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One Neighborhood at a Time

The attempt to bring housing and business back into Syracuse is staffed by a new generation of city administrators and developers who, together, think this time around they have the answer.

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Syracuse’s Armory Square district, where property redevelopment took hold almost three decades ago (photo: Chuck Wainwright)

Ben Walsh ’05 MPA, economic development chief for the city of Syracuse, is a new face in city government carrying on a long legacy. His father, Jim Walsh, served in Syracuse’s Common Council before heading to Washington for nine terms in Congress; Ben’s grandfather, William Walsh, was mayor of Syracuse in the ’60s and a congressman in the ’70s. “So obviously public service is in my blood,” says Ben, who was appointed in 2010 by new mayor Stephanie Miner. “I’m lucky to have some great role models to look up to as I pave my own way.”

In the realm of economic development, the city that Ben Walsh serves is strikingly different than the one that his grandfather ran. The backbones of Syracuse’s economy in the ’60s were major manufacturers like General Electric (which employed as many as 17,000 people building television sets), Crouse-Hinds, and Carrier Corporation. They have all since moved their production elsewhere, leaving much smaller-scale educational and medical institutions as the region’s top employers. Over the same time span, Syracuse’s retail center shifted from downtown to suburban malls, as people moved in the same direction.

Vito Sciscioli ’70 MPA, who moved to Syracuse in 1969 for graduate studies, saw the area change dramatically over more than 30 years of working in economic development for the city. “Syracuse, since I came here, has lost probably 50,000 people from its center city,” says Sciscioli, who now teaches metropolitan government and politics at Maxwell along with retired city auditor Minch Lewis ’68 MPA. “The city lost that population to the suburbs, and there was no commensurate real increase in the overall population of the region. The suburbanization of America affected Syracuse like it has many other cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and other parts of the country. Even older industrialized cities like Chattanooga have gone through this suburban sprawl and its negative effect on city cores — a lot of abandonment and outmoded structures.”

In Syracuse, structural issues in government have in some respects hampered efforts to address these long-term trends and revitalize the city. Regional planning is notoriously difficult to accomplish, due to a highly fragmented system of counties, cities, towns, and villages that Sciscioli calls a “government mismatch” to its problems. Even within the city, development projects have suffered from fragmentation; community development and economic development were housed in different departments, for instance, and their work was not always in sync. Jonnell Allen Robinson, who contributes to many civic projects as Syracuse community geographer (under the auspices of Maxwell’s geography department), cites an extreme case where sidewalks were replaced near St. Joseph’s Hospital as part of a neighborhood project — even though community leaders knew the new sidewalks would be soon torn up as part of a hospital expansion.

Removing these kinds of disconnects and dealing more strategically with development issues have been priorities for new mayor Stephanie Miner ’92 BA (PSc). As part of a sweeping reorganization and streamlining of city government, Miner combined the community and economic development departments into a new Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, with Ben Walsh leading the business side. Starting this summer, the business team will share an office with the Onondaga County economic development department, to facilitate regional planning.

Along with this new departmental structure has come a new generation of staff members, many fresh from public administration and urban planning programs. At 31, Ben Walsh is far from the only young Maxwell School grad appointed by the 41-year-old mayor. Andrew Maxwell ’06 MPA, director of another new entity in city government, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, is 27 and currently drafting Syracuse’s first sustainability plan. Alys Mann ’06 BA (Geog/PSt), 26, is the new housing director in the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. Luke Dougherty ’09 MPA, a neighborhood revitalization specialist in the same department, jokes that around City Hall “I feel like I’m an old guy — because I’m 32.”

This young staff is helping to reshape not only Syracuse’s economic development strategy but its relationship with the community. In the past, says Robinson, people in local business and citizens’ groups tended to view City Hall bureaucracy as an obstacle to get through. Under Miner’s administration, Robinson sees a new eagerness in the community to enlist the city’s development team “because they are willing to try to work through problems as opposed to throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Oh, well, our ordinances don’t permit this, so looks like we can’t do anything.’”

One strategy of the new Neighborhood and Business Development Department is simply to work in tandem on all aspects of a neighborhood — supporting mom-and-pop business corridors like Westcott Street or South Avenue while also taking into account the impact on the surrounding residential areas, and vice versa. “It doesn’t make sense for part of our staff under the auspices of economic development to work with the commercial property owners without factoring in the plans of the residential property owners,” says Walsh. “Putting all of us under one umbrella has led to more comprehensive, holistic community revitalization strategies in the city.”

 

“Despite what anyone may tell you, it is less expensive to renovate than it is to build new.”

