Will the Inner Harbor become the new Central Business District?

White collar companies are building new office space at the Inner Harbor instead of Downtown. This could be the start of a tectonic shift that remakes the City’s economic and social geography.

Equitable’s plan to move from its landmark office building on Madison to a brand new building on Clinton Street is just the most recent (and most dramatic) example of this trend. BHG is building a brand new office to consolidate its workers in one facility at the Inner Harbor. Rapid Response Monitoring built a $22 million addition to its Inner Harbor office in 2018.

This is not what City Hall had planned when it hired Cor to redevelop the Inner Harbor. The plan was for a totally new neighborhood of mixed use buildings with retail at street level and apartments above, densely built townhomes, a college satellite campus—a ‘24-hour neighborhood.’ Instead, the Inner Harbor is getting huge office buildings sharing their enormous parcels with gigantic surface parking lots while Cor plans to build even more surface parking and even fewer apartments on the land that it controls.

Syracuse has realized City Hall’s 1965 vision for a Downtown ringed by surface parking lots

In some ways, this is a real triumph for Syracuse. For 70 years, City Hall has been trying to figure out how to get companies that want new buildings and huge parking lots to stay Downtown. For most of that time, the plan has been to demolish enough of Downtown to provide parking spaces for everybody whose building was left standing. That policy failed to retain office jobs, and it turned a lot of Downtown into a moonscape. It was also one of the longer strands in the tangle of public policies that have made Syracuse one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the nation.

In the Inner Harbor, City Hall has found a collection of empty building sites that it can pitch to companies like Equitable that might otherwise move to the suburbs and to those like BHG who might never consider moving Downtown. This is a good thing because it maintains the City’s property tax base while also keeping thousands of opportunities for employment centrally located where they are more accessible to more people.

But it can only work so many times. Companies moving to the Inner Harbor are gobbling up land pretty fast. Equitable’s new building and parking lot will occupy 6.9 acres all on their own. Downtown, that company was just one tenant among many in a high-rise tower that sat on a 4.7 acre block. There simply isn’t enough room to give every company a spot in the semi-suburban office park that’s getting built at the Inner Harbor.

It also poses some real challenges to Downtown’s small businesses. Downtown’s residential population is not nearly big enough to support all of the businesses in the neighborhood. Those restaurants and shops thrive because so many non-residents come Downtown every day for work, and while they’re there they eat lunch, buy clothes, grab drinks. Every time a company moves a few hundred employees out of the neighborhood, it reduces that customer base and makes it harder for those small businesses to succeed.

Spreading all of those jobs out over a larger area will also make it harder for people to get to work by bus. Centro’s bus lines are all designed to terminate Downtown so that it never takes more than one bus to get to work there. Only one bus line runs up Solar Street, though, so anybody with a job at the Inner Harbor will have to take two buses to get to work.

BHG’s new building will take up less space than its parking lot, and it won’t have a door facing the sidewalk.

The big question is whether or not continued development will be the result of new jobs moving into Syracuse or existing jobs moving around within the City. BHG is bringing new jobs, but Equitable is just moving them from Downtown. If the Inner Harbor just leeches people and jobs from Downtown, then its development is best understood as more of the same sad story of Syracuse’s decentralization. But if instead it’s all new growth, then the conversion of the Inner Harbor into a sort of urban office park—the ‘Central Business District’ that mid-century city planners tried so hard to build—is a remarkable and welcome innovation in Syracuse’s development.