For more than a decade, Maren King drove from her home in DeWitt to her office on the SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry campus. However, after years of taking the same route to work, King said the suburban life didn’t appeal too much to her after her two sons left for college, so she decided to move and buy a condo in downtown Syracuse in 2009.
“Suburbs have better education districts," King said. "After my sons’ graduation, the education district didn’t matter any more. And I want to live in a place where I could walk to different places and is smaller than a house so that I don’t need to take care of a yard.”
King's purchase has made her a part of downtown Syracuse's resurgence. In the last 10 years, the building vacancy rate has dropped from 4.8 percent to 2.8 percent, according to the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. However, despite the downtown Syracuse's recent growth, the area has continued to fail to attrack young adults, frustrating the city's community leaders.
Among all the redeveloped buildings downtown, apartments take up a large proportion. In 2014, eight out of nine Syracuse Industrial Development Agency (SIDA) projects were redeveloped for residential and mixed use buildings. Additionally, instead of prosperity bubbles, the market rate units have kept a 99 percent occupancy rate since 2014 in downtown Syracuse.
“Once you had a 5 to 6 percent vacancy rate in downtown, your downtown is hurting,” Ken Towsley, director of code enforcement for the City of Syracuse said. “A 5 percent vacancy rate is a drop of water in the bucket for residential district comparing to downtown, because when we talk about the vacant buildings in downtown we refer to large structures.”
In 2010, the downtown vacancy rate peaked at 5.6 percent, signaling that it was on the verge of decline.
Like other cities in the Rust Belt, Syracuse was in its prime before World War II when it boasted iron, steel and mechanic factories in the city. After World War II, Syracuse lost its manufacturing base with the industry manufacturers’ shift out of the country. The combination of the loss of manufacturing jobs and the government's promotion of suburbs eventually lead to downtown Syracuse's degeneration.
Redevelopment in and around Armory Square emerged in the 1980s and can shed a light to the possibilities for downtown Syracuse's revitalization. Today, technical companies such as O’Brien & Gere and TCGPlayer provide a talented pool of employees in their downtown offices. And dining hot spots such as Lemon Grass, Pastabilities and Funk ’N Waffles offer notable option for foodies.
“Cities across America become more attractive and less dangerous, and people see the value of living in downtown,” Robert Doucette, president of Armory Development & Management said. “People changed their lifestyle, especially those older folks. When their children left, they don’t really want to have a 5000-square-foot in suburbs.”
According to the Downtown Committee’s annual report, there are 256 apartments under construction, slated to be completed in 2017. Despite the increased housing availability, Doucette said the downtown market rate is below the saturation point. Since 2006, the population in downtown Syracuse has increased by about 50 percent to 3,800 residents, but developers still worry about tenants draining away.
Review the projects and vacancies with an interactive version (Interactive: Liu Jiang).
Since 2011, the downtown median housing rate has risen from $1,075 to $1,535, making downtown resurgence potentially out of reach for many young adults. Recent SUNY-ESF graduate Neil Burke said downtown living had its benefits, but eventually he found a cheaper alternative.
“Back when I was studying at ESF, I wanted to be able to commute for free without paying for parking,” Burke said. “My apartment was close to a free corridor shuttle stop and it’s really convenient.”
However, these conveniences couldn't justify the cost of rent and Burke moved out of his downtown apartment last year.
“I was graduating back then, and I also found another place which is cheaper,” he said.
Former downtown Syracuse resident Neil Burke at Recess Coffee where he works (Photo: Shira Stoll)
Higher construction costs for new or remodeled buildings demand a a higher rent to cover a developer’s investment. Developers can pursue state subsidies that can lower construction cost -- and pass the discount on to renters -- but there are few programs specifically for middle and high-end residential housing.
“If the government doesn’t provide the subsidy to offset the debt, the cost will be high," Doucette said. "The question is the whether our market can sustain the rents."
The other method for grants is to apply for the state Affordable Housing Program that can provide subsidies up to $35,000 per unit. To receive the subsidies, almost 20 percent of the units need to be prepared for low or moderate-income families, running counter to developers’ desires for significant profits.
Developers are teetering on a seesaw, trying to balance between making housing more affordable in order to receive subsidies from the state or taking the risk of building higher-end developments with the potential for greater profits and losses.
“People have the desire to make money,” Syracuse Common Council president Van Robinson said. “And the high-end apartments are where they earn profits.”
(Interactive: Liu Jiang)
What may change the game for downtown Syracuse is the fate of Interstate 81.
Built in the mid-1950s, I-81 runs across the center of Syracuse as a bridge and bisects downtown from other impoverished districts. After serving the city for more than half a century, I-81 is at the center of community debate because its aging infrastructure that needs to be addressed.
New York State Department of Transportation is considering two plans. One is to replace the current bridge with a new one with ramps connecting to Interstate 690, and the other is to tear down the bridge and disperse the traffic through or around the city. In addition, a third plan of building a tunnel under downtown Syracuse has recently resurfaced.
Robinson favored the plan in tearing down I-81 and disperse the traffic in order to build a community grid, believing that it can bring a great number of advantages, among which expanding the zoning area and providing more land for cheaper housing are the highlights.
“There’re very few buildings left surrounding the city core,” Robinson said. “So there’s no place for developers to go if they want to go to Syracuse for investment.”
If the I-81 bridge is torn down and the grid is plotted, then the daily 40,000-vehicle traffic would be dispersed around the city. This could integrate the city's east and west sides, enlarge the zoning area and provide more land for housing construction -- which means rent would go down.
Besides the affordable rent, another factor that might encourage young adults’ interest in living in the downtown area are jobs. Collectible gaming company TCGPlayer relocated to downtown Syracuse to recruit younger employees in 2014.
“We’ve been able to attract some of the most talented and passionate people from around the country to join our company,” Jeff Couto, TCGPlayer’s vice president of marketing, said. “And it’s thanks to taking pride in our home town of Syracuse.”
TCGPlayer has attempted to integrate the culture of being in an urban downtown environment with the culture of their company. To encourage their employees to explore downtown Syracuse, TCGPlayer even filmed the “Working in Syracuse” video in order to promote the vigorous life there. To share the living expenses downtown, they offer parking stipends for employees and cater lunches every month. The incentives worked out, as TCGplayer.com now brings more than 100 employees downtown daily, and nearly 80 percent of the workforce is under the age of 30.
Employers returning to downtown Syracuse is key to enticing younger residents into the area, Heather Schroeder, economic development program manager for the Downtown Committee of Syracuse, Inc., said. The committee is a private, not-for-profit downtown management organization that represents property owners and tenants in the area.
Schroeder said the job opportunities would financially support the youth staying downtown.
“Talented employees want to live and work in a more engaging setting, so to compete for talent, companies choose to locate in those settings,” she said.