Tear it Down or Fix it Up? Syracuse Developmental Center's future remains a mystery

The former Syracuse Developmental Center has fallen victim of vandals as the property remains tied up in court over tax assessment disputes. (Submitted Photo)

For decades the sprawling Syracuse Developmental Center has sat high atop the west side of Syracuse, however, now it also sits wrapped up in lawsuits and mystery.

The Syracuse Developmental Center's roots date back to the 1800's when the Syracuse Idiot Asylum sat along Wilbur Avenue. The current structure sits on 48 acres of land and exceeds 600,000 square feet of space. It opened in 1972 and housed hundreds with developmental disabilities who required the most intensive level of care. The facility closed in 1998, leaving behind amenities such as full size gymnasium with locker rooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a bowling ally, along with cafes, lounges, and a large kitchen with industrial sized ovens.

"I am very impressed that everything was there," Beverly Loverock said. She worked at the facility from the mid 1970's through its eventual closing.

"It was great," Loverock said. "(A) beautiful pool, the bowling ally ... people were very friendly, people that worked there (were) very loving." It's a love that continues as Loverock overseas a Facebook page with ex-employees of the center. "The staff that are posting the pictures are really sad because they all have memories at different parts of the building," she said.

Neglect is widespread at the facility. Vandals have broken many windows and thieves have stripped the building of valuables.

"It's very sad to see what people have done," Loverock said. "The grounds outside and the view of the whole city — it's the best spot in the entire city."

In April 2013, the building was auctioned off as a part of bankruptcy proceedings for $1.2 million. The secrecy started immediately as the winning bidder would not disclose his name to reporters and covered his face as he ran out of the courthouse.

In a later interview with CNYCentral in 2013, Rabbi Mayer Schmukler from the the California-based Jewish Educational Trade School said they were behind the bid.

"We really believe it can work," Rabbi Schmuker said as he talked about the desire to establish an east coast campus. "Our intention is to put our school in there ... to see a site like this, an opportunity like this on the east coast, we couldn't pass it up."

The proposal, at the time, was welcome news for the city.

"There is going to be a lot of attention on it and maybe the bidder wasn't prepared for that," Ben Walsh said in 2013, then the Syracuse Director of Economic Development. "We are willing to establish that relationship and see where it goes from there."

However the now Mayor-elect Walsh may have not imagined where it would actually go.

Court documents obtained by CNYCentral confirm Jets Synagogue was the name of the purchaser, but no plans were ever set forth on the "east coast campus" idea. CNYCentral attempted several times to call Jets to find answers on what happened, however our calls were never returned.

A July 2017 story published by McClatchy's DC bureau brings some additional clarity to the west side situation and also brings about further questions. Reporters who were able to reach Rabbi Mayer Schmukler were led to believe the project simply fell through.

"We were working on a plan for it. We had a partnership with another organization and everything, but it went wrong,” Schmukler said in a phone interview with McClatchy reporters. The rabbi also stressed in the same interview that his school never actually owned the property, according to McClatchy.

In the same story, McClatchy identified the man who ran from the Onondaga County courthouse as Felix Sater. McClatchy describes him as a Russian born "two-time ex-con turned government informant, and at least one-time adviser to Donald Trump." While Sater was listed in court paperwork as being an agent for Jets Synagogue, his involvement at the property following the day of the auction isn't quite clear. However, he was recently requested to aid in the U.S. Senate's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

Syracuse Center LLC is listed as the official owner of the former Syracuse Developmental Center according to Onondaga County property tax records. While there is a listed address of 62 William St Fl 9 New York, New York, CNYCentral wasn't able to successfully make contact with the owner. A lawyer who is representing the owner in New York State Supreme Court also didn't answer requests for comment.

Syracuse Center LLC has sued the City of Syracuse claiming the assessment on the parcels of land is "erroneous." The two parcels are assessed at $1,494,100 and $904,000 respectively. The city is currently owed more than $343,000 in back taxes and declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation. However, incoming Syracuse Mayor-elect Ben Walsh's administration did comment.

"There was hope for the Syracuse Developmental Center property in 2013," Sharon Owens, the incoming deputy mayor, said. "Unfortunately, that promise has not been realized. This site and others like it in the city that are mired in tax delinquency will be a major focus of the Walsh administration. We will do everything possible to get this site back in productive use, making the neighborhood stronger and growing our economy."

"I think people should live there," Loverock said. "Its beautiful! I think it would be nice for people that worked there or for people that it was actually their home to say, 'Hey, I used to live there and you know what? That was a really nice place to live and look at it now they did a really nice job! I feel really satisfied with what they have done to where I live.'"

"That building does not need to be knocked down," Loverock added. "Why wait any longer? Something should be done now."

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