The Land Under and Around the I81 Viaduct

By the end of 2017, the State will decide how to replace the current Interstate 81 viaduct. If NYSDOT chooses not to build a new viaduct, the project will uncover a lot of land around Almond Street. The future of that land will have a significant impact on the future of the City, but NYSDOT is not addressing the issue.

The advocacy group ReThink81 has repeatedly pointed out that the Interstate 81 viaduct depresses the value of adjacent land:

the viaduct… is not a desirable element in our city. Development patterns reflect this, with the dominant land uses adjacent to the viaduct being surface parking lots, parking garages, and the utilitarian backsides of buildings.

The land near any highway isn’t worth much, but ReThink81 argues that this is a particularly galling case because, if not for Interstate 81, the land along Almond Street would be some of the most valuable in the entire county. According to this analysis, both the City and County governments will benefit from increased property tax revenues if the viaduct is permanently removed and Almond Street allowed to develop to its full commercial potential.

Ken Jackson, editor and publisher at Urban CNY, has warned instead that Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate might seize any land that becomes available as a result of NYSDOT’s work on the viaduct. Both universities have already grown towards Downtown Syracuse, and their campuses now abut the viaduct. Further expansion would push into the neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, and it would displace black residents.

ReThink81 and Ken Jackson can’t both be right. The land around the current Interstate 81 viaduct can’t yield increased property tax revenues if two tax-exempt Universities buy it all up. Either prediction would bring big change, but it’s impossible to know which is more likely, because NYSDOT isn’t talking about what it’s going to do with that land.

NYSDOT’s has specific plans for the streets and sidewalks around the viaduct, but their most detailed renderings only show grass on the surrounding land. NYSDOT could turn that land into a park, it could continue to operate surface parking lots on that land, it could give that land to a single private developer, it could parcel that land up and sell it to a variety of small developers, it could transfer ownership of that land to the City, it could give that land to the Syracuse Housing Authority. There are good reasons to support or oppose any of these options, but it’s impossible to know which, if any, are even on the table. NYSDOT hasn’t said what it plans to do, and no one has asked. It’s time to start asking the question.