Rebuilding Genesee Street, one development at a time

Rebuilding Genesee Street, one development at a time

Real estate developer Norm Swanson makes Genesee Street his ‘Monopoly Board.’
Published: May 17, 2019 | Updated: May 20th, 2019 at 3:27 pm

Ron Tascarella doesn’t gamble. As the executive vice president of Pathfinder Bank, he likes to think of his financial decisions as more sound than that.

His bets on longtime Syracuse developer Norm Swanson are not what the banker considers risky.

“I’m not much of a gambler but if you watched somebody and they win every day, and it comes time to bet on somebody, who you gonna bet on?” Tascarella asked. “Somebody who you don’t know at all, or somebody who just wins every day?”

Swanson has been involved in real estate development since 1977. Of late, he’s invested in the luxury student apartment building trend,  building both Copper Beech Commons and Skyler Commons. Prior to student housing, Swanson was a hotelier. His company, the Woodbine Group, owns the Hotel Skyler, the Parkview, and until last year, the Genesee Grande.

Swanson’s local roots show through his work. Many of his developments have come about as adaptive reuse projects. That means that the building or complex already existed; Swanson purchases it, reimagines it and turns the old, potentially run-down space into something usable again.

Swanson’s origins set him apart from other developers of the luxury student apartments in the Syracuse area. Other developers drop in from out of town, looking to advance their financial portfolio. Of course Swanson’s Woodbine Group wants to turn a profit, Swanson’s stepson and Woodbine COO Tom Fernandez said, as any business would. But Swanson sees what he does as a good communal deed, as well. And in a word, why he does it: “Fun.”

One of the things that we do is we purchase the landmass or buildings at a very good price,” Swanson said. “A, because no one knows what to do with them, and B, over the last number of years prices were relatively modest. That enables us because we have a low in-price to take a chance and develop something and have some fun.”

Norm Swanson

 

Swanson has developed several properties on Genesee Street. His family even jokes that Genesee Street, a major east-west artery through the city, is Swanson’s “Monopoly board,” said Fernandez, his stepson and Woodbine’s COO.

“He’d pick up these pieces that were somewhat abandoned units and turn these things into actually incredible assets to the community,” Fernandez said. “And do it with personal touches but things that I think really changed the identity of the area.”

Swanson said that it’s not hard to get local bankers to invest when they’ve seen how his “unusual” projects that turn old buildings new again have worked. Tascarella has financially backed Swanson on the majority of his projects since the late 1980s, including the two luxury student complexes. There have been times where he still doubts Swanson, like with the recent repurposing of a 1935-built elementary school into Tailwater Lodge in Altmar, N.Y. “I hear you, but up here?” Tascarella remembered telling Swanson.

“I might look at when he first brings an idea forward and go, ‘Norm I don’t get it,’” Tascarella, said. “But I didn’t get the last two projects either, and they both turned out well.”

The investor also questioned Swanson’s unwillingness to add a “flag” to the Genesee Grande Hotel, like Hilton or Marriott. Tascarella had learned as a banker to never invest in a hotel without a flag.

“What’s the aversion to the flag?” Tascarella recalled asking Swanson. “And he would explain it. I’d still stare at him and go, ‘I’ll buy it because you’re telling me, but I don’t get it.’ He was always right. He was always right. The numbers always made sense.”

After many successful projects, Tascarella has realized Swanson may simply have a better grasp of his market than most others. Swanson understood that building a hotel in

Syracuse wasn’t the same as building a resort. Swanson also saw that student housing preferences had changed, too, and no one wanted to live in 10-by-10 dorm rooms with “two of their least favorite friends,” Tascarella said.

On each and every project, Swanson proves he understands his community, Tascarella added.

“He could make money in any community,” Tascarella said. “When there’s a passion for where they live and a passion for improving the lives of others around them, I think you just always end up with a better outcome.”

Copper Beech Commons
Swanson built Copper Beech Commons in 2012.

Swanson and the Woodbine Group weren’t totally naive to students’ needs before jumping into the luxury student housing space. At Woodbine’s Parkview Hotel, Syracuse University had already been leasing rooms to students. Swanson also knew the waiting list at Park Point, the first luxury student housing complex in Syracuse, was more than a year.

From there, Swanson saw the potential for more, both in the rising industry and in the National Guard Armory building where Copper Beech Commons now sits. The Woodbine architect put together a plan for the rooms’ layouts, and then Swanson and Fernandez brought it to design students at SU. There, they gave input on what they’d like in the room, which led to bigger kitchens, for one.

“They wanted to kind of feel a little bit like home,” Fernandez said. “That was what they were coming from, it was what they were comfortable with, it was a place where they’re gonna hang out.”

The luxury student housing boom at SU has reached a “saturation point,” Swanson said. Copper Beech and Skyler have yet to see an effect on leasing, Fernandez added. But regardless of where that market goes, there’s always going to be another project. That’s how Swanson’s mind works.

It might be unusual, as Swanson and Tascarella have said. It might be a foray into an unanticipated space. But it will surely be local, because that’s who Swanson is.

“Norm’s a Syracuse guy,” said Gary Brandeis, president of Hotel Scholars Group, which acquired Swanson’s Genesee Grand in 2018. “His properties are in Syracuse, his business is in Syracuse, he lives in Syracuse. There’s not many guys like him anymore.”

Avatar for Billy Heyen

is a contributor to The NewsHouse at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.