Tuesday, June 22, 2010

May 25, 1974

Continued from Part One

By the 1960s, the city of Syracuse had dismantled much of what had been built in the 1920s: Strand Theater, RKO Keith's, and the May 15, 1923 Syracuse Herald editorial declaration of the "hope that the city has now heard the last proposal from any source for the erection on our park lands of structures that have no place there." (In 1961, city leaders and residents debated building the new Southwest High School (Corcoran) in Onondaga or Kirk Park.) By the 1970s, the city of Syracuse had dismantled much of what had been built in the 1960s: Strand Parking Garage, every memory of the Corcoran/Onondaga Park controversy (in 1971, the Syracuse Board of Education declared Burnet Park an ideal site for Fowler High School), and the Texture Program.

The Texture Program, which suggested focusing on "small-in-themselves" projects for downtown Syracuse, soon became a major component of 1960s city planning. In July 1963, Texture committee members traveled to Ottawa with Mayor Walsh and city council members to view the Sparks Street Mall (Post-Standard, July 28, 1963). At the height of the protests regarding the 15th Ward destruction in October 1963, the Texture Committee tagged along with Mayor Walsh (in a travel party totaling "33 strong") on a "town-planning fact-finding mission to Europe" (Post-Standard, October 11, 1963). It's not quite clear what texture the Texture Committee added to the city during the decade, other than "MDA Texture Committee chairman Winston Rodormer's progress report point[ing] to tree planting and placing of seats in Vanderbilt Square between S. Salina and S. Warren Streets and construction of a courtyard and park of the northeast corner of the Hotel Syracuse" (Post-Standard, December 28, 1963) and hard feelings.

Mentions of the Texture Committee disappeared from newspapers by late 1960s, much like the shoppers in downtown Syracuse itself. After spending a decade in rebuilding mode only to end up in further decline, the city found itself in full-blown panic mode. As their veteran players left to join up the suburban competition, the next quick-fix plan seemed obvious:

In the late 1950s, then-Mayor Anthony Henninger...recommended Salina Street be turned into a mall, with grass and trees and walkways. 
Merchants were chilly to the idea. "No grass or trees on Salina Street" was their near-unanimous response.

Lacking excitement, the street slowly decayedand with it, the city.
And then a few years ago, Salina Street merchants awoke one morning and saw rusty nails being driven into the coffin that was their street.
Now downtown merchants don't object to trees or grass being planted on Salina Street. Many are proponents of the mall Mayor Henninger proposed in the 1950s.

"If that mall won't be in our future, we'll be in trouble," argued [Malcolm] Sutton. 
(Post-Standard, April 26, 1973)

The mall Mayor Henninger proposed in the 1950s sounds very much like a replica of the then-brand new Fairmount Fair mall:

via NYCO

By 1973, Fairmount Fair barely resembled this photograph, as it had been fully enclosed. One year later, an enclosed Fayetteville Mall was preparing for its August 1974 grand opening, and Shoppingtown would soon become an "air-conditioned garden mall with live trees and live flowers." (Syracuse Herald-American, August 31, 1975)  True to their suburban copycat schedule, by advocating an outdoor pedestrian mall with trees and grass, downtown leaders and merchants were pursuing a shopping mall model outdated by twenty-five years. Granted, in some respects, the outdoor mall could also have been considered visionary, as the open-air "lifestyle center" would rise to popularity in another 25 years. But city leaders had neither the time nor the funds to create the pedestrian mall experience they had seen in Ottawa a decade earlier:

"Sparks Street Mall, Ottawa in the 1960s," via reinap on flickr

What they decided upon was perhaps the most unabashedand unsuccessfulquick-fix solutions in downtown Syracuse history: a DIY pedestrian mall.

from Post-Standard, May 25, 1974 (notes added)

from Post-Standard, July 16, 1974

In downtown Syracuse federal and state urban renewal funds are being utilized to install "planters" containing trees and bushes in South Salina Streetmaking it narrower and posing potential driving hazards.

Costing about $52,000, the project is under the direction of Commissioner of Urban Improvement David S. Michel.

It involves placing 44 "planters" ranging in size from four feet square, upwards, and of varying height, right in the street proper. The "planters" are filled with trees and bushes.

