Pointless controversy: The mall or downtown

This may be of limited interest to people outside of Syracuse, but I was directed to an article today in the local paper in which guest columnist David M. Rubin explains why the city should spend money revitalizing Hotel Syracuse and the downtown shopping district instead of supporting tax breaks for a hotel add-on to Destiny USA. And I’m going to explain why he’s wrong. (This isn’t politics as such; it’s logistics.)

But first, a caveat and some background. The caveat is that he isn’t wrong about the need to revitalize the downtown area. The city’s been trying to do that for decades. When I was little, we had a major mall downtown, and some big department stores like Sibley’s. Later the Sibley’s building became office space, where I ended up working for a few years (and therefore claim qualification to opine on this debate). The mall across the street from there is… er, sort of still a mall, but not a very popular destination.

But all the effort and money that’s gone into revitalizing downtown hasn’t done a darn thing, and there’s a simple and obvious reason why. The reason is so simple and obvious, I’m baffled why the city’s high mucky-mucks can’t figure it out—let alone why Rubin mentions it and trips right on past it in the dark without wondering why his shin hurts.

Choosing between the two seems, to me, a simple matter. A renovated Hotel Syracuse may bring back a portion of downtown. A new hotel at Destiny will only serve Destiny, surrounded by its moat of parking lots and high-speed roads. A Destiny hotel won’t develop any neighborhood. It’s meant to imprison visitors inside its outlet stores and chain restaurants at Castle Congel and keep them away from the city of Syracuse. Giving tax breaks to a hotel at Destiny is anti-development.

See it yet? Because Rubin doesn’t. Central to the very reason Destiny is thriving post-renovation is the fact that it has frelling parking lots. The presence of nearby high-speed roads isn’t so awful, either. Does the city seriously think that people want to spend ten minutes navigating a rat’s nest of confusing one-ways just to get downtown, then another half hour to find acceptable parking?

Downtown, there are many tiny lots but few garages, and there are also many tiny garages. The tiny lots and tiny garages mean “valet” parking is the norm, which means an attendant has to squeeze your vehicle into some other space where it may be blocked in to make more room. They hold onto your key, and when you need your vehicle again it takes a while to get it out.

And the traffic is little better. Salina Street is choked with buses, and has some cross streets where you can’t turn at all. The entire area around it is made up of one-ways with little rhyme or reason. When I first went to work up at Syracuse University, I was appalled by the haphazardness of it all; it got easier to navigate with familiarity, especially when I worked downtown at a later job, but it’s still crystal clear why casual shoppers avoid downtown. And if you ever need to get onto I-81 North or I-690 from Harrison Street within about an hour of 5 PM, just stay at the office and hit yourself with a hammer for half an hour; it’s a far more pleasant experience.

Of course there are the weekend festivals all summer long. Those aren’t half bad and can be worth the effort to park, and to work around the altered traffic flow, if you can navigate the crowds. I went with my in-laws to Taste of Syracuse one time, and we couldn’t get through the press at all. It made the State Fair, which I love, look like a ghost town. (The Fair has parking, by the way.) The festivals seem to be working, at any rate, but any given weekend I’d rather be at the Renaissance Festival up in Sterling, where the food is even better.

The city and people like Rubin are wrong about the two sides to this dilemma. On the one hand they think it’s a matter of giving tax breaks to a developer who, despite many flaws, has brought business into the region. On the other it’s throwing even more money at downtown, even though that hasn’t worked yet. But that’s not the real dilemma. It’s between those tax breaks, and finally addressing traffic and parking. Until the city does that, revitalizing downtown to its fullest potential is impossible.

Indeed, David, Hotel Syracuse might bring back a portion of downtown—iff the infrastructure exists to help it. Without that, they’re throwing tax dollars into a black hole. If they’re going to do that, may as well give Congel his tax breaks and stop whining. At least something positive will come of it. Meanwhile if you want downtown to thrive, and I cheer for that goal, stop asking how you can rearrange the brochures to make it look pretty and start asking why people don’t find it convenient to choose downtown as a destination. And then do something about it.

Or, you could trip over the point again.

That’s capitalism, you might say. Maybe the locals just can’t compete with the likes of the Cheesecake Factory. But think again. Our tax money helped build Destiny and provide the antiseptic, enclosed environment these chain establishments like: free parking, a clustering of restaurants, a critical mass of potential customers, games to baby-sit the kids, and a new feel. Our local restaurants get no such package of benefits at taxpayer expense.

Come on, David. Is free parking really such a bad thing? If Syracuse had better paid parking garages, there’d still be an economic disincentive to come downtown, because free parking beats $10 parking every time. But at least you would have the guarantee of finding a good spot, and that’s a lot.

There is of course only so far downtown can go anyway. Syracuse will have its weather, and that means during the winter, humid high summer heat, and rain, people would by and large rather spend their time in an indoor environment. You can’t fight Mother Nature, and her capricious moods rule central New York with an iron fist. Take for instance the widespread rain we have today, which we were inadequately warned about.

But to the extent that downtown can thrive, it ought to, and the first step to that is admitting you have a problem. Or rather, two problems. Fix the traffic, fix the parking, and spending a day downtown will look viable to a lot more people. If you don’t intend to do either, then stop peeing into the wind.

About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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