On August 7, the Post-Standard published a letter by Ed Griffin-Nolan arguing that the rail viaduct that runs along Downtown’s south and west sides should be torn down.
That viaduct does have its problems. A small bridge used to carry Jefferson Street over Onondaga Creek, but when they elevated the trains they got rid of that bridge. Now there’s no way to get directly from Armory Square to the Near Westside, and that has something to do with the stark differences between Wyoming and Walton Streets.
SHA’s East Adams Street Neighborhood Transformation Plan also talks about how the viaduct needs “cosmetic treatment” and “noise reduction treatment” for the sake of the people living right next to it.
But let’s not overdo it. Despite its problems, the viaduct has a lot of potential too, and there are plenty of people talking about all the ways that it can be a positive asset for Syracuse.
In 2015, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse hosted a public forum where people talked about running some kind of transit service on the viaduct. The most interesting idea to come out of that was paving the viaduct as part of a Bus Rapid Transit system. That could give Syracuse something like the Silver Line in Boston or the trolleys in Philadelphia–transit that runs in the street through most city neighborhoods, but that avoids the worst traffic in the city’s center.
The viaduct is also a canvas for public art. It started with the murals on the bridges over West and Fayette Streets in 2010, and artists has continued to make good use of the viaduct’s long flat undecorated walls ever since. This is some of the very best public art in Syracuse, and it elevates people’s daily lived experience of the City.
Syracuse could also follow in New York City’s footsteps and turn the viaduct into something like the High Line–an elevated linear park that’s a magnet for people. As an elevated greenway, the viaduct would let people walk or bike between several different neighborhoods without having to worry about car traffic. It would connect the Creekwalk to more neighborhoods, and it’s a good opportunity to bring the Onondaga Lake trail into the City. It would take what is now a visual barrier between Downtown and the Southside, and turn it into a vantage point for people to see the City in a new way.
Ed Griffin-Nolan is right to call that the rail viaduct a “vestige of the past.” It could only have been built in the past because the political and economic conditions that allowed the railroad to elevate its tracks through the center of Syracuse don’t exist anymore.
But he could just as well say the same thing about the New York City Subway. That city could never build its current subway if it had to start from scratch today either, but that that only makes the all those tunnels and rails more precious.
Syracuse is full of resources like this. No one would build something like Holy Trinity Church on Park Street anymore, but thank god it was there so that the City’s growing Muslim community could use it as a mosque. No one would dig a channel at the southern end of Onondaga Lake anymore, but the Inner Harbor is an asset for the City today anyway. No one would build a factory on Erie Boulevard, Wilkinson Street, Emerson Avenue, or Plum Street anymore, but old shop buildings on all those streets are finding new life as housing. Hell, the entire City of Syracuse is a relic of the 19th century, but it has remained relevant by making the best use of the resources at hand throughout its history.
Syracuse has 200 years of built heritage. For too long, the City treated that inheritance with contempt, demolishing buildings and tearing up infrastructure without thinking of the costs, all in the name of progress. We filled the Canal in to build a road, and then 100 years later decided we wanted part of the Canal back in Clinton Square. Syracuse isn’t so wealthy that it can afford to keep making mistakes like that. The City has to make the best use of what it’s got now. That’s the real challenge of the 21st century.