Clinton Square is Syracuse’s premier civic space. Bob Haley calls it “the center of the center of the center.” It’s the spot where the City of Syracuse started. It’s the site of our biggest city festivals. It’s where we gather as a community.
City Hall has always taken special care of the space. It’s been rebuilt several times since the Erie Canal defined the square 200 years ago, and the most recent renovation from 2001 added a beautiful fountain that recalls the canal’s original path through Downtown and provides a great place for kids to cool off in Syracuse’s increasingly hot summers.
But spend much time in Clinton Square, and it’s obvious how much better the space could be. While people gather in the fountain and the paved area along Water Street, they shun the northern part of the square along Genesee. It’s not hard to see why: sitting at one of the picnic tables near the Soldiers and Sailors monument is basically unpleasant. You’re stuck in the hot sun, and it’s hard to maintain a conversation over the noise of nearby car traffic. The too-open space feels more like a parking lot than a park, so people stay away.
Like so many unpleasant things Downtown, this is the result of car-first 20th century urban renewal. West Genesee Street is designed for much faster traffic than it used to handle, and the Post-Standard building sits much farther back from the street than the buildings it replaced. So instead of a quiet, comfortable space like you can find along Water Street, the north side of Clinton Square feels noisy and exposed.
But fixing those problems is a pretty heavy lift. City Hall plans to completely reconstruct Genesee Street without making any meaningful changes to its design, and the Post-Standard building’s new owners just announced that they intend to redevelop it without making any significant changes to the exterior.
Fortunately, there’s a much simpler short-term solution for Clinton Square: plant trees—lots of them—on the grassy lawns on either side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Trees would solve most of the problems with that side of the square. They’d provide shade, they’d slow cars, they’d deaden traffic noise, and they’d make the space cooler in summer.
Trees would also make the rest of the square feel more comfortable by ‘enclosing’ the space. Right now, there’s so much empty space north of Clinton Square that you can see clear to St. Joseph’s hospital. Lots of trees along the fountain’s northern edge would block that view of parking lots, highways, and potholes, and they would make the entire square feel much more protected and intimate.
City Hall’s recently released Urban Forestry Master Plan calls for planting 3,500 new trees in the City every year in order to increase quality of life and decrease urban heat islands. That’s exactly what Clinton Square needs, and when City Hall starts planting those new trees they should make the community’s premier civic space a top priority.