A Waterfront City

Water created Syracuse. Natural springs brought salt up from underground deposits to briny pools on the surface. Onondaga Creek powered a sawmill that turned trees into the lumber that built the early village. The Erie Canal turned the little settlement at the corner of Genesee and Salina into a city. This is a maritime town.

We’ve lost touch with that history. The canal’s filled in. Onondaga Creek’s buried through much of Downtown. We’re cut off from the Lake by a sewage treatment plant and the Mall’s parking lots.

But recently, Syracuse has started to reconnect with the natural and manmade waterways that flow through the City. This is fantastic, and we should celebrate it, and we should do much much more of it. Syracuse is situated on a site of stunning natural beauty—let’s make the most of it.

Onondaga Creek

The Creekwalk is incredible. It takes you almost clear across the City, passing through a wide variety of habitats and connecting diverse neighborhoods.

But the Creekwalk falls flat Downtown. For about a mile and a half, the designated trail route barely ever comes within sight of Onondaga Creek itself. When the trail does parallel the Creek, it’s two stories above the water. This stretch still provides good transportation infrastructure for people walking or biking through the center of town, but it doesn’t do a very good job of connecting people to the Creek.

Syracuse should create a new path that goes down to the water level at Water Street and follows the creek bed all the way to the Trolley Lot behind Armory Square. This is one of the most dynamic parts of the entire creek. It passes beneath a series of beautiful old steel and stone rail bridges, many decorated with beautiful graffiti. In Armory Square itself, the trail should widen to provide space for people to sit and relax, and it should include stairs that let people access this public space from street-level.

San Antonio’s Riverwalk brings people right to the edge of the water

Onondaga Lake

For years, Onondaga County has been expanding and improving Onondaga Lake Park in bits and pieces. From the original park in the Village of Liverpool, to Maple Bay, to the West Shore Trail, to the Amphitheater, it’s been so exciting to watch this beautiful park grow. But it had been bittersweet knowing that no one from Syracuse could access the community’s premier public space without a car.

So it’s a big deal that the Empire State Trail now connects Syracuse to Onondaga Lake Park. That big bridge over the train tracks brought the City back into meaningful contact with Onondaga Lake for the first time in decades, and it’s glorious.

So think how much better it would be if Onondaga Lake Park actually went all the way around Onondaga Lake. We’re still cut off from about a quarter of the shoreline by a limited access highway, and that missing link is keeping this park from being all it can be.

In the short term, we can get part of the way there by turning the Parkway into a Park on Sundays. We did this from 1992 to 2014, and it was great. It’ll be even better now that people could use the opportunity to walk, bike, or jog all the way around the Lake.

In the long term, we should make this pop-up parkspace more permanent by reducing the speed limit on Onondaga Lake Parkway to 30 mph and repurposing 2 car lanes for park space and parking spots. This is a common-sense solution that will help complete the Lake trail, improve access to the park space, and—as an added bonus—keep big box trucks from running into the low bridge that crosses the Parkway.

Onondaga Lake Park offers incredible views of Syracuse

The Inner Harbor

Cor’s initial plans to redevelop the Inner Harbor were very interesting, but it’s clear they’re not going anywhere fast. The development company is embroiled in scandal, and they were always a kind of weird choice for this project since their core competency is building suburban shopping malls.

Let’s stop waiting for a miracle and work with what we have at the Inner Harbor now: a unique post-industrial waterfront less than a mile from the City’s center.

Baltimore shows how to activate a space like this. There’s a spot on that city’s inner harbor where the ground’s too polluted to build anything very big. For a while, the city let the waterfront lie unused and just waited for some private developer to take on the expense of cleaning the soil in order to build condos or whatever.

But for the last few years, this site has hosted a pop-up social space called Sandlot. They trucked in a bunch of sand, put up beach chairs, and built a temporary kitchen and bar out of old shipping containers. Now, all summer long, people flock to this formerly barren space. Maybe someday some developer will try to make money building a new office building there, but in the meantime this is a place where people want to be, and it’s making the city better.

Syracuse should do the same. The two piers that stretch into the Inner Harbor are unique in Onondaga County, and they’re such interesting spaces to sit and hang out. Syracuse should activate them with pop-up programming. It could be a semi-permanent beer garden like in Baltimore, or it could be a food truck rally, or a series of cultural festivals. What matters is that there should be something to do to draw people to this extremely cool and extremely underused waterfront space.

Baltimore turned a piece of polluted post-industrial waterfront into a popular social space

The Erie Canal

Visit any village where the canal still flows through the center of town, and you can see just what Syracuse lost when it built Erie Boulevard. The canal used to be the center of the community, and it’s a shame we replaced it with asphalt.

When Syracuse redesigned Clinton Square 20 years ago, it got something of the canal back. Look at the fountain from the right angle, and it really does appear like the canal is still flowing through the middle of the square.

But we can do so much more. Three more blocks of Erie Boulevard—one to the west and two to the east—carry barely any car traffic, and they don’t need nearly as much pavement as they’ve got now. Similarly wide streets in the Dutch city of Delft show how the current right of way could easily accommodate 2 lanes of traffic, curb parking, sidewalks, and a rewatered Erie Canal running down the center of the street. 

This would connect Clinton Square to the I-81 project’s planned Canal District, and it would help knit newly uncovered land into Downtown once NYSDOT demolishes the 81/690 interchange.

In Delft, streets no wider than Erie Boulevard accommodate surface traffic and a canal

Water is beautiful. We’re blessed to be surrounded by it. Syracuse ignored this blessing for decades, but we’re finally starting to come around. Let’s embrace it.