All posts by inthesaltcity

The Governor’s Housing Plan and Upstate’s Need for New Housing

Governor Kathy Hochul’s goal of building 800,000 new homes in New York in the next decade is good. We need new housing—a lot of it—in communities all across New York State for all kinds of different reasons, and her New York Housing Compact will help build a lot of new housing. As proposed, however, her plan might only make an impact Downstate. We need this statewide housing policy to build new homes in communities like Syracuse too,

In a place like Syracuse, we need new housing for at least three big reasons: the housing stock we have now doesn’t meet people’s modern needs, a lot of it’s in terrible shape, and certain neighborhoods don’t have enough housing for all the people who’d like to live there. The housing we’ve got now doesn’t fit the housing we need, and this mismatch is bad for affordability, it’s bad for public health , and it’s bad for racial and economic segregation.

Downstate has a lot of the same problems, but they are all conditioned by the overwhelming demand for housing down there. They need new housing for all of the reasons we do, but they also need a lot more housing in order to alleviate their sever housing shortage and make room enough to accommodate all the people who want to live there.

The Governor’s proposal is designed to address the New York City metro area’s housing shortage more than the statewide need for new housing. Its central policy is a builder’s remedy—basically a streamlined permitting process for new construction in instances where exclusionary zoning blocks new housing. It’s a policy that will definitely help Downstate, but which could also address the need for new housing in Upstate’s metropolitan communities, like Syracuse, where exclusionary zoning contributes to our housing problems.

But that builder’s remedy only goes into effect if there’s little or no new housing construction in a particular municipality. Downstate, projects can take advantage of the remedy when proposing new construction in a municipality that’s seen less than 3% growth in its total housing stock over a 3-year period. Upstate (in this instance, anywhere not served by the MTA), the builder’s remedy doesn’t go into effect unless new housing construction falls below 1% in any municipality over a 3-year period.

In Syracuse, that 1% threshold will probably work out to about 200 new housing units per year. In Salina, it’s more like 50. In DeWitt, about 40. These are tiny numbers, and they are well below what we need to build in order to actually address the problems that new construction can solve.

There’s a lot to like about the Governor’s housing proposal. The design of the policy is sound. The full plan also includes other good things like a new lead testing and remediation program and more funding for mixed-income housing Upstate.

But the plan’s core goal—to build hundreds of thousands of new units—won’t do much Upstate if the builder’s remedy only works in municipalities with New York City-sized housing shortages. We need either lower targets for new construction, or some other metric—like a shortage of affordable housing—to trigger the policy if it’s going to make a difference in a place like Syracuse.

BRT, a Timeline, and a Network Redesign

Centro’s recent Bus Rapid Transit announcements are fantastic news for Syracuse. We need better bus service to better connect people and neighborhoods, and BRT is the best way to make that happen.

The actual content of these announcements confirms a lot of what we’ve known for a long time. Centro’s first two BRT lines will run on the routes identified in the SMART1 study, they will run faster by stopping less, riders will board at stations rather than just a pole in the ground. This is all good.

But the announcements also contained two new pieces of information worth highlighting: a timeline for the service to start, and Centro’s intention to pair BRT with a network redesign.

A timeline

While it’s always seemed inevitable that Centro would do something like BRT sometime, there’s never been an actual timeline on it. Ever since SMTC published its SMART1 study, Centro has been dealing with a series of crises (a funding gap, Covid, hiring problems, etc), and designing and implementing a new service has never been the top priority. It was always a part of the long range plan, and Centro was always working on it, but the service was never imminent.

Now we know these buses will be on the streets by 2026. It is a big deal for Centro to say this publicly because they wouldn’t commit to a timeline if they weren’t confident they could keep it. Now that Centro’s made that promise, it is clear for the very first time when we can expect to actually board a BRT bus.

Network redesign

But BRT isn’t all they’re promising. Centro’s doing that and “the most comprehensive review of our Syracuse route system in more than 20 years.” This is also very good.

