2019 will see two policy announcements that will shape Syracuse for decades to come. New York State plans to let us all know what it’ll do to replace I81’s downtown viaduct, and Syracuse City Hall plans to adopt its first new zoning ordinance since 1922. With each of these the community has the choice to make a big change or to keep things the same as they are now, and its decisions will reveal whether or not Syracuse believes in its own future.
Take I81. NYSDOT is going to demolish the downtown viaduct and uncover a lot of land in the city center, and a lot of people see the potential for something transformational to fill in that space. Here’s just one possibility, described by the Gifford Foundation:
“[The Community Grid plan is] the best opportunity for reclaiming the geography presently occupied by I-81 as a transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there”
That’s a vision of a better future–for a Syracuse that’s an inclusive empowering city–and that vision drives the Gifford Foundations decision to endorse NYSDOT’s plan to move the highway out of Downtown.
Contrast that with State Senator Bob Antonacci’s argument that Syracuse has nothing to gain by removing all those off and on ramps from the middle of town:
“The theory goes that tearing down I-81 through downtown Syracuse will unlock a dormant potential and uniting downtown with the University Hill neighborhood. I personally am skeptical of this. A previous attempt, the Connective Corridor, at uniting those two areas was described as having brought crime into the university and surrounding neighborhoods.”
He doesn’t think any significant positive change can come from getting the highway out of Downtown and that unless we all realize this, then “the 81 debate will end in a zero-sum game where a significant portion of the community will feel they lost.” The best result that Antonacci can imagine is to maintain the status quo.
It’s the same with the new zoning ordinance. At the beginning of the ReZone project, City Hall published the Land Use and Development Plan. That document sees Syracuse as the region’s future:
“Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living…. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods… over the long-term the City may market its ability to cost-effectively absorb regional population growth—based on existing infrastructure and an urban land-use pattern that lends itself to walkable neighborhoods, local commercial and business services, and efficient transit service.”
This Syracuse is a place where people want to live, a place that can welcome those people, and a place that will be better off for having done so. That vision informs the Land Use and Development Plan’s prescriptions for more housing, more housing options, better bus service, more opportunities for small businesses, and neighborhoods where people can meet all of their needs easily.
Contrast that with how Owen Kearney, a city planner, described the project to Grant Reeher on WAER:
“We’re really a city of residential neighborhoods with neighborhood business districts and Downtown. And kind of thinking of those three elements: that Downtown core, our neighborhood business districts, and essentially the neighborhoods surround them, and continuing to protect all three of them and enhance all three of them through our land-use regulations, which is what zoning are, but to allow new uses in those neighborhood business districts, at the same time protecting those residential areas”
His focus is on protection and stasis. This explains all of the changes that City Hall has made to the draft zoning ordinance since the first draft–rolling back housing opportunity, restoring old parking regulations that penalize bus-riders, keeping it difficult for new people to move into stable neighborhoods. Those changes all ‘protect’ the status quo by limiting the City’s ability to welcome new people.
Where the Gifford Foundation sees the potential for connected neighborhoods that empower their residents, Antonacci can only see traffic and crime. Where City Hall once saw the possibility of new housing mixed with new businesses so that lots of people could walk to the grocery store, the current administration can now only see problem corner stores and absentee landlords.
With I81 and with ReZone, that reflexive urge to keep things the way they are–to ‘protect’ them–comes from a fear of the future. When you can only imagine change for the worse, it makes sense to hold onto the present. In that case, Syracuse’s best hope is to slow its inevitable and irreversible decline.
The City deserves better than that. A better future is possible, Syracuse can be a better place to live, big changes can leave us better off. It’s only possible, though, if the people with the power to effect those changes can imagine that better future. Let them know. Call City Hall, call your state reps, call the Governor, and tell them that you know Syracuse can make a better future, and you want their help to make it happen.