Big demographic trends are bringing equally big changes to Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse. Two weeks ago we looked at where those changes are happening. Last week we tried to figure out who is driving them. This week we’re asking why we should care.
The Old Growth
The dominant demographic trend in Onondaga County is the wave of older wealthier people migrating away from the City along major highway routes.
Over the first 16 years of the 21st century that wave crossed Rt 31 in the northern part of the County, it mounted Onondaga Hill in the South, and it passed old Camillus in the west and Manlius in the East. In all of those places, it has spurred the subdivision of thousands of acres of farmland into tract housing, filling previously rural areas with new, older, richer residents. In the existing villages where political and bureaucratic pressures prohibited developers from building much new housing, this wave made the population older and richer, but also smaller. Altogether, that outer ring of suburbs grew by 13,200 people between 2000 and 2016.
That huge growth at the leading edge of Onondaga County’s suburban development obscures the very different conditions left in its wake. The older suburbs slightly closer to the City are almost all aging faster than the rest of the County too, but they’re also losing population and getting poorer. When the main thing is to have the newest house as close to the country as possible, then every new subdivision outmodes the last one. Since the County as a whole is only growing by a very small amount, a bigger and richer population in Van Buren necessarily means a smaller and poorer population in Lakeland. That inner ring of older suburbs lost 6,555 people between 2000 and 2016.
The County can maintain its overall stability as long as new growth at its edge outweighs the decline towards its center. So much of what makes the outer suburbs attractive places to live—the schools, the roads, the sewers—requires constant new investment and repair, and it’s the new tax revenue generated by new suburban development that pays for all of it.
The very bad news for the County is that, in several directions, the wave of wealthy, populous, tax-generating suburban growth is about to cross the County line. When that happens—when older richer people are more likely to commute to Syracuse from Cazenovia than from Manlius, or from Central Square instead of Cicero—the population growth, new development, and tax revenues that have made Onondaga County pleasant and prosperous will all go to other municipalities. All of a sudden it’ll be Oswego and Madison Counties enjoying those benefits while Onondaga is stuck with the costs of maintaining the infrastructure that makes them possible—a neat inversion of Onondaga County’s current relationship with the City of Syracuse.
The New Growth
The good news is that there is new growth in the City and its immediate suburbs that could save the County. That growth is driven by people who are generally younger and more likely to have children than those moving to its outskirts, and it’s driven by people who want access to the benefits that come from living in the middle of the metropolitan area rather than at its farthest edges.
From the middle of Downtown to just inside the wake of the Old Growth wave, much of the County is growing, and it’s getting younger. This central area includes early post-war suburbs like Mattydale and Nedrow, pre-war suburbs like Eastwood and Salt Springs, 19th century neighborhoods like Westcott and the Northside, a large part of Dewitt right on the City line, and new development at the very center of the City Downtown and in Franklin Square.
This area includes all of the central suburbs where people are taking advantage of shorter commutes and cheaper housing. It includes City neighborhoods where there are a variety of housing options that can accommodate people living a variety of lives. It includes the only places in the entire County where adequate bus service and walking neighborhoods make life without a car possible. Altogether, this part of the County gained 11,745 people between 2000 and 2016. If it continues to grow, that may offset the loss of that Old Growth wave when the metro area’s outermost suburban development moves into Oswego and Madison Counties.
In order for that to happen, more of the middle of the County needs to start growing. That should happen in those City neighborhoods that are still losing population overall, but gaining younger residents and becoming more likely to include households with children. This greening City lost 5,875 people between 2000 and 2016, but it is poised for future growth if it just gets the necessary support. That means addressing the acute pressures on family life—things like lead paint, schools, jobs, and safety—that are currently keeping potential residents from moving in or pushing existing residents to try and move out.
At the same time, Syracuse needs to take a hard look at the City neighborhoods that are shrinking, aging, and losing children despite all of their natural advantages—the neighborhoods that are trending in the same direction as the shrinking suburbs. The South Avenue corridor is one. There, decades of racism and disinvestment have taken their toll and need to be rectified.
Winkworth, Meadowbrook, and Eastwood south of James are all also shrinking and aging. Those neighborhoods—ones that appear to be some of the ‘best’ in the City, but are trending in the same direction as the ‘worst’—share too much in common with suburban villages like Baldwinsville where bans on new construction crowd out potential new residents. All need zoning reform to allow for smaller lots and more apartments in order to make enough room for the people who want to move to those neighborhoods.
Altogether, these nine census tracts lost 4,474 people between 2000 and 2016.
So why do we care?
Onondaga County is a demographic time bomb. The County has always relied on suburban growth driven by older richer residents moving into new housing built on farmland at the edge of the metropolitan area, but that wave of prosperity will soon cross the line into Oswego and Madison Counties, leaving Onondaga County behind. If current trends hold, then at that point Onondaga’s suburbs will be smaller, older, and poorer, and unable to afford basic maintenance on their most basic infrastructure.
To thrive after that shift, the City and County have to encourage the new growth that’s already happening at their center now. That’s going to require a new way of thinking about the metropolitan area’s future. Young people are moving to its middle for entirely different reasons than old people are moving to its edges. Syracuse can’t succeed by trying to imitate the suburbs that it sometimes envies. Winkworth, Meadowbrook, and Eastwood south of James are all evidence of that.
Instead, Syracuse and Onondaga County need to focus on the natural advantages that are already drawing people to the center of the metropolitan area. Lots of housing, a variety of housing, short trips to work that people can make by bus, bike, foot, or car, neighborhoods where things like groceries, libraries, doctors, and schools are easily accessible. These are what differentiate Syracuse and its central suburbs from so much of the rest of the County, and they are the future of the entire community.