11:48am

Tue February 14, 2012
The Upstate Economy

Downtown Syracuse goes from retail to residential

For property developers Rich DeVito and Bob Doucette of Paramount Realty, the motivation for taking on large scale renovations of downtown Syracuse’s previously empty buildings was this:

“We wanted to make money,” says DeVito flatly, though Doucette chuckles at the simplicity of the answer. “It’s where the market is,” DeVito goes on to say.

And make money they did.

The pair took the former Dey Brother’s department store in Syracuse two years ago and turned it into upscale apartments with a few office suites.

Its residential units are currently fully leased.

Doucette is credited with being one of the developers that began a revitalization of downtown that’s picking up speed. He and others put apartments above many of the Armory Square section’s trendy bars, restaurants and shops in the ’90s.

“We were advancing a trend that was taking place in a lot of other places in America,” Doucette says of his work. “It just took a long time to catch up.”

Now that vision is spreading, and other developers are following suit.

Up the street from the Dey Brother’s building, several formerly vacant retail and office buildings – many of them built in the early-to-mid 20th century – are now being converted into apartments and condominiums.

A new-found desire to live in the city’s urban core is driving the construction boom. The Downtown Committee, a booster organization, says there is a 99 percent occupancy rate for the neighborhood’s 913 market-rate residential units, with another 500 or so more currently undergoing renovation.

Taking off

The Dey Brother’s department store sits not far from an intersection referred to as “the heart of central New York.” The crossing of South Salina and Fayette Streets is the city’s busiest intersection. But it’s also a place that’s a good representation of the city’s hard economic times over the past few decades.

Many of the historic buildings along the corridor have sat empty for years. But soon the block will look quite different, if all goes according to planned.

The transit authority is finishing up a new bus terminal that will move much of the congestion out of the intersection just in time for VIP Structures to begin a major renovation project.

Dubbed the Pike Block, VIP will transform four vacant buildings into a mix of residential and street-level retail. Work is set to begin once temperatures rise this spring.

While VIP has renovated and built several buildings downtown, this is their first residential project – and it’s expected to be as costly as it is ambitious. Historical tax credits and a lot of work by the Metropolitan Development Foundation (CenterState CEO’s non-profit arm) are easing the project.

“If we were to do this on a conventional basis like our past projects, it just wouldn’t have worked financially,” says VIP President Charles Wallace, Jr. “The project is just too expensive, too complex as compared to the rents that we can obtain.”

VIP envisions the project being the connector between the hip Armory Square and still slightly rundown South Salina Street.

Wallace and his partners don’t expect to turn a profit on the project for several years. But they see it as a way to give back to a city that’s been good to their business.

Critical mass

While growing quickly, downtown’s population is still small compared to other sections of Syracuse. 

Doucette says in order to be a true community, downtown will need about 5,000 residential units. But that doesn’t mean downtown’s look and feel won’t change dramatically before that vision is realized.

“Once Salina Street looks entirely different, which it will, all of the sudden you won’t be able to escape the fact that things are different here,” predicts VIP President David Nutting.

“It’s been easy for years to drive by and not notice Armory Square. Once every time you go through Syracuse and you go through that same sort of a feel, I think things will start to change fast.”

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