This kind of coordinated approach to improving neighborhoods and the businesses that serve them applies even to large-scale development projects downtown — such as Pike Block, which plans to turn four adjacent historic buildings into apartments and retail space, or the nearly complete $16 million renovation of the Landmark Theater. “Downtown is increasingly a neighborhood as well,” says Walsh. “When we are looking to fill some of the vacant or underutilized space downtown, we can’t just think about the amenities that would be the priority for people who are coming downtown to work 9 to 5. We have to think about the amenities that are going to support the residential population as well.”

Even in the tough economic climate, the city is making headway in reinventing downtown as a place to live as well as shop and eat; in the past seven years, more than 500 units of market-rate housing have been built downtown. One of the pioneers in that effort is real estate developer Robert Doucette ’76 MPA, who helped turn a run-down warehouse district into the urban hub of Armory Square. Among Doucette’s current projects is converting the former Dey Brothers store on South Salina Street into apartments with street-level retail including, he hopes, a grocery store — a significant missing piece for downtown dwellers. These types of mixed-use projects are benefiting from demographic shifts, says Doucette. “The trends are an aging population that doesn’t want to be tied to an automobile and a general population that is seeking an urban experience. It’s a coming together of young and old, a.k.a. childless, that are driving it for many of the same reasons.”

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Among the recent successful redevelopment projects in Syracuse are the Dey Brothers (top, left) and Lincoln Supply (top, right) conversions. Among planned projects is the conversion of the Pike Block (bottom), in the heart of downtown, into apartments and retail space. (photos: Chuck Wainwright)

Doucette, who served on Stephanie Miner’s transition team as chair of economic development and job creation, points out that there are often-overlooked advantages to redeveloping Syracuse’s plentiful vacant buildings rather than continuing to build outward into the surrounding farmland. Significant federal and state tax incentives are available for properties designated as historic, and the grand old buildings offer aesthetic appeals that are hard to match in new construction without expensive design. “Despite what anyone may tell you,” says Doucette, “it is less expensive to renovate than it is to build new. Structural cost savings plus the embedded value in building materials account for about a 20-percent cost differential.”

Miner’s administration, according to Doucette, has created a favorable atmosphere for developers, making a genuine effort to respond to their needs in a timely and efficient way. That’s one sign of what Rob Simpson ’01 MPA, president and CEO of the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, calls “a much higher degree of cooperation and collaboration between the public sector and the private sector in Syracuse.” The organization that Simpson leads is in itself evidence of cooperation and collaboration: CenterState CEO was formed in 2009 from a merger of the Metropolitan Development Association and the Chamber of Commerce that had been discussed for 35 years.

Simpson, who at 34 is another next-generation civic leader in Syracuse, notes that the city’s educational and medical institutions have become major partners in city development projects too — in particular SU under Chancellor Nancy Cantor. The Near West Side Initiative, seeded by SU, aims to turn around one of Syracuse’s hardest-hit neighborhoods by creating a center for arts, culture, and green-business start-ups. The NWSI recently completed its first large redevelopment, turning the 100-year-old Lincoln Supply warehouse into office space and lofts.

“There’s a real momentum and change happening in the Near Westside,” says Stephanie Pasquale ’94 BA (PSt)/’97 MPA, deputy executive director for Home HeadQuarters, a nonprofit working to stabilize and improve housing in the area. “Artists want to live there, all different kinds of folks want to live there. There’s been some mixed-use redevelopment, some commercial development, the Say Yes [education incentive] program is doing a lot in that neighborhood . . . It’s just a real comprehensive way to address community development issues.”

But while certain neighborhoods are seeing tangible benefits from increased collaboration among government, nonprofits, and business, severe economic conditions in New York state and beyond continue to delay or derail development efforts. And across Syracuse, the decades-old legacy of empty storefronts, unfinished projects, and unfulfilled promises remains daunting. High on the list of development failures is the Hotel Syracuse, the elegant centerpiece of downtown that has been closed since 2004 despite numerous attempts to revive it. The hotel is a symbolic reminder of the distance still to go in revitalizing the city.

“Pretty much anybody who’s spent a significant amount of time in Syracuse can think back to a senior prom or a family wedding or a St. Patrick’s Day parade that they spent at the Hotel Syracuse,” says Walsh. “So I think it goes beyond economic development — there’s a real emotional connection between the Hotel Syracuse and the community. For those reasons and more, we’re anxious to breathe new life into that building.”

As a seventh-generation Syracusan, Andrew Maxwell, the 27-year-old director of Syracuse’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, is well aware that years of stops and starts in development projects have given many locals a jaded outlook about the city’s ability to deliver the goods. “We’re cognizant of that cynicism, but I think for us what’s really important is being more concerned about doing good than about looking good,” he says. “So you may not have as many ribbon cuttings or ground breakings, but there’s a real commitment at City Hall now to doing everything we can every day to make a positive difference. I think young people are a big part of it, and also embracing a new way of doing things. That’s just part of the culture."

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. 
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.