Letter to the editor
It is with a great deal of frustration and anxiety that I follow the
discourse of the proposed Carousel Mall expansion in the papers and public forums. While the economic risks have been debated a great deal on both sides of the aisle, there seems to be little discourse about the visual impacts. I agree with Bruce Kenan's comments from October 1, 2000, that "we would all benefit from an improvement in the quality of dialogue surrounding this important project". Therefore, I would like there to be an equally intense debate about the aesthetics of the expansion as well as the economic ramifications.
Historically, cities are not on an even keel of development. There are spurts of disinvestment, neglect, rediscovery and reinvention. Clearly, we are in one of those moments of reinvention. Moreover, Syracuse, as other post-industrial economies, is experiencing a development recalibration of sorts - the desire to move new investment further out into the suburbs is being challenged with the rediscovery of the benefits of staying in or returning to the downtown. These are very good signs and bode well for the future of the city. While I have no problem with developments which transform our city's future from a place of production to a place of leisure and entertainment (stadiums, aquariums, retail establishments, ect.), I do take issue with the location and isolation of that development with regard to other “public" amenities.
As every published (and certainly unpublished) model view or perspective of the proposed expansion shows, the mall addition is simply a self-contained, privatized island floating in a sea of black asphalt and buttressed by multiple story parking garages. While this description could exemplify nearly every large retail establishment built outside of every American city in the last 30 years, this characterization is for a mall expansion that lies at the nexus of the city's edge and a rediscovered lakefront. The future development of the expansion does not engage the amenities of the creek walk, inner harbor or lakefront. The propinquity of these assets demands a reevaluation of the design. To not address these individual pieces is to deteriorate the potential of the whole.
Daniel Burnham, a turn-of-the-century urban planner once declared, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir man's blood, and probably themselves will not be realized." Indeed, Pyramid has stirred the blood of many men and women in the region with their ambitious proposal. Unfortunately, the plans laid on the table were developed in private and without the scrutiny of the larger design community. When a project comes on the table such as the expansion proposal by Pyramid, it operates at a scale beyond that of an individual building. The project commands an understanding of larger implications for everything around it. In other words, it becomes an issue of urban design. The bigger the plans the more it impacts others.
In their effort to maximize their short term economic gain, the developers have lost sight of the bigger vision - a vision of a beautiful place. In order to make both an economic and a visual impact, the proposed expansion simply needs to be directly linked to other development initiatives underway. In this way, the city does not develop in a series of haphazard and isolated projects (a mall here, a stadium there) but rather moves forward with a clear vision for how projects in the "public" realm can be integrated together. This is what that location has the potential to do, link the various projects together in a synthetic way.
Do not be intimidated by the all or nothing posture of the developer. If the Carousel expansion does not occur, the City of Syracuse will not be set back and flounder. On the contrary, there are many development initiatives in the city which are encouraging and would benefit from additional resources and attention. Perhaps most promising and long-lasting is the Tomorrow's Neighborhoods Today (TNT) process. TNT has greatly empowered local communities to become active in the participation of what goes on in their neighborhoods. As evidenced by the money which has been secured by Representative Walsh, the Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative has forced neighborhoods to decide what projects are important for their communities, and citizens have taken steps to make those visions a reality. Of course, these initiatives operate at smaller scale, but they are no less ambitious for what they achieve. The genuine process instills in the public a sense of control over their destiny and directly involves communities in the design and planning of their environment. People do and should have a say in what gets built around them.
Robert Congel pointed out in his editorial from July 19, 2000, that the expansion could "create a vibrant community that is fun, attractive, proud and prosperous". However, if the design of the expansion is permitted to move forward under the monolithic shell that exists it will not be attractive and certainly not something to be proud of. Sure, 80 % of the visitors to the mall expansion will be out-of-towners. They will shop at the mall, but they won't have to live next to it.
This then, is my development nightmare for the city of Syracuse: precisely at the moment that local initiatives and activism are taking root in the city to re-establish a lost sense of neighborhood, a major, privately led initiative undermines and eclipses the public process and further destroys the grain and social structure of local neighborhoods. If it moves forward, the biggest benefit of the Carousel expansion, as I see it, will be that it will put the final financial stake through the heart of the dozen empty malls throughout the region. At least then, as the bulldozers warm-up to demolish their archaic and blank shells, we can plan for the future reinvention of those dilapidated sites in a more enlightened way.
David Gamble is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Syracuse University and Director of the Community Design Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director, Community Design Center
School of Architecture
103 Slocum Hall
Syracuse NY 13244-1250
phone: (315) 443-4855
fax: (315) 443-5082