Residents in some Syracuse neighborhoods who’ve had concerns about problem corner stores for years are hoping new zoning rules might provide some relief. If you drive or walk through parts of the north, south, or near west sides, it's hard to miss the proliferation of stores, sometimes several within a few blocks.
While some stores provide much-needed items in areas that have little access to groceries, concerned residents blame others for a limited selection of healthy food, or even serving as a magnet for drug dealing and other unsavory behavior.
WAER's Scott Willis ventured out to see where some of the higher concentrations of corner stores might be.
“As you drive through the near west side, there’s certainly no shortage of corner stores. I just passed one at Gifford and Oswego Streets. They are not on every corner, but they are certainly prevalent. And that’s a concern for many of the residents in this neighborhood.”
Hilary Donahue is a facilitator with the west side TNT, or Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today.
“Corner stores in our neighborhood are a pretty big source of complaints frequently. They draw a lot of illegal, bad activity and generate a lot of trash. These things come up fairly often at our meetings.”
She’s optimistic that city’s new zoning code set to take effect early next year will help prevent some of those problems in the future. Donahue says they’re actually trying to stop a proposed store from moving into a former dry cleaner on Gifford Street, which would require a change of use.
“We thought we’d have a voice…it would have to go to a public hearing and we’d be able to say ‘no, we don’t need this corner store.’ But the zoning code allows that use. So there’s only little bits and pieces we can grab at to try to reject the corner store.”
That’s under the current zoning rules, but that could change. The city of Syracuse has held nearly 100 meetings with neighborhood groups about the ReZone Syracuse project over the past few years, and City Planner Owen Kerney says the stores are one of the top 5 issues.
“The concerns were wide ranging. Some of them were about the frequency of them in neighborhoods. There’s three of them on the same block, or two across the street from one another. Some were complaints about crime.”
But he’s quick to add that it wasn’t universal condemnation, and that some neighborhoods support the stores. So, how can new a zoning ordinance help? Kerney says they’re proposing changes in the review and approval process for what’s called neighborhood scale retail.
“In many instances, there is a very limited review. There is no public notification. There is no public hearing. If they meet the basic standards, they may open without a comprehensive public dialogue. That was one of the things that we felt updating our zoning regulations that we could begin to address.”
Kerney says they’re creating a new category that will require a special permit to open a corner store in a neighborhood business corridor. It will get a higher level review by the city, and property owners nearby will be notified by mail. There will also be a public hearing before the planning commission. Kerney says that should give residents a greater voice in important land use decisions.
“One, we want you to know about it. Two, we want your input on the potential positives or negatives, or just insights you have about that particular site, the block or the immediate area, and help inform the folks that are reviewing this with your neighborhood level input.”
It seems the north side is also not immune to the high concentration of corner stores.
“I’m driving along East Division Street, just off North Salina Street and Little Italy, and I’m counting, one, two, three, four, five convenience stores within just two to three blocks.”
Pat Body is a facilitator with the Northside TNT, and says residents there have had concerns about some corner stores for years.
“On Butternut Street, there are three convenience stores within steps [of each other]. There’s one on one side, one across the street, and another half a block up. Our concern is every time there’s an empty a building, a convenience store moves in.”
She says the worst ones have been forced to close for nuisance abatement, but then sometimes they re-open under different ownership. Body and others question how legitimate some of the stores are.
“If you were really in business to sell legal products, there wouldn’t be a need for that many convenience stores on the north side because you wouldn’t be making money. If you look at it, there’s no neighborhood that would need that many convenience stores unless they’re doing other things.”
Body acknowledges, however, that some of the stores provide a much-needed service to the neighborhood’s refugee population.
“We’re a very diverse community, so we need a variety of stores to accommodate all the needs of our different populations. But those who bring in people from other neighborhoods, or bring in loitering or questionable behavior we don’t need.”
She says the Rezone Syracuse team made several presentations to the Northside TNT, and altered parts of the zoning map to reflect their concerns. But Body is reserving judgment on whether the new review process for neighborhood scale retail will be effective. Kerney, the city planner, knows residents would like them to do more to address the problems that some corner stores can create.
“During those conversations, it becomes clear that some of the issues they’re most concerned about, whether it be loitering or the sale of certain products fall outside the bounds of what zoning and land use regulations can control. We’ve had to manage those expectations. The city wants to update its zoning in a way that helps facilitate better development, better results, and better community engagement.”
Kerney says they plan to complete the Rezone project by year’s end. Once the state gives its approval, the new zoning map will be on the books by sometime early next year.