Sunday, May 2, 2010

From Nightclub to Organic Restaurant - 617 West St. is Getting a "Green" Makeover

617 West Street, Syracuse, N.Y.
Sunlight shines through the first floor of the building, where the organic restaurant will be built.
Developers Cosmo Fanizzi and Christian Van Luven stand where the vegetable garden will soon be built.

Walk down West Street in Syracuse's Near West Side, and the building at 617 looks like nearly every other building on the block -- desperately in need of some sprucing up. Part of the roof is missing and the only piece of furniture in the building is a rusty, old armoire that looks like it came right out of a set on Beauty and the Beast. But by the end of this year, Roji Tea Lounge owner Christian Van Luven says the building will look completely different.

Christian Van Luven bought the abandoned building with his business partner Cosmo Fanizzi in January. According to Van Luven, it used to be a nightclub. Van Luven and Fanizzi are turning it into an organic restaurant with a residential space on top.

They want their building to be as environmentally friendly as possible, complete with solar panels, vegetable gardens and something called green infrastructure.

"We just formed this LLC, Activism and Commerce," said Van Luven. "When you are involved with business, I've come to find it means more to follow a sustainable approach."

With Syracuse's combined-sewer overflow problem, a problem that causes raw sewage to enter Onondaga Creek and Lake during storms, Fanizzi says he and Van Luven are focusing on implementing green infrastructure to help stop the problem.

According to Khris Dodson from the Environmental Finance Center, green infrastructure is storm water management.

"This means rain barrels, rain gardens and cisterns," he said. "Anything that helps capture rainwater before it enters the system."

Van Luven and Fanizzi reached out to Dodson because implementing this technology can be tricky. In Syracuse, building codes aren't structured around this new type of architecture.

According to Andrew Maxwell, Director of Planning and Sustainability for the Office of the Mayor, zoning codes are 40 years old.

But Maxwell is in full support of the project. He says Van Luven and Fanizzi won't be able to do the kinds of things they want to, it just might take a little more time.

Fanizzi says he and Van Luven will do what they can now, like constructing a green roof that uses plants to capture rainwater before it hits the ground, and save the bigger projects for later.

"They're the authority, and we're more like the dreamers right now," he said.

One of those bigger projects includes using collected rainwater for human use, such as cleaning dishes and flushing toilets. Dodson says this is not allowed in New York right now.

"We are a litigious society," he said. "We are so afraid of becoming sick for anything that we'd rather just code to protect everyone without thinking of the little things that could still be useful and important."

But Dodson says local government is catching up.

"I think we have the right types of players and the right political will," he said. "People always point to Portland, Oregon, and Northern California, but I think for a rustbelt community like Syracuse, we are doing well with moving forward."

Van Luven agrees saying, "The cool thing is now, going to city hall, you have a lot of younger people who understand what all this stuff is."

First District Common Councilor Matt Rayo, 24, is a graduate of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

"I would definitely support looking at the current policies and regulations regarding these kinds of issues and see what we could do to change them," Rayo said.

Fanizzi says the project has been an exciting process, especially because it has raised awareness about the possibility of updating codes. He also says he hopes their project will help others follow in their footsteps so Central New York can be a leader in sustainable development.

Dodson says this is a definite possibility.

"If done correctly, Central New York could be one of the leaders in the nation for how to green up your community and do things in a more sustainable way," he said. "The more we have people like Cosmo and Christian, the easier it gets for everyone else who follows their lead. In many ways, they're trail-blazers."

Dodson says it's perfect timing for the project since there are a number of other "greening" projects going on in Syracuse right now. Among the Onondaga Lake cleanup is the Near West Side Initiative, an initiative to revitalize and green the Near West Side of Syracuse. It's happening right where Van Luven and Fanizzi's building is located.

The Director of the Near West Side Initiative, Maarten Jacobs, says he applauds the job Van Luven and Fanizzi are doing as private developers within the larger initiative.

"Green infrastructure is key, it ties in exactly with what we are doing," he said. "We've been excited to see West Street come back up. It's great what they are trying to do, especially in terms of having a restaurant since there's a lack of restaurants."

Van Luven and Fanizzi say they hope to open the restaurant in September and the living space a year from then. With a busy summer ahead, Van Luven says he's excited to start the construction phase and finally get the shovel in the ground.

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