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Protecting Historic Assets Requires Planning, Collaboration

By Kirk Narburgh

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Our firm has had the privilege of working with local business and civic leaders in designing some of our community’s oldest and most prestigious buildings, including Crouse College (1889), the Onondaga County Courthouse (1907), and the iconic National Grid building (1932). 

Historic buildings tell stories and are integral components of our community’s identity. They also present intriguing opportunities for our future. Finding a balance between leveraging the rich historic assets we have in Central New York with our desire for more modern, and greener, building solutions requires a commitment to long-term community planning. To be successful, this process must embrace collaboration among communities, promote creative solutions for development, and work in partnership with local government.

Tap into brainpower

The first step in good community planning is taking advantage of the collective brainpower in the region. It sounds easy; bring together the best minds — developers, designers, business, and government leaders and community members — to create a plan that addresses current needs and future implications. Unfortunately, this opportunity for collaboration is often missed. Decisions that shape the landscape of our communities are commonly made in a vacuum, devoid of group thinking and public consensus. 

For a good blueprint, look no further than the community discussion regarding the future of I-81. To some, the public input process may seem long and protracted. This is a necessary step, and one many communities forgo in search of a quick fix. Gathering input takes time and requires broad engagement, but it’s time well spent. This is a community planning exercise on a scale that our region has never seen. No matter the outcome, the I-81 opportunity (it was once called “a challenge”) has done a great service in raising public awareness for the community planning process. It underscores the key point that decisions we make today impact generations well beyond our lifetime — thoughtful and inclusive planning is critical. 

Good community panning

The I-81 conversation has opened a window into the community planning process. We must take advantage of this positive momentum to build a region-wide strategic plan that preserves older infrastructure while understanding the need to modernize our built environment. The historic landscape of our region doesn’t reside in a single town, city, or village. Municipalities, businesses, and economic-development organizations should be working together, not individually, to create a vision for the future that brings together the old and the new. Having a plan in place assures continuity across the region, shares the benefits of group thinking, and allows us to continually flexibly make course corrections as things change.

Creative spaces

There are many recent examples of how creative thinking has enabled our community to re-imagine and re-use older public spaces, embracing modern technology while preserving local history. The block of West Street that is now home to WCNY Studios and ProLiteracy was a metal shop and a series of warehouses in the late 1800s. As recently as 10 years ago, it was destined to be demolished. Today, thanks to a concerted effort led by west-side citizens and businesses, and with help from government agencies and Syracuse University, the area is a thriving business district.

In 2011, our firm renovated an adjacent building on the near west side; it was home to a farm equipment supplier in the early 1900s and vacant in recent years. It reopened as downtown Syracuse’s first LEED Platinum-certified building, and today serves as our company headquarters. The Red House opened earlier this year in the renovated, and completely re-imagined former Sibley’s building (now known as City Center). And, soon the State Tower Building, the Art Deco downtown office tower built in 1927, will re-emerge as a mixed-use facility, welcoming residential tenants for the very first time. These cases illustrate how unused, deteriorating, or underutilized public spaces, no matter their age, represent opportunities to shape the future of our community. We must continue to support and promote creative new solutions for our older spaces.

Impact of government 

There are two key ways government is integral to preserving local history and promoting the productive reuse of older infrastructure. One is historic tax incentives, which we have — for now. The other is up-to-date and uniform zoning and planning rules, which we do not have, but desperately need. Thankfully, historic tax credits remain available to worthy projects that protect and enrich our most treasured community assets. Without them, we wouldn’t have the beautifully restored former Hotel Syracuse, now called the Marriott Syracuse Downtown. We need to make sure these incentives remain in our community planning toolkit. 

One of the biggest obstacles facing local development right now is out-of-date zoning and planning rules. Here we are in 2018 and we’re working with towns and villages that have zoning rules that haven’t changed substantially in more than 60 years. This is wide-spread and debilitating to development. Re-zone Syracuse is a smart and much-needed initiative that will positively influence growth in the city of Syracuse. Neighboring towns and villages should follow suit. In doing so, there also needs to be greater uniformity in rules from one municipality to the next. This requires collaboration among planners and a commitment to more frequently review and update older rules that have become obsolete. 

Thanks to the Erie Canal, once the economic hub of the Northeast, our Central New York region has a unique and rich historic infrastructure. The connective tissue of our history runs throughout the city of Syracuse and in and around the neighboring towns and villages. The current wave of historic-revitalization projects in our community illustrates that preserving history and embracing modernization are not mutually exclusive, or cost-prohibitive. To maintain this momentum and embrace new opportunities ahead of us, Central New York communities need to work together to create a vision for the future. Get involved and engage at any level to help frame our path forward as a community and upstate region as a whole.       

Kirk Narburgh is CEO and managing partner at King + King Architects in Syracuse. The firm, which employs 64 people, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. 

 

 

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