill are too young to remember the events which wrote the name of that community high on Onondaga County’s historic roll of honor.

But there are men and women who have heard their parents or grandparents tell of the epoch making days when virtually all lawyers in Onondaga County lived on the hill, when the lone prisoner in the jail was shackled and taken to the new jail, when a new courthouse had been built on North Salina Street, Syracuse.

They have heard tales, too, of the visit of LaFayette, who toured the country and stopped at the hotel on Onondaga Hill, which long since has disappeared.

While Onondaga Hill, in the main, is made up of modern homes occupied by families whose heads work in Syracuse, a few historic old buildings still remain. (Syracuse Herald, August 5, 1930)

The most recent change is the expansion of the local Byrne Dairy. 562 residents have "allegedly" signed a petition opposing the land swap that would eventually result in the installation of gas pumps at the store (and another parking lot for the town). Is this another shift away from the town's historical past, or one step closer to the landscape envisioned 45 years ago, when town councilorsincluding current petition skeptic Charles Petriebecame enamored with another Virginia city?

Nine Town of Onondaga residents will depart at 8 am Monday from Hancock Airport for an on-the-scene look at America’s community of tomorrow.

Just 18 miles from Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, has been hailed as the community of the future. A planner’s dream, Reston is a model planned community built upon what used to be open land.

It contains one-family residences, town houses, high rise apartments, its own churches, schools, stores and industry. It was designed so everybody who lives there works there.

Two planned “community” developments are now in the preliminary plan stages for the Town of Onondaga. One of them is the multi-million dollar Sherwood Farms development which, if approved, would be located on Harris Road.The other is the $12 million Marnell development on East Seneca Turnpike. (Post-Standard, May 20, 1967)

Reston, Virginia had been founded in 1961, conceived by (and named after the initials of) real estate developer Robert E. Simon, who purchased the 6,750 acres of land in Fairfax County after the sale of Carnegie Hall (which his family had owned). Simon wished to create Reston in the model of a “New Town”: a community where residents could work, shop, and play within walking distance from their home.

The ideals Simon sought to apply in Reston included: a wide choice in housing to accommodate all income and age levels; the ability to work and live in the same community; the proximity of commerce and culture; the importance of recreation and leisure activity; privacy in the midst of public space; walkability and convenience with a minimal role for the automobile; preservation of trees and woodland and a minimization of lawns that require maintenance; and underground utility lines.

The “New Town” concept had also caught fire in Syracuse at the time, with MDA Executive Vice-President John Searles discussing about the possibility of creating new “planned and balanced communities” in Onondaga County:

Could this be done in Onondaga County? I believe it could. A new town planned for our county could cover 500 to 1,500 acres of land in the city or in one of the suburban towns. The development, unlike existing developments, would be balanced and planned. In the new town, there would be sites for industry, commerce, housing for families of different income groups and accompanying recreational, social and service facilities. Because the new town would be planned at the start to provide the various, but essential, types of uses which make an urban area tick, the problem of pushing the lower value, higher consuming uses into the next town, and of attracting an extra share of the “high returnlow consumption uses,” such as high cost housing and clean industry, would be minimized.  (Post Standard, January 6, 1963)

Certainly Syracuse had a need for more housing, as a mere nine months later, a long-standing residential community that had great proximity to commerce, culture and industry was bulldozed in favor of a highway. Yet as former 15th Ward residents relocated to nearby urban neighborhoods also complete with recreational, social and service facilities and housing for families of different income groups, a large number of white homedwellers left for the suburbs. Where, in accordance to the “New Town” movement, they wished to recreate their old existence:

A $12 million planned residential development, Marnell Heights, would add 1,014 housing units to the Town of Onondaga, according to a preliminary program for the development.

When complete, the project would provide a “progressive, self-sustaining community” with shopping and restaurant facilities as well as complete summer and winter recreation developments, according to [project developer John] Marnell.

Marnell Heights, to be located on the southern side of East Seneca Turnpike, north of the Lafayette Country Club, had a master plan similar to Reston. Like the Virginia new town, Marnell Heights would be built in “clusters," with a mix of apartments and single-family homes:

Plans call for four neighborhood groups clustered about a centrally located shopping complex. Each neighborhood would contain a combination of apartment units and town houses accented by a high-rise unit near the core of the overall project.