Centro’s bus routes follow lines laid out for the streetcars back in the 1800’s. They’ve been extended and stretched and kinked to try and keep up with changes in the community since then, and the results have not always been pretty. Buses slowly zig and zag across neighborhoods, they make detours, they run at irregular infrequent intervals. The whole system is so complicated and so fragile that people rarely try to understand how to use it to go more than one or two specific places.

A network redesign will allow Centro to look at the whole system and rework it to be faster, more frequent, more reliable, and more understandable.

Taken together, both these pieces of new information are great news for Syracuse and Central New York. We need better public transit, and that need is only more urgent since the Micron announcement. Centro has a real vision of the transit system this community needs and deserves, and they are ready to build it.

Save81’s Environmental Nihilism

Of all the lies, half-truths, and obfuscations being peddled by the most recent iteration of the Save81 crowd, the biggest whopper might be their contention that I81 is good for the environment and that making it bigger will decrease greenhouse gas emissions. This is laughably wrong, but it’s helpful to have the opportunity to explain exactly how tearing down the viaduct and building the Community Grid will help in the fight against climate change, and to expose how bankrupt Save81’s version of “environmentalism” is.

Save81’s basic argument is this: the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars (America’s #1 source of climate pollution) is to let them drive as fast as possible while making sure they have to brake as little as possible because cars get better gas-mileage on uncongested freeways than they do on local streets. Therefore, they claim, building a newer bigger viaduct is the environmentally friendly option because it will let cars drive faster.

This is wrong-headed for so many reasons (induced demand congests highways after they’re widened, eliminating any emissions “savings” per trip, for instance), but the main issue is that Save81 fails to account for how tearing down the viaduct and building the Community Grid will give people more and better options when they choose where to live, and those choices will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking cars off the highway and eliminating many car trips entirely.

Highways cause more driving by destroying the centers of communities and spurring suburban sprawl. Transportation is America’s #1 source of climate pollution because our interstate highway system has demolished walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods and replaced them with car-dependent sprawl in metropolitan areas across the county.

A neighborhood paved over

Tear down I81, and Syracuse will become a more environmentally sustainable community by giving more people the option of living in neighborhoods with more sustainable—and more freeing—transportation options. The viaduct takes up so much space—and blights so much more—in the very center of town where thousands of people used to live, and where thousands more want to live now. This spot is smack dab in the middle of the region’s biggest, densest job center. It’s an area served by decent public transportation, an area where it is very possible to get around without firing up an internal combustion engine (and even if someone did drive from McBride Street to Harrison Street for work everyday, they’d still emit less carbon than if they started their trip in Manlius).

Tear down the highway, rebuild those thousands of homes, and a lot of people who might otherwise have had to find housing on the sprawling, car-dependent, farm-killing exurban fringe will instead be able to make a life in the walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented city center. That’s how the Community Grid will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

At root, Save81’s faux-environmentalist argument is built on the cynical belief that we can’t make things better. They say that a once-in-a-generation infrastructure project to shift the geography of transportation and housing in Onondaga County won’t really change anybody’s behavior. They reject the notion that our community has the power to remake itself into a better, more equitable, more sustainable place. Nobody who calls themselves an environmentalist—who’s really committed to combating climate change—should give this kind of environmental nihilism a minute’s thought.

Where to spend the marginal transit dollar

If you gave Centro one dollar to improve service, where would you get the most bang for that buck? Where would a marginal improvement in service—more frequency, more speed, better reliability, new service—have the greatest positive impact for the greatest number of people? Where would better bus service result in the greatest increase in ridership?

This is a good clarifying question when talking about how to improve Centro, because it confronts the reality that there are a lot of ways Centro needs to improve, but a constrained budget means Centro can’t fix all of its problems at once.

We need a public transit system that connects every major employment and population center in the County with fast, frequent, reliable service in order to make public transit a truly viable option for people. That means hugely improved service on Centro’s core routes through BRT, and it means decent service to big suburban destinations like Micron and the airport. But since Centro doesn’t have the resources to do all of that right now, which service improvement is most important? Choosing to solve one problem means leaving others unsolved, so we’ve got to prioritize and make the fixes that will improve the most people’s lives first.

