The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed how NYSDOT’s plans to tear down the viaduct will change Downtown and the Southside, but that document also contained some very good plans for the Northside. By improving access to one highway onramp and removing several others, NYSDOT will make the Northside’s streets safer.
Pearl Street is a major onramp to 81 northbound, and it will become even more important once the Grid gets built. But right now, it’s not very easy to get to Pearl Street. A lot of traffic from Downtown comes up State Streets, crosses James, takes a left onto Willow, and then a quick right onto Pearl and the highway.
To accommodate all those highway-bound cars, traffic engineers turned State Street into a 5-lane 60-foot-wide racetrack between Fayette and Willow. It’s an unpleasant place to walk, a deadly place to bike, and a terrible place to run any kind of street-facing business besides a gas station (there are two on this short ⅓ mile stretch of de facto highway).
When NYSDOT tears down 81, they’re also going to extend Pearl Street two blocks south to Erie Boulevard. Then, car traffic from Downtown to 81 northbound will take Erie to Pearl to the highway, significantly reducing the number of cars on North State Street.
NYSDOT is also putting a fully protected bike lane on State Street from Water Street to James. This will provide a direct connection between the Empire State Trail and one of the flattest routes across the Northside.
The intersection of State, Salina, and Butternut Streets is a major gateway to the Northside, but it’s seen better days. There are some good local businesses hanging on, but many storefronts are vacant and so are a lot of the upper floors of the buildings surrounding the triangular intersection.
Again, a major problem is a nearby highway onramp that attracts too much car traffic. Actually, there are two: the onramp that comes off the Butternut Street bridge and the State Street onramp a block north of that. These two getaway points for suburban commuters draw thousands of cars from Downtown through this square, and they fill what should be a pleasant public space with noise and exhaust.
NYSDOT’s Grid plan will eliminate those two highway onramps. There’s just no need for them with an improved onramp at Pearl Street. NYSDOT also plans to reconstruct the Butternut Street bridge to make it narrower and safer, and they want to give away the land at the northwest corner of State and Butternut that’s currently being wasted with parking and an onramp.
With all those cars gone, new space for a new building that can house people and help ‘enclose’ the square, and a planned future BRT station, this intersection should become a major focal point linking the Northside to Downtown.
NYSDOT will do similar good work further north by removing highway exits at Spencer and Basin Streets. These ramps bring high-speed traffic to neighborhood streets, and they are a barrier between neighborhoods.
Take the Spencer/Catawba exit. There are three brand new Franklin Square apartment buildings within a walking distance of the North Salina Street business district, but the only way to get between the two neighborhoods is the Spencer Street bridge. Because a highway offramp dumps cars travelling 60 mph off right at that bridge, it’s not a very nice place to walk, and very few people do. Removing the Spencer Street offramp will make it much easier for people to walk the short distance between the Northside and Franklin Square, and that will be better for both neighborhoods.
NYSDOT’s plan for the Community Grid will remove 9 of I81’s off and onramps between Hiawatha Boulevard and I690. That will significantly reduce high-speed traffic on the Northside’s local streets, it will make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant, and it will better connect neighborhoods currently divided by the highway.