The shopping core, at the center, a multi-leveled structure, would contain a partially enclosed arcade with small supporting retail shops and a larger market. A below grade parking plaza would serve both the high rise units and the shopping area. Ultimately it would combine and conceal all building, shop servicing and mechanical areas.

Plans for the shopping center include a superette, drug store, laundry, barber shop, beauty salon, small restaurant and a below grade service station.Each of the four neighborhood sites feature:

  • housing for more or less 250 families
  • an adult swimming pool and a wading pool
  • three tot play areas
  • seating pavilions
  • a tennis court, as well as the general recreation area
  • interior trash storage with pickup by a project maintenance crew
  • landscape development
  • semi-concealed parking areas
“Essentially the choice of materials and building systems reflects a direction toward totally unified design, both in appearance and thought,” the developer said. “An organic approach of brick and wood seemed to reflect the human scale and elegance we intended.” (Post-Standard, April 6, 1967)
Or, more succinctly, a Downtown do-over in suburban Syracuse! 

Make that two new (down)towns, as just seven miles away, developers wished to build an even more ambitious planned community:

The state’s first total community, featuring a full-range of housing from single-family residences to high-rise apartments, is scheduled for construction next spring near Howlett Hill and Harris roads in the Town of Onondaga.

Tagged Sherwood Farms, the new concept in living will cost private investors in excess of $25 million for just the 500 apartment units and 500 single-family homes.

Included in the overall plan will be a small shopping center, an elementary school, fire house, two churches, and 120 acres for park and recreational area. These facilities are expected to cost again as much as the apartments and houses.

The developers describe the community as “small neighborhood clusters of housing units spaced by sprawling parklands featuring pedestrian walkways.”

To avoid drawing large numbers from outside the community for shopping, the shopping center will only be 26,000 square feet, including a supermarket, variety store, drugstore, hardware store, laundry, liquor store, bank, barber shop, beauty salon and a small group of offices.

Current estimates call for about 3,400 persons living in Sherwood Farms enjoying “the convenience of the city residence with the freedom and individuality of suburban life.” (Herald-American, August 6, 1967)

Syracuse Herald-American, October 30, 1966
When Town of Onondaga Supervisor George F. Savage returned from his exploratory trip to Virginia (which had been sponsored by Sherwood Farms developers and Niagara Mohawk), he felt that Sherwood Farms had even greater potential than Reston, as “the hills of Onondaga would lend themselves to ‘better views’ (Post-Standard, May 23, 1967). Town of Onondaga residents were not so enthusiastic, expressing their downright displeasure of the idea at a town meeting:

Approximately 35 Town of Onondaga residents last night voiced disapproval and skepticism of the proposed Sherwood Farms planned community at Howlett Hill and Harris Roads in Onondaga township. Primary objection was to the high rise apartments, town house and duplex facilities to be included in the 320-acre development.

Residents of Harris Hill and the existing Sherwood Farms tract felt that the high density concentration in the community would decrease the value of adjacent properties. Proposed changes in zoning restrictions met with objection. (Post Standard, August 11, 1967)

Although several new “luxury” high rises had recently been built on James Street, high rise apartment buildings in Syracuse were still closely associated with public housing controversy from a decade earlier. Reston, VA was 18 miles outside Washington, DC; Sherwood Farms was located less than four miles from the corner of Velasko Road and West Onondaga Street, where one of the more contentious battles had been fought to prevent a public housing high rise from being built in the neighborhood. Renting also had a negative connotation due to urban renewal:

He’d hate to sell and leave this neighborhood, the homeowner thought. But what to do? 

The house needed costly repair. And plainly the area was changing. Would the future justify the outlay he must make?

He sat on the porch surveying the street. The sun filtered through the tall shade trees across the wide lawns. 

But how many of the lawns were unkempt! Paint was peeling in strips from the house next door. Porch steps sagged across the way. Should a middle-aged man and his wife invest in a new furnace, and a year or so a new roof, to continue living here? 