The objective, he said, is to beautify Downtown Syracuse in the hope of attracting more people downtown. The project was approved on a 60-day trial basis by the Common Council, Michel asserted.

Multiple planters of varying sizes are grouped together in clusters, and placed in the curb on both sides of the street. This effectively reduces the driving area in the streets by two lanes.
Michel said each planter costs about $1,000, and the trees used in them $150 each. That produces, he said, a total cost of about $52,000, which, he stated, is all federal and state money, with no city funds involved. The trees used in the planters, he said, are mainly crab apple and hawthorn and juniper bushes. (Post-Standard, May 25, 1974)

The real shame of this "famous failure" (as so noted in an August 17, 1987 Post-Standard article) was not that City Council member Ronald Monsour was actually in the minority opinion (only 2 voted against) when he stated  "I don't think trees should be placed in the streets" (Post-Standard, May 7, 1974), not that a city plagued by litter problems would add 44 new receptacles to "become a catch-all for cigarette butts and debris" (Councilman-at-large James Tormey, Jr.the other dissenting votequoted in Post-Standard, July 4, 1974), not that the planters were installed in bus lanes, "effectively prohibit[ing] extensive bus use of the curb traffic lanes," (Post-Standard, May 25, 1974),  not David Michel stating "he does not regard the planterseven though they are in the streetas a traffic hazard...the only real danger, as Michel sees it, is someone, who has had too much to drink, driving down South Salina Street in in the predawn hours and not seeing the planters" (Post-Standard, May 25, 1974), not that Dan Sutton, president of Sutton Real Estate, acknowledged "the controversy of the planters, if nothing else, has brought many people into downtown to observe them and business has benefited" (Post-Standard, July 16, 1974), not that city council voted 5-4 to keep the planters after an initial 60-day trial period, not that seven blue-domed kiosks for posters and flyers (i.e. sources of additional litter) were installed on the sidewalk to join the planters in a "street furniture" program, despite "no one is sure who will take care of them" (Post-Standard, June 12, 1974), not that the Downtown Promotion Committee requested that during the holiday season, the planters be moved from the sides of South Salina Street and lined up down the center of the street, "with evergreens and decorated appropriately for the Christmas season" (Post-Standard, October 12, 1974), not that the City Council had to be told by Fire Chief Thomas O'Hanlon that doing so would be a fire hazard, not that they were hauled to "urban renewal-owned land at South Salina Street and West Onondaga Streets" shortly thereafter, never to be heard of again, but that the core idea behind the project was absolutely correct: Syracuse needed a beautification project.

Forget the litter or landscaping, the beautification that Syracuse required thenas nowinvolves a massive closet cleaning of the quick-fix plans and outdated ideas that have been hoarded for decades. Thirty years after skybridges failed to revitalize downtown, why are some still considering pairing "an enclosed glass walkway above the sidewalk" with the convention center or a (potentially) restored Hotel Syracuse?  Have we held on to the 1970s skybridge plan because we think it will come back into style? Look great on Syracuse once downtown gets in shape?  When the skybridge project was first announced back in early 1976, the Post-Standard editorial board admitted skepticism, but figured it couldn't be worse than the previous downtown innovation:
The Post-Standard is all in favor of making the central business district the most attractive shopping center in Central New York. The latest plan is far better than the flower planters which once obstructed traffic and much more attractive than than the ugly concrete cones now smeared with aging posters flapping in the wind. (April 2, 1976)
Based on the tone of this editorial, skybridges sound as if they were purchased off the final clearance rack of one of the downtown department stores fleeing for the suburbs. If we are going to dig out advice from the '70s collection to try on for size, how about this Syracuse Herald-American column by Mario Rossi from December 18, 1977?
Somewhere along the line maybe it will begin to dawn on some of our city fathers and civic leaders that if downtown Syracuse is really to be fully revitalized, the principal ingredient of many that will be needed in the formula will be imagination.

Or creativity, if you will.

The old hackneyed ideas no longer will work. The stop gap measures won't either. And the half-way approaches will prove as useless as they have in the past.

We need something dramatic, far-reaching, excitingsomething that will literally captivate shoppers and tourists and make them want to come to downtownin droves.
Unfortunately, this commentary from the year of leisure suits is still current today. But one hopes that with over three decades to contemplate the problem, the answer will never again come in the form of a quick-fix solution.