The answer to this question—and it’s an obvious answer when the question is framed right—is that Centro would do the most good by investing any new funding to improve service on high-ridership corridors like James Street and South Salina. Those are the places where lots of people already ride the bus, where a lot more people could easily walk to a bus stop, where homes and destinations are relatively close together and easy to connect with a bus line. Run BRT-style service every 10 minutes in places like those, and Centro would get a lot of new riders and existing riders would ride a lot more (more than you could ever hope to get from a new bus line to the airport).

So as Onondaga County prepares for new population growth and thinks about how its transportation system can accommodate a few thousand more people moving around, keep this in mind: of the many steps we need to take to get from where Centro is now to where it needs to be, the first one should be investing in the communities where bus ridership works best—densely populated, mixed-use, city neighborhoods.

Transit, Traffic, and Growth in the Northern Suburbs

Micron’s proposal to build a large factory on Route 31 in Clay has a lot of people talking about public transit in the northern suburbs, but Onondaga County will need better planning to guide population growth so that public transit can actually work out there.

The northern suburbs can’t accommodate much more population growth with their current transportation network. These areas were almost entirely rural until pretty recently, and their road network doesn’t have the capacity for much more than a rural population. There are only a small handful of roads that cross the enormous area between Syracuse and the Oneida River, and as single-family development has converted farms to suburban sprawl where every adult makes every single trip in a car, those roads have gotten very congested. Onondaga County predicts another 4,000 homes will be built in this area in the next few years, and if every adult living in all of those new homes also makes every single trip to the grocery store, to work, to school, in a car on those same overtaxed rural roads, the traffic is going to be terrible.

Public transit can help. With fast, frequent, reliable transit service, people won’t need to use their car every time they leave the house. That gives people the option to avoid dealing with traffic, and it reduces traffic by taking cars off the road. Giving people this decent option is the only way to accommodate significant population growth without strangling the northern suburbs with car traffic.

But public transit needs population density to really work. There are a lot of different factors that influence transit ridership—the street grid, household income, building form, land use—but population density is one of the biggest. As a rough estimate, the land within walking distance of a transit stop needs at least 10,000 people per square mile in order to generate enough ridership to justify useful high frequency transit service.

Here are all of the blocks in Onondaga County with that level of population density. The overwhelming majority are in the City, and just a few are in the northern suburbs. Right now, there just aren’t enough people living near enough to any bus stop to justify high frequency bus service up there.

This isn’t a problem that goes away just by increasing the County’s population. The northern suburbs are already pretty heavily populated—way more people live in Clay than in high-bus ridership city neighborhoods like the Northside—but that population lives in sprawling suburban development that can’t support decent public transit. The map below shows the rough extent of existing residential development in the northern suburbs in black with transit supportive densities in purple. Thousands of acres have already been developed in a way that simply cannot support decent transit service. Huge yards separate neighbors from each other, apartment bans force small households into huge houses, single-use zoning makes it impossible for people to walk to neighborhood shops. This is car-only, traffic-causing development.

There’s still a lot of space up there to build homes for a lot more people, but the kinds of neighborhoods and the kinds of homes that get built in the next 50 years have to be different from those that have been built in the last 50 years if the northern suburbs are going to avoid the kind of terrible traffic that you see in sprawling cities like Atlanta. The northern suburbs need mixed-use neighborhoods where people can walk to neighborhood businesses and community institutions. They need a diverse mix of housing types like apartments and rowhouses and walkups and single-family homes of different sizes. That’s the only way to make transit work, and it’s the only way to accommodate population growth without creating terrible traffic.

Commuting to City Hall

The administration’s plan for an employee parking shuttle shows that City Hall needs to provide people with better options for getting to work. 

