Can Syracuse Resurrect Its Street Life?
Syracuse’s urban fabric has not fared well since a wave of post-war suburbanization. Surface parking and highways redefined the city’s core for the worse, while surrounding neighborhoods struggled to stabilize after losing jobs and residents.
But the architects at Fiedler Marciano saw a small opportunity to shift the tide with 219 West, a three-story brick building on a traffic island bordering the city’s west side and popular entertainment district Armory Square.
219 West. Images courtesy of the architects
Martin Marciano and Mark Fiedler (both Syracuse University graduates) believed a renovation could generate foot traffic, extend the city's fledgling entertainment district, and shrug off the neighborhood's negative image among locals. "I went to school there and I never went downtown," Marciano says. "No one did. But around 2005 when the idea of redeveloping this building began, there was a sense of urban renewal momentum in the city."
At the time, 219 West was mostly vacant, and surrounded by little besides railroad bridges and surface lots. But one of the board members of next door’s Redhouse Theater saw it as an opportunity to move his recording studio, Subcat, from a basement in Skaneateles (about 30 minutes away from downtown Syracuse).
Turning 219 West into a recording studio was neither the most obvious nor practical of choices. "It shook every time a train went by and it’s basically sitting on a traffic island," said Marciano, adding, "the bones of the building were good but you couldn’t pick a worse spot for a recording studio."
The new recording studio at 219 West. Image courtesy of the architects.
But the architects made it work, designing the studio walls to absorb the noise and vibrations from outside. The sound of the freight trains passing by no longer shake the building. "We were thrilled when we were there for the opening and a train went by but the only way we found out was when someone saw it," says Marciano.
They also made it a more sociable structure, adding street-level activity that tie the building's facade to the neighborhood. It’s not the only new project in the neighborhood that makes an effort to interact with the street better.
Just across the street is Syracuse University’s "Warehouse," which houses the university’s design and journalism departments. Renovated in 2006 by Syracuse alum Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner, its first floor contains a cafe, community classrooms, work spaces, exhibit space and an art gallery. Built around the same time as 219 West’s renovation in 2011, "Washington Station" incorporates first-floor retail and a shared lobby into the new mixed use building two blocks away (and steps from the recently redesigned Onondaga Creekwalk).
In order to make 219 West interact better with its immediate neighbor Redhouse, the architects also installed a cafe and lobby on its first floor, one which Redhouse patrons enter before settling inside the theatre. The third floor now has apartments, used often for visiting theatre companies. As for passersby, the first floor’s large glass windows add life to the sidewalk as pedestrians can watch musicians at work inside their studio.
219 West. Images courtesy of the architects
The relationship between the building and its surroundings has been mutually beneficial. Subcat Studios owner Ron Keck says that since moving "our customer base changed immensely. A big part of it was simply because our former location was half an hour away from the city so just a lot more people come here now." Subcat held a high reputation among local musicians despite its former location in hard-to-reach Skaneateles. But the more centralized location has brought in a wider range of local musicians.
The company uses a portion of its new basement to do in-house CD and graphic art production for local musicians. Subcat also uses 219’s second floor as classroom and rehearsal space, giving nearby residents in an underserved area better access to music resources and education.
Perhaps feeding off the neighborhood momentum, the railroad bridges once seen as barriers to a more lively neighborhood have been painted over by street artist Steve Powers (better known under his graffiti name, ESPO).
Marciano is hopeful the building’s new life will help breed more reinvestment in the neighborhood. "It’s great to see the change," he says. "You just hope it influences more people." With a full plan now in place for the neighboring west side and a growing collection of urban-friendly structures around 219 West, the scattered examples of regeneration around Syracuse's core may finally be starting to accumulate.