His glance moved to the two one-family houses down the block, which an investor had bought recently. The new owner did not plan to live in the area. The talk was that he would cut these fine old homes up into housekeeping apartments. Everyone knew that many families would soon be looking for quarters because of the urban renewal program. This would bring more cars to be kept on the street. If other houses went the same way, there would be much more traffic. And where would the children play? (Post-Standard, November 23, 1961)

As a more transient population, renters might not contribute to required responsibilities of the homeowners’ association:

[Gallinger Real Estate's John] Gallinger said the parks and recreation area would be managed by a homeowners’ assocation at the expense of the residents.

The association would also oversee the maintenance of community regulations designed to prevent property deterioration. Typical of rules enforced, officials said, would be a ban on above-ground utility wiring, exposed trash containers, and any exterior construction without the approval of the association’s architectural review board. (Syracuse Herald-American, August 6, 1967)

Marnell Heights and Sherwood Farms would differ from Reston in one other key factor:

The first industrial customers came to us before there were roads, sewers, or waterlines, when Reston still looked like Virginia countryside. Soon there was a strong demand for industrial space. Albert Mayer, who was connected with Radburn, wrote me a letter saying, "Congratulations. You are the first New Town to get industry at its conception." This pleased us very much. (1966 speech by Robert E. Simon)

Post-Standard, November 16, 1967
Ideally, residents of “new towns” could forego their cars, as they would be able to walk to work as well as their daily errands. Neither Marnell Heights or Sherwood Farms had any plans to locate significant employers within their developments, given that each had far less acreage than Reston (320 acres in Sherwood Farms and 88 acres in Marnell Heights, compared to the 6,750 acres in Reston). Nor did either have any plans for public transportation from the community to Downtown or neighboring suburbs. So if residents had to drive from Sherwood Farms to their workplace, they could easily stop for groceries at Loblaws or Kmart in the new Western Lights Plaza, go shopping or eat at Fairmount Fair or Camillus Plaza. Therefore, the need for a supermarket or salon located within walking distance from home became less important, as more expansive options were located along the driving route that residents traveled every day.

Approval for both Marnell Heights and Sherwood Farms was contingent upon the construction of sewers for the projects.  As stated in an article about Marnell Heights, “under town regulations, the developers would have five years to build the development under ‘modified, planned development district’ before the building would return to ‘open land.’” (Syracuse Herald-Journal, April 6, 1967). Apparently, Marnell could not build the development within the five years, as the project was not mentioned again until the the 1980s, when Lee Belle, husband of then (and now) Town Councilor Suzanne Belle wished to revive the project as Stonegate Heights. By decade’s end, Sherwood Farms resolved their sewer issues, but the mixed-use community—apartments, in particularhad lost even more appeal. In 1969, 1,000 Town of Onondaga residents protested the construction of the Westbrook apartment complex, located just two miles from Sherwood Farms:

Over the protests of an estimated 1,000 individual homeowners, the Onondaga Town Board, last night, passed a zoning resolution, 4-1, paving the way for the construction of a 408-unit apartment complex to be located between McDonald Road and Route 173, behind the Onondaga Community College site.

Casting the no vote against the resolution was Charles Petrie, of Nedrow, who said, “I am not opposed to good apartments...I am opposed to a heavy concentration of apartments in any area.”

Robert H. Marble, treasurer of the Hill Homeowners’ Association, said the town had a population of better than 16,000 persons in its 58 square miles and the resolution approving construction of the new apartment complex had the effect of jamming too many persons into a tight area which would produce undesirable conditions. He described the town as a neighborhood which 98 percent of the homes were individually owned. (Post-Standard, September 18, 1969)

Syracuse Herald-Journal, May 2, 1988
Ironically, the town soon underwent an explosion of single-family housing developments, which some felt had the effect of jamming too many houses into a tight area which then produced undesirable conditions:
For generations the hills of Onondaga have provided a panoramic view of the city below and served as a barrier to the growth that spread more easily to the north and the east, into Clay, Salina and DeWitt.

But those towns are now heavy with subdivisions and developers are going west, tantalized by the town of Onondaga’s open spaces, scenic vistas and proximity to Syracuse.