In last week’s common council meeting, the administration described an increasingly untenable situation where there simply aren’t enough parking spaces for every municipal employee to be able to store their car right next to City Hall. Prime spaces are distributed according to status rather than need, and employees with disabilities are forced to make a dangerous walk over icy unmaintained sidewalks during the winter. The administration’s solution is to pay $100,000 for a jitney service that will save some employees from that six-block walk between their parking garage and their offices.

This is a failure of management, and it’s no surprise municpal employees want it fixed. Specifically, it’s a failure to recognize the constraints and strengths of City Hall’s Downtown location. It’s impossible to provide the suburban ideal of a convenient parking space for every single employee in a high-value, space-constrained location like Downtown. But it’s also possible to leverage Downtown’s truly multi-modal transportation network to make that suburban ideal irrelevant. Syracuse can’t offer what only the suburbs have, but—to quote the Mayor—the “suburbs don’t have what Downtown Syracuse offers.”

Luckily, City Hall isn’t the only employer to face this exact problem, and others in Syracuse and across America have developed a set of strategies to address it. Here are a few simple solutions that City Hall could easily implement to take advantage of Downtown’s natural strengths and fix its employees’ transportation problems.

Provide parking and a shuttle on cheaper land outside the CIty’s center

Parking at the Washington Street garage is expensive because it’s in a prime location within easy walking distance of much of Downtown. You’re paying for convenience, but if municipal employees don’t actually find it convenient and require a jitney to get from the garage to their offices, then City Hall shouldn’t pay the premium price for that walkability.

Instead, run that jitney to some other site where people can park for cheaper. That’s what the other large Syracuse employers who provide a shuttle service from their employee parking do. St Joe’s uses the Mall’s overflow lots, Upstate uses vacant land next to 690, SU uses a gravel lot next to an abandoned quarry. Parking takes a lot of space, and it’s best to provide it where space is cheap. This new jitney service is a good opportunity to do that.

Fare Free Transit

Nobody who commutes by bus needs a parking space, and the bus can bring people closer to City Hall’s front door than any municipal parking lot.

That’s why it is stupendously common for employers in other cities to buy transit passes for their employees. It saves employers money on parking and it’s a great perk that allows employees to move around the city even when they’re not going to and from work.

Centro’s MAX passes retail at $624 annually (cheaper than a Downtown parking space), and City Hall might be able to negotiate that number down for a bulk order. They could work out a deal similar to SU’s where employees flash their ID as they board and City Hall settles the bill with Centro later.

Bike Parking

City Hall provides essentially no bike parking. The one sorry bike rack out front of the building is a schoolyard style that’s difficult to lock to and easy to steal from. Better bike racks or secure bike storage inside the building would give employees peace of mind to ride their own bikes to work.

Of course, it’s possible to bike to work in Syracuse without owning a bike at all. Veo’s bike share is a convenient service that allows people to bike—or scoot—around town without having to worry about maintaining a bike or keeping it safe from thieves. City Hall could easily cover Veo’s modest user fees for employees who want to use the service to commute.

No matter whether employees ride their own bike or a shared bike to work, there are going to be days where they might need to change clothes and take a shower upon arrival. Shower facilities for bike commuters are becoming more and more common in large workplaces, and although they’re often thought of as an employee amenity, in fact they save employers money by lessening the demand for expensive employee parking spaces.

Parking Cash Out

All of this will save City Hall money, and it’s only fair that those savings be shared with the employees who help create them. City Hall should get a real handle on how much it spends on parking per employee (if this jitney service gets up and running, it’s about $2000 annually at the Washington Street garage), and offer that sum as a bonus to people who voluntarily give up any claim to a municipal parking spot.

Not only is this fair, it also gives individuals the most flexibility to choose how to get to work. The bus doesn’t run by your house and it’s too far to bike? No problem. You can carpool with a co-worker or get a ride from a friend and still take advantage of the parking cash out and free up space for people who need it more.

