Empty skyscrapers fill Syracuse skyline

Apr 22, 2011

Here's a riddle: What do you get when you combine an steadily spreading metropolitan area with a neglected downtown core?

Answer: A lot of empty skyscrapers.  Specifically, the Syracuse skyline.

Chuck Sangster stands on the top floor of the Onondaga Tower, formerly the HSBC Building, and surveys all that stands before him: 360 views of the lake, the Carrier Dome, and downtown Syracuse.  He ticks off the building's other assets: a bright floor plan, great parking.

But despite all those amenities, this whole floor is empty. In fact, most of the building is. 

Sangster's working to change that though, to refresh the building and contribute to revitalization in downtown Syracuse.

"This would be a catalyst on Warren Street," says Sangster, "which ... is probably the hardest hit over the last number of years.”

Stopping sprawl, investing downtown

For Onondaga County executive Joanie Mahoney, the current state of Warren Street is a reminder of what once was.

"I’m old enough to remember what it was like to walk down Warren Street and Salina Street and have the buildings be full," she says.

Nowadays the picture is very different. While the occupancy rate for downtown Syracuse is about 80 percent, there are 15 buildings that are completely vacant, according to the Downtown Committee of Syracuse.  The downtown business district has more than 6 million square feet of rental space available for businesses, spread out among 100 buildings.  

Making use of that empty office space is a major theme of Mahoney's administration. But she's taking an unusual tact to boost the center city: focusing on suburbs.

Mahoney believes that the suburban ring can't thrive without a strong urban core. So she wants to end the practice of giving builders carte blanche to start new builds in the outskirts of the county. 

"As long as it’s less expensive to put a box out in a field, people are going to do that, if what they’re looking at the bottom line," she says.

But that affects the bottom line of the county too, according to Mahoney, raising the burden for taxpayers in the form of new sewer lines and roads to serve new construction. So she's looking to change the equation.

"If you can give developers a tax credit for taking on the building in the urban center, then you can level that playing field," she says.

That's the type of incentive that Chuck Sangster is hoping to capitalize on for his Onondaga Tower.  He's working with the Downtown Committee of Syracuse to apply for a grant to offset a $9 million remodel of the tower.  He's taking on several projects,  like installing a new HVAC system, changing the "skin" of the building, and redoing the bathrooms. 

And if the remodel - which begins this spring - is successful in attracting new tenants, that’ll be 120-thousand square feet off Syracuse’s empty office space rolls.