Dellas family weighs future of their South Crouse Avenue gold mine

Dellas family weighs future of their South Crouse Avenue goldmine

The family behind The Varsity and Faegan's owns some of the most desirable real estate left on the SU Hill.
Published: May 17, 2019 | Updated: May 21st, 2019 at 4:23 pm
The Varsity in the past

Jerry Dellas’ iPhone rings every few months. There are no for-sale signs on his properties, but the callers inquire about the buildings situated between the two parking garages on South Crouse Avenue. They’re looking for real estate to buy and develop — into something bigger.

Cousins Jerry and John Dellas own this small strip of commercial property on South Crouse Avenue, just off the northern edge of Syracuse University’s main campus. They own campus food and drink landmarks The Varsity and Faegan’s and lease space to Dunkin’ Donuts and Garbo’s Salon. But what the Dellas family really owns is real estate – the only remaining piece that’s close to campus and ripe for development amid a bull market for real estate near large universities. Whether to sell their land or keep it in the family is a decision that will affect not only the next generation of Dellases, but the university community they have fed and entertained for nearly a century.

“Right now we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” said Jerry Dellas, 65. “We have some of our family in, somewhat out. We’re in balance-keeping mode. Do we do it ourselves? Do we partner with someone? We’ve gone back and forth for three or four years. But eventually our properties will be developed, because they’re old and they need to go with the times.”

Amid the high turnover along adjacent Marshall Street, the Dellas family businesses restaurants remained mainstays, staples for employees of two nearby hospitals and students, faculty and staff of Syracuse University. Faegan’s turned 40 in December, and Varsity will be 100 in 2026. Along the way, the Dellas family turned down offers to buy their restaurants. Varsity will stay for years, Jerry Dellas said. Faegan’s isn’t going anywhere for now, but he said there may come a time when he sells it.

For nearly a century, the Dellas family has had its fingerprints on the Syracuse University area. In 1923, Jerry’s grandfather, also named Jerry, immigrated to the United States from Greece. He docked at Ellis Island on a ship and told a clerk his name was “Dellaportas.” Dellas became his name. He arrived in Central New York with little money, but started a business selling candy and popcorn to students. He sold enough to buy an old house in Varsity’s current location. He opened up a cafe when the university area had few buildings, consisting of mostly homes and farm land.

A conference room past Jerry Dellas’ office office is lined with old photos depicting Varsity’s changing storefront. He pulled out a sketch of what his father had in mind for South Crouse Avenue in the 1950s: a motel and restaurant. He cracked a smile at a few other photographs that showed a parking garage-less South Crouse Avenue, with trees, space and an unblocked view of Downtown.

Jerry and John Dellas have tried to keep things close to what their grandfather started. They’ve made few big moves; their last acquisition on South Crouse Avenue  – Faegan’s – was more than 40 years ago.

On a recent morning, Jerry Dellas pulled out another sketch, a pitch from a developer a few years ago that showed a revamped Varsity and Faegan’s on the ground floor of a multistory apartment building on designed for students and hospital workers. The idea fizzled out — “ideas come and go,” he said — but the brothers regularly take meetings with  interested developers. Their responsibility to the area is to continue Varsity’s tradition on The Hill. Which means to stay open and serve the clientele they’ve built: students and nurses.

Development, the cousins noted, could take on one of several forms. A large developer may offer a deal in which the SU skyline would change. Jared Hutter, whose New Jersey-based Aptitude Development owns The Marshall and built what is now UPoint on University Avenue, said he’s not considering the area for a number of reasons, not least of which is the tight space. There’s entry from only the South Crouse side, which “makes it a hard site to develop,” Hutter said.

Based on that, the Dellas’ move may simply be renovations to Varsity and Faegan’s. Ideally, they wouldn’t have to close Varsity during renovations or development.

“In the last five years we’ve had more people come forward with ideas, wanting to buy them, develop them,” Jerry Dellas said. “We’ve come close to some deals. We backed away from a deal. We’re not sure what we’re going to do.”

One thing to consider is the next generation, among them Jerry Dellas’ daughter, Meg. Now the co-owner of Water Street Bagel Co. downtown, Meg hasn’t ruled out taking her father’s place when he retires.

“I’d definitely be interested in running Varsity one day,” she said.

The ideas from developers all include space for some version of The Varsity, but the Dellas brothers do not seem in a rush to make a deal, until it’s the right one for them, their family, and the community.

“Here we are, the Dellas property, surrounded by all of this stuff,” Jerry Dellas said. “So our decision was, ‘Do we develop along with them?’ We decided that we were going to do that. So our project is yet to come.”

Avatar for Matthew Gutierrez

is a newspaper and online journalism senior who has interned for The Wall Street Journal and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.