All of these different strategies have the same effect: a decrease in the number of cars that need to be stored in immediate proximity to City Hall. That will save a lot of municipal money, it will free Downtown land for better use, and it will also make parking easier and fairer for municipal employees who need to drive to work because people who choose other modes will free up prime spaces right next to City Hall.

Transit to Suburban Jobs

There’s not much doubt that Centro will run a bus line to the new computer chip factory on Route 31 when it opens. What’s not so clear is how good the service will be, or if it will meaningfully improve anybody’s life.

Centro designs its service—particularly suburban service—as a kind of social safety net. It’s designed for people to have to ride because they are too poor to afford a car, and because they have no other option they’ll put up with the bare minimum of service—a handful of buses a day in each direction.

This model is fatally flawed. Nobody has to ride the bus. Everybody—even people who don’t own cars—has other mobility options like catching a ride with a friend or family member, taxi services like Blue Star or Uber, and ad hoc jitney services. Centro can’t rely on ridership from everybody who can’t afford a car, because there are many other low-cost options for getting around. It has to outcompete all of them too.

And bare-bones, safety-net service simply can’t outcompete a taxi or a jitney or a ride from a friend when it comes to commuting. This kind of service offers riders one bus—one single chance—to get to work on time. If you miss it because your kid needs extra help one morning, because the bus never came, or because sometimes everybody just runs a few minutes late, you’re at least out of a day’s pay and at most out of a job. That’s simply too big a risk for anybody to take every single day, and so even people who can’t afford a car will spend a lot of money on cab fare to avoid it. The stakes are just too high.

For Centro to run a successful service that people will actually use, they have to eliminate, or at least mitigate, that risk by running more buses. Frequent service—a bus every 10 to 15 minutes—gives people multiple options to make it to work so every single morning isn’t weighed down by the possibility of economic ruin. You try to catch the bus that gets you to the job with 15 minutes to spare, but if you miss that one then the next bus still gets you to work 5 minutes before you clock in. You can keep your job even if your morning doesn’t go exactly to plan.

Frequent, practical, competitive transit service costs money. Centro has to pay their operators, they have to pay for gas, they have to maintain a bigger fleet of buses. Uplift Syracuse estimated that upgrading Centro’s 8 best-performing lines to truly frequent service would cost about $8 million per year, and that was before Covid made it so much harder to hire new bus operators.

And since Centro doesn’t have nearly enough money, they rightly direct their funding to frequent service where it will do the most good: corridors where lots of people live, work, shop, worship, etc. That means James Street, Salina Street, Genesee Street, Butternut Street, Erie Boulevard, South Avenue. Centro’s best-performing lines are in the City where traditional development patterns are well suited to frequent transit service. There are currently no corridors outside the City that come anywhere near Syracuse’s levels of population and job density, and that’s why there is no decent bus service to the suburbs that anybody can rely on to get to work.

It might be possible to change that. Onondaga County just posted its first decade of meaningful population growth since 1970, and all indications are that our community will continue to grow. Those new people need somewhere to live, and there’s plenty of room for them in the urbanized area at the center of the County. More housing and mixed-use development along major suburban corridors like Old Liverpool Road, Milton Avenue, and Route 5 would create the conditions to necessary to support frequent transit service—lots of people and lots of places for them to go—and that same frequent transit service could be a reliable option for people trying to get to suburban jobs.

So here’s what it will take for Centro to run truly useful transit service to suburban employers like Amazon or Micron: lots more money, lots more housing, and much better planning. The entire County needs better bus service. Everybody needs access to all of the opportunities in this community, and this is how we can make it happen.

Restore the canal without recreating its problems

More and more people are starting to talk about the benefits of rewatering the Erie Canal in Downtown Syracuse. Old photos of Syracuse are tantalizing. Clinton Square is full of people watching the canal, and the City looks like Venice or Amsterdam or Suzhou. Compared to the Erie Boulevard of today, it can seem like Syracuse was crazy to erase this urban waterway 100 years ago.

But back then, a lot of people thought the canal was a huge nuisance, and they were happy to see it go.