“People were attracted to Onondaga, a town of 17,793, because of its semi-country atmosphere, Doug Morris, planner for the Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency, said. Even houses that were built in subdivisions look out onto nice vistas and vacant land, he said.

“Now all of the sudden, all that vacant land is disappearing,” he said. “In some people’s minds, it’s going to look like Clay with a lot of hills.” (Syracuse Herald-Journal, May 2, 1988)

The number of subdivisions has increased even more in the two decades since, seemingly limited only by the thesaurus which provides their pastoral-sounding names.  One comment in the recent Post-Standard article about the Byrne Dairy expansion controversy suggests the town that grew as an escape from the city must now be escaped as well:

I moved from the Town of Onondaga six months ago, after 30 years as a home owner there. The Town of Onondaga is one of the top towns for SPRAWL in the United States. There was an article about a year ago with the supporting statistics. They have turned a small town atmosphere area, with a lot of green space, into a sprawling future ghetto of tract housing on a sea of over fertilized lawn with sparse immature landscapes. It has become overcrowded and ugly. The sound of lawn mowers never ceases, and the traffic is overpowering the road networks.

The greed and short-sightedness of the Town of Onondaga administration has already done its damage over the past two decades. All of the development in the past decade looks the same cookie-cutter style. It is ugly and it won't age well. A totally automobile dependent community. I'm just glad that I got out of the Town of Onondaga, and now live on a farm north of Oneida Lake. There is a need for another gas station there like there is a need for another donut shop there. It is stupid from a town planning perspective and a real shame.

Of course, similar sentiments could be expressed about Reston. In 1967, the community was sold to Gulf Oil Corporation, who it turn sold it to Mobil Oil in 1978. Oil companies would hardly be the champions of car-free lifestyles, and accordingly, despite a master plan which called for “the pedestrian [to] have uninterrupted access to the full range of neighborhood facilities,” few major arteries have complete sidewalk networks . The master plan called for “seven villages with seven community shopping and social centers,” each with its own housing and pedestrian walkways; this was eventually considered “economically unsound...later centers, like South Lakes and North Point, were built more along the lines of traditional shopping centers.” And: Ebola.

Although the Town of Onondaga at times appears to suffering its own virus of hemorrhaging every last trace of its past, it is important to remember that the oldest and most key element of its history remains intact: Seneca Turnpike. The road that carried travelers from Utica to Canandaigua was "of the greatest importance to the county, it meant more than any single railroad ever constructed here” (Syracuse Standard, June 9, 1894). Opponents of the addition of gas pumps at the Byrne Dairy are concerned about increased delays and accidents on the turnpike, but what could be more true to road’s roots?

Rising out of Onondaga Hollow is a long and steep hill. The road is constructed on the southern side of a precipice, in such a manner that, as you approach the top of the hill, you have a tremendous gulf on your left hand, at the bottom of which you hear the murmur of a brook fretting among the rocks, as it is passing on toward the Onondaga Creek, which it joins in the Hollow. There is a kind of railing or fence, composed of logs secured with stakes or trees, which is all that prevents the passenger, and even the road itself, from falling to the bottom of the gulf. (Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers, by Archer Butler Hulbert, 1904).

Talk about a traffic nightmare! But relief awaited the travelers at the top of the hill:

On the hill we found an embryo of the village. A courthouse is already built, and the frame of a hotel is raised. The hotel, we are told, is to be kept by one Brunson. It is an accommodation much needed on this road. (Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers)

What could be more accommodating in our present day than not having to drive 60 more seconds in three possible directions to locate another gas station?

And there’s this: while in Fredericksburg, I paid a visit to the James Monroe Museum, dedicated to the history of our fifth President of the United States, who once made his home in the city. One of the first reading panels that greets visitors shares this history regarding the museum: 

[Monroe’s great-granddaughter] Rose de Chine Gouverneur Hoes played a central role in the creation of this museum...In 1927, when notified that the old buildings on Monroe's Fredericksburg town lot were about to be demolished and replaced with a gasoline service station, she bought the buildings and brought there her collections of objects, books and documents, opening our James Monroe Museum, now in its seventy-fourth year.

So even the property of a Founding Father has been threatened with a gas station. With their own current fight, Town of Onondaga residents stand beside the great figures of early American history once again!