February 21, 2013

Thoughts on a Downtown grocery store

1. Loud noise; din.
2. Confusion; tumult.

Now that Downtown Syracuse is officially (or unofficially?) on the upward swing of things in regards to development, residential population (at much-touted 99% occupancy rate), and positive growth, some hubbub is being made about how badly Downtown Syracuse needs a grocery store - a move some see could really put the proverbial stamp in showcasing the true progress of the little urban neighborhood on a comeback.

Just about every blog, organization, and news outlet seems to be chiming-in and clamoring for a grocery store for Downtown Syracuse. So, I thought maybe I'd bring my 2 cents to the table, as 1 of about 2,000 residents. Mind you, this is just one man's opinion and I can only speak for myself. Who am I?

It was never easy for me. I was born a poor, black child...

No, I won't bore you. I'm a guy who moved back here from Boston - who, in 2007, decided he wanted to give urban living a shot in Syracuse (which was kind of an oxymoron at that time). I was sold the day I moved into my first apartment, a small studio in a very historic building near Downtown, and I've been living both in and around Downtown since that time (3 apartments in 6 years). I'd rather not toot my own horn, but... Alright... I will. I know Downtown Syracuse frontwards and backwards. I know where just about every restaurant and shop is. I know what time most businesses are open until and on which days (if you live Downtown, you generally know what's open and what's not open on Saturdays and Sundays). I know the best times to beat traffic. I know where the ridiculous the one-way streets are. I know how to avoid parking tickets and when you will never get them. I know how and when to get the best parking spots. I know what lights to avoid while driving. I know all of the new construction projects that have happened here since 2007. I know just about everything that has left since 2007. I know most of the parking garage and parking lot rates. I know what streets to walk down and which ones not to walk down at at which times. I'm not saying I know EVERY-SINGLE-THING-EVER-LOLZ-OMG, but as a resident of about 6 years, I know this neighborhood just as well as anyone does who lives in a neighborhood for that amount of time and who has spent just about every morning, noon, and night of his or her life in it.

And I know a thing or two about getting groceries. Downtown currently does not have a true grocery store. So, while the neighborhood surges onward, its residents have had to get by the best they can. I live on a third floor walk-up and my parking lot is about a 3-block walk from it. This means that in order for me to do a normal round of grocery shopping during the week (at say Price Chopper, Nichol's, or Wegmans), I have to walk down my stairs, walk to my car, drive to the store, shop, drive back, try to find an on-street parking spot within a respectable distance from my apartment, go up and down 3 flights of stairs to bring up my groceries, in some cases several times, move my car to my parking lot, walk back to my apartment, and go up 3 flights of stairs again. Then I'm home.

PHEW. I'm tired just by writing it, but that's my life. And I'm OK with it. Is it different than living in the suburbs? Yup. Does it suck? I don't think so. I've carried groceries on the T when I used to live in Boston. THAT sucks. The routine of getting groceries is basically a force of habit depending on your living situation. I'm sure other Downtown residents have similar or maybe slightly different ways of doing things. This has been my routine for about two and a half years and it hasn't phased me from moving away - or anyone else for that matter (that 99% rental rate statistic never seems to go down).

Granted, as a resident, you can get a few odds and ends around Downtown without having to drive anywhere. The farmers market is helpful in the summertime, Vinomania has wine, Columbus Bakery and Pasta's have bread and other goodies, Thanos has cheeses, olives, and other pantry items, Rite Aid provides those things you need in a pinch, and yes, A-Plus and Hess even have beer (though it's a terrible selection and can be a fairly sketchy experience at times). But it is possible to get by. And the stores that are here are great in most aspects. But sooner or later you'll need to drive to go get real groceries. And that is not the way that a walkable, urban neighborhood should be functioning. Basically: Downtown needs to provide more grocery shopping options for its residents. And there's very minimal debate about it.

That all being said, here are my two major, pressing issues and questions that I have since everyone seems to now be making a huge deal about Downtown needing a grocery store...

- If Downtown does indeed need a grocery store (which is probably does), how large does it have to be and what types of options are out there? (the good and the bad).

- If Downtown does indeed get a new grocery store, will we be using our recent positive momentum incorrectly and end up getting a design or concept that we (a) don't need, (b) don't like, or (c) both?

Think about that. Like really think about these two things and what could happen from any one of their chain of possibilities. Think of how many bad and decade-regretting decisions have been made in Syracuse. And just think of what could happen if we let a bad decision slip by us this time, with or without positive momentum.

This is how precious and delicate of a decision is. Really, the only other issue that I see as more fragile than this one right now is what will happen to I-81 (a topic for another time, I promise you).

For the first time in probably 60 years, Downtown now has a light at the end of its tunnel and it has been amazing to see the changes first-hand these last 6 years. But Syracuse as whole has had a long and sad history of either jumping on the first ship that comes to shore, taking the quick and easy way out, or just getting shit-on in general; depending on how you want to look at it all.

Carousel Mall was built on the cheapest, non-taxable land one could find and as far away from the actual city as possible, the baseball stadium location is ridiculous and... almost sadly comical, and I-81 destroyed a neighborhood, sliced Downtown in half, and made it just as easy for people to drive away. Those are the three major boo-boos. What do they all have in common? They all somewhat come at the expense of Downtown Syracuse. They've all either used Downtown as some accessory to other neighborhoods or towns or they flat-out ignore the neighborhood altogether and even dampen its possible potential growth. This cannot afford to happen again. And it cannot afford to happen over the simple decision of bringing in a grocery store to a neighborhood that doesn't have one yet. The result can't be something that will have focuses on other parts of the city or region. And the result can't be something that diminishes or stuns its current growth. It has to set-out what it's intended to be: a grocery store providing basic and daily needs for the immediate neighborhood.

As I've fussed about before, I'm a firm believer in what is good for Central New York may not be necessarily good for Downtown Syracuse and vice versa. What works in say, Fayetteville, may not necessarily work for Walton Street and vice versa. And I guess that's where my fear arises with this whole topic; that we're going to make some awful, brash decision when we had the opportunity to make a really smart one. If we're going to add a grocery store to this neighborhood, if that indeed is what's really necessary here, then it should be geared towards the neighborhood and not towards somewhere else or because we're trying to entice or trying to appeal to a different type of demographic than the one that's there.

I'll shut-up with my rhetoric and show three examples that demonstrate a small range of what my greatest fears and my greatest aspirations are in regards to a Downtown grocery store.

February 20, 2013

Mayors Challenge Finalist Video: Syracuse

Syracuse is one of 20 finalists in the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection, a partnership between Huffington Post and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Mayors Challenge is a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life.

I think this is a pretty solid concept; especially considering the former HSBC bank on this corner is going unused and is in such a prime location.

To vote for Syracuse as your favorite and to see the other finalists, click here.