If Syracuse is going to rewater the canal—and we should—then we have to understand why people wanted it gone, and we have to make sure that a restored canal doesn’t recreate the original canal’s problems.

Syracuse filled in the canal for three very good reasons. First, it was gross. 19th century industrial cities used waterways as open sewers and garbage pits, and the Erie Canal was no exception.

Second, the City wanted more roads. Car ownership was exploding in the 1920s and real estate developers were building new neighborhoods—like Scottholm—out of walking distance of the City’s center. That meant a lot more cars driving across Syracuse, and they wanted more room on the roads.

Third, and most important, the canal blocked traffic and divided the City. Dozens of bridges crossed the canal (and dozens more streets just dead-ended at the water), many of those bridges moved up and down to let boats pass underneath, and they broke down all the time so people couldn’t get across the canal.

These are real practical problems, and it would be crazy to bring them back into Syracuse today.

Luckily, it’s possible to get the best of both worlds—to bring water back to Erie Boulevard without bringing back the nuisances of the original canal. NYSDOT already intends to build a fountain at the corner of Oswego and Erie Boulevards as part of their plan for a ‘Canal District.’ They should simply extend that fountain into Erie Boulevard and stretch it west to Clinton Square.

Combined with Clinton Square, this would recreate a 3-block stretch of the Erie Canal’s original path through Syracuse, and it would sidestep the three main problems that led Syracuse to fill in the canal 100 years ago.

First, cleanliness. Syracuse’s rewatered canal will be a large fountain instead of a working waterway. That means boat crews won’t use it as a sewer, factories won’t use it as a trash bin, and dead mules won’t fall into it. It also means the water won’t stagnate, and it can be treated to prevent algal blooms. A canal fountain will be a lot cleaner and smell a lot better than the actual canal did.

Second, road capacity. When Syracuse built Erie Boulevard, it was the City’s primary east/west highway and carried a lot of cars. But now we have 690 for that, and nobody in their right mind would drive from DeWitt to Camillus on Erie Boulevard anymore. The two blocks between Salina and Montgomery Streets, in particular, are not useful for getting from point A to point B, and Syracuse could easily repurposed them without any noticeable effect on road capacity.

And third, bridges. A rewatered canal stretching from Montgomery Street to Clinton Square wouldn’t require dozens of bridges like the original canals did. A rewatered canal would also not carry any barges, so the one necessary bridge (at Warren Street) wouldn’t need to move to allow boat traffic to pass underneath.

A two-block fountain stretching from Clinton Square to the site of the Erie/Oswego confluence at Montgomery Street will restore the canal’s presence in the City’s center without recreating the problems that made the canal a nuisance.

A Collection of Images of Demolished Downtown Apartment Buildings

The most striking change in Downtown Syracuse’s building stock over the last 100 years is the almost total removal of apartment houses.

Downtown’s old apartment houses weren’t as famous as major public buildings like the Third County Courthouse of the Yates Hotel, but they were home to hundreds of people at any given time, and their loss explains why Downtown is home to less than half as many people today as in 1930. And because they were less photographed and less missed, it’s easy to forget just how numerous they used to be and just how many people used to live Downtown.

As Syracuse seeks to unmake this Urban Renewal era mistake and knit Downtown back into the the City’s fabric, it’s helpful to see pictures of these lost homes remember that the neighborhood was full of housing for most of its history. Here are some rarely seen photos of just a few of Downtown’s demolished apartment buildings.

