The recently released Brookings Institution report refocused attention to the downtown revitalization effort. Sean Kirst's article in yesterday's paper very elegantly summed up the report and how we can move forward:
To change Syracuse - to really change the patterns draining strength from the region - we need to dare to begin thinking in that way. The simple truth is that these big Upstate cities essentially operate like old eight-cylinder Buicks. Reform has usually meant tinkering with the engines, but in the end - no matter what you do - those engines are obsolete.I hope that this blog will grow to be "part of the change".
We need leaders who are ready to start trying out new models, and citizens with the courage to at least contemplate the switch.
Central New York, in many ways, remains a fine place to live, and the Brookings report is right: Syracuse has great potential. But it cannot and will not revive unless we all make a commitment, on some level, to be part of the change.
Imagine instead of entering downtown Syracuse via corridors of abandoned warehouses, deserted sidewalks, scrub brush, and crumbling walls you were greeted with a welcoming atmosphere, with signs of growth and hope. Where you were met with a proud "Welcome to Syracuse - [enter upbeat motto here]" sign as you came off the exit ramp into downtown. Where sidewalks were lined with lamp posts and trees.
The crumbling and decaying buildings that separate the west side of the city from Tipp Hill and the burbs create not only a physical barrier between two areas of city, but a psychological one as well. I love the hand painted "warehouse district" signs stapled to the telephone poles along West Fayette Street, a sign that there is a spark of pride in that neighborhood - A rally against the destitution that has plagued that area. The city should tap into that energy, and help break down those psychological and physical barriers. Right now West St. is cutting that area off from the vibrant Armory Square area. I am not proposing the city re-route West St., but it certainly could work to make it more pedestrian friendly. How about an elevated cross-walk on Fayette over West? Or widening sidewalks and extending crossing times? How about a similar effort such as down by the Inner Harbor, with new sidewalks, lightposts, and landscaping extending down from SU's Warehouse to South Geddes St.? It has been proposed in the past, but how about letting some of Delavan Art Galleries' finest paint a mural along the sidewalk underneath the train tracks? There are many ways that we could stoke the optimism and growth of Armory beyond its current boundaries, into the Near West Side.
The same could be said for the lack of connection between the North Salina St. area and Hanover Square. The two are separated only by a few blocks. There happens to be a large highway interchange that presents somewhat of a physical barrier, as you must pass underneath the elevated highways to get from one neighborhood to the other. I believe that the barrier is more a mental one than a physical one. That stretch of sidewalk at first glance is a long, lonely and empty one. Just foreboding enough to compute as a distance that should be driven when in fact it is less than 1/2 a mile.
The separation between SU Hill and downtown has been discussed ad nauseum. "Should 81 be torn down?" is a question that I have been hearing since the 1980's. Let's just stipulate that it will not be torn down, and look at other psychological barriers to movement from the University Hill to downtown. I believe that the barrier is much taller than the height of the 81 overpass. How can we encourage people to travel down the hill after SU games, or to head into the city for dinner and drinks, and perhaps take in a concert? I think that we need to encourage a mixed re-development of this area. When I drive down Adams or Harrison, or look on the overhead view from Google Maps, you know what I see? Parking. Tons of parking lots. Oh, and a few buildings. The path from SU Hill to downtown has been designed for the auto, and not the pedestrian.
Lets imagine walking under the 81 overpass, past Harrison Center, to a new row of restaurants, coffee shops, walk-up apartment buildings all on the sidewalk, hiding new parking buildings behind them. The Oncenter hotel, doesn't stand alone, but instead is incorporated to this new "Harrison Square" area. Pedestrians walk from an evening at the Everson, to sip coffee on sidewalk tables. Residents of the renovated Hotel Syracuse Condos spend warm summer evenings walking down to do some window shopping. Now you've given people a reason to walk downtown from the hill. Employees in the Axa towers now have a great spot for lunch. People who live in the Pioneer Homes have a reason to cross Adams St. and the Near Southside can become more incorporated into downtown. 81 doesn't even cross your mind anymore.
Cleaning up Syracuse must go beyond keeping litter off of the roadsides. We must clean up these vital entryways into the downtown area, and encourage the type of growth the Brookings Institution spoke about. Let's treat these three areas (W. Fayette beyond West Street, The Northside-Hanover Square connection, and the newly named "Harrison Square" area) as the welcome mat to downtown. We as a city can overcome both the physical and psychological barriers that stand in our way.