The Holland Flats (121-127 Madison Street)

Frazer Block (101-109 W. Adams Street)

Hier Flats (408-412 W. Willow Street)

The Moore Apartments (242-250 James Street)

The Ely Flats (226 E. Onondaga Street)

The Dorset Apartments (161 E. Onondaga Street)

This short list doesn’t capture anywhere near the volume or variety of housing that existed Downtown before urban renewal. It doesn’t include other apartment buildings like The Mabelle (513 S Salina St), the Gendreda Flats (620 S Warren St), the Adella Flats (616 S Warren St), the Langdon Flats (614 S Warren St), the Kenyon Flats (610 S Warren St), the Westminster Flats (206 E Harrison St), the Lydon Flats (129 N State St), the Charles Flats (417 E Jefferson St), The Madison Flats (315 Madison St), The Mowry Apartments (100 W Onondaga St), The Florence Flats (101 W Onondaga St), Lyons Flats (200 W Adams St), or Merrick Place (201 W Adams St). It also doesn’t include the many boarding houses, rooming houses, and tenements that used to cover the land bounded by and underneath today’s elevated highways. And it doesn’t include the dozens of hotels that housed both short- and long-term residents before urban renewal.

But this short list does show that there used to be a lot more housing Downtown and that recent residential construction in the City’s center is a reversion to our historical mean rather than some strange new phenomenon. We’ve got a lot more building to do before Downtown can house as many people as it did 100 years ago, but we’re getting closer all the time, and that’s a good thing.

Fixing the Creekwalk Downtown

The Creekwalk has a problem: its most interesting spots—the places where people stop and stare, where they can get close to the water, the places that make it unique—flood and have to get blocked off after heavy rains. Seen from the other side, the Creekwalk’s most reliably dry portions—the sidewalks Downtown—are its most boring.

interesting but flood-prone vs boring but flood-proof

The I81 project shows how City Hall can fix this problem. As part of the removal of the West Street interchange, NYSDOT is going to build a new section of Creekwalk along the west bank of the Creek from Erie Boulevard to Evans Street. The new section of trail will have views of the canal aqueduct that still carries Erie Boulevard over the Creek. The new trail will also function like a bypass of the flood prone but beautiful part of the Creekwalk that currently dips below 690 and runs right near the water into Franklin Square.

the flood-prone portion of the Creekwalk is shown in blue. The image on the left shows NYSDOT’s planned Creekwalk extension which can function as a detour around flooding when the Creek is high.

So once NYSDOT builds the new section of trail, it will never really be a problem when the Creek rises after heavy rains. City Hall can block off the flooded section, and people using the trail can take the—much higher and unlikely to flood—west bank path to avoid the problem area entirely. (for this reason, the Empire State Trail—which follows the Creekwalk from Downtown to the Inner Harbor—should shift to the new west bank path once it’s complete).

City Hall should apply this same logic to more of the trail. In effect, the Downtown section of the Creekwalk we have now is more like a flood-time detour than a real multi-use path. It crosses city streets, uses existing sidewalks, and is totally out of sight of the Creek all to avoid dealing with flooding closer to the water’s edge. The result is flood-proof but boring.

And it’s a huge missed opportunity because the Downtown section of Onondaga Creek is one of the most interesting spots in Syracuse. Beneath the modern city at street level, the Creek winds through old stone bridges, some built before the Civil War. The running water drowns out traffic noise, and the shade and stonework makes the path along the Creek cool and comfortable on hot days. It’s an amazing space, and more people should be able to experience it.

All City Hall has to do to make this happen is clear out some weeds, install a couple bridges, and build a few short connections between the existing path at the Creek’s edge and the current official Creekwalk up at street level. The end result would be two continuous parallel paths from Onondaga Place on the Westside to Plum Street in Franklin Square.

One—the current Creekwalk plus NYSDOT’s planned west bank detour, shown in green on the map below—would be totally flood proof, a viable option for using the Creekwalk no matter the weather, and a good route for the Empire State Trail.

The other—a water-level route along the Creek bank all the way through Downtown and Franklin Square, shown in blue on the map below—would keep people away from street traffic and follow the water’s hidden path through the very center of the City.

The Creekwalk is a huge success story. It’s the most impressive park City Hall has built in decades. It connects neighborhoods across Syracuse and puts people in touch with parts of the City they would never experience otherwise. But the oldest part of the path—the street-level portions Downtown—are simply not up to the high standards this success has set. City Hall can fix that by adding a water-level route that parallels existing street-level path through Downtown.