All posts by inthesaltcity

Getting people out on the water

Syracuse should reconnect with its waterfront. This City was built around water, and we have miles and miles of creeks, canals, and lakefront where people can get in touch with Syracuse’s maritime side.

One way to make that happen is to just make our various waterfronts more accessible—give people public space next to the water, and they will use it.

But Syracuse should go farther and actually get people out on the water. We need more boats in this town.

source: Creekrats

Syracuse’s small waterways are perfect for kayaking. The Creekrats—a very good volunteer organization that helps clean and care for Onondaga Creek—know this, which is why they host Fun Floats where anybody can show up, borrow a kayak or canoe, and take a trip down the Creek the entire length of the City.

This is great, and we need more of it. In addition to kayaks and canoes, people should be tubing down the Creek. In addition to the Creekrats volunteer efforts, the City Parks department should be providing the public with small boats.

As Syracuse’s summers get hotter, people are going to need new ways to keep cool. Getting them floating down Onondaga Creek is a great place to start.

ferry lines to the Amphitheater and State Fair

Car traffic to the State Fair and the Lake Amphitheater is famously terrible. That’s what happens when tens of thousands of people all try to drive to the same location. The only way to fix it is to give people more options for getting to those popular destinations.

Ferries would relieve that congestion, and they’d get people out onto Onondaga Lake. People going to concerts and the Fair could catch a ferry at the Inner Harbor, the Village of Liverpool, and Longbranch Park. They’d trade the hassle of traffic and parking for a leisurely sunset trip across the Lake.

skating on the Erie Canal

The ice rink at Clinton Square is great because it recreates a traditional recreational use of the canal. The people who redesigned the square in 2001 had that iconic photograph in mind when they planned the public skating program. They wanted to give people “a sense of the canal.”

That’s fantastic—let’s do more.

One of the other ways that Syracuse residents used to interact with the canal was by boarding the floating attractions, museums, and shops that travelled from town to town along the canal. If we make more of NYSDOT’s planned ‘canal district’ and actually rewater the canal between Franklin and Montgomery Streets, there should absolutely be boats in that water for people to board.

The Erie Canal Museum could run a historic packet boat, restaurants could put outdoor seating on a stationary barge, local artists could set up pop up retail shops. There are plenty of attractions that would get people onto boats, and that would reconnect them with the canal.

canal dining in Leiden, Holland

In order to really activate Syracuse’s waterfront, we need more programming. Kayaking, tubing, ferries, floating attractions, whatever. Just provide people with ways to get out on the water, and they will do it.

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 stair 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 opening 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.

The price of delay

Now that it’s clear that I-81 is coming down, the viaduct’s supporters have adopted a new tactic: delay. They’re done trying to influence the final outcome of the project—compare the in-depth 2-year tunnel analysis to the half-assed Skyway proposal—and they are instead trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The Mall has hired a lawyer who argues NYSDOT needs to redo all of its economic analyses with newer data. Busybodies from Skaneateles want additional traffic studies for locations 50 miles away from the highway. Congressman John Katko just managed to get NYSDOT to extend the comment period by another 30 days. Expect to see more of this nonsense as we take the final steps towards tearing down the viaduct.

None of these delaying tactics will change the project’s ultimate outcome. The Grid is so obviously the correct choice from an environmental, safety, economic, social justice, cost, and transportation perspective. In the long run, the viaduct will come down, and Syracuse will be better off for it.

But we don’t live in the long run. We live here now, and the interested parties have a lot to gain or lose by dragging this decision out as long as possible.

Take the Delayer-in-Chief, former State Senator John DeFrancisco. He was able to muck up the NEPA process for years. In that time he moved his home and business to the suburbs, and he retired from public life so he no longer needs campaign contributions from viaduct supporters. He couldn’t actually convince NYSDOT to build a tunnel or a new viaduct, but he managed to keep the current viaduct up until it didn’t matter to him, personally, anymore.

Or look at the mall. The long run doesn’t matter to them because structural changes to the world economy is killing their business anyway. But in the short run they sincerely believe they’ll make more money with the viaduct than without it. From that perspective, it’s in their financial interest to keep the viaduct up as long as possible. A 13-year process is better than a 5-year process—even if the viaduct comes down at the end either way—because it means 8 more years of marginally higher profits.

But just as these bad actors benefit from delay, stretching out this process hurts Syracuse. Tearing down the viaduct and building the grid is going to give a lot of people a recession-proof paycheck—it would have been great for that work to have already started before the pandemic caused a recession last year.

The pandemic also caused a huge increase in demand for housing in the Syracuse metro area. Much of that demand matched with supply in the exurbs—places like Clay, Lysander, and Manlius—and furthered sprawl and inter-municipal inequality. If the viaduct had already come down, new housing in the City’s center could have soaked up some of that new demand and made Syracuse a more sustainable, more equitable place.

Most importantly, every single day, the viaduct makes life worse for the people who have to live near it. Noise and air pollution cause chronic illness along the highway’s path, and every day that John DeFrancisco, John Katko, and the Mall delayed construction was another day that kids breathed in exhaust and fell asleep to the sound of speeding cars.

The viaduct will come down. Syracuse will be safer, cleaner, more just, and more pleasant for it. But there are people who want to delay that better future off as long as possible. They talk about caution and making every voice heard and making sure we get this right. But they’re really just interested in running out the clock until they retire, until their business fails, until they move. We don’t need to humor their cynicism for another year.

False hope for the viaduct

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli just wrote an op-ed arguing that we can’t move forward with the I-81 project until there’s consensus. This is wrong, and we need to move past the false hope that the I-81 project can possibly please everybody.

The Assemblymember pointed to widespread criticism of the recently release Draft Environmental Impact Statement as evidence that NYSDOT should not move forward with the Grid. People living in Pioneer Homes deserve better mitigation during the construction period; car drivers may have to stop at red lights; fewer people may drive directly past the Mall; car exhaust may cause students at Dr. King Elementary to develop chronic respiratory illness. 

From the Assemblymember’s perspective, these criticisms all point to his preferred outcome for this project: the status quo.

“We can have connectivity within the city, including walking and bike trails, and continue to keep the city connected to its suburbs and the rest of the region. These are not mutually exclusive… What we need is a community grid in conjunction with a rebuilt viaduct, tunnel, or new bridge to keep traffic flowing through Syracuse.”

The Assemblymember then implies that this outcome—one which has been opposed by the City’s elected leadership for a decade—would work for everybody:

“I do not believe that a consensus for this project has ever been reached by the city, suburbs and outlying towns in our region. Given the amount of federal monies available, why don’t we have an option that satisfies everyone’s needs?”

There is no option that can possibly meet everyone’s “needs,” and to see why all you have to do is read through the Assemblymember’s list of concerns. A new viaduct would certainly save car drivers from the terror of traffic lights, but it would also increase air pollution at Dr. King Elementary. A tunnel (it’s okay, you can laugh) would definitely keep cars moving past the Mall, but the interchange with 690 would be even bigger than what we have today, and it would create a blackhole in the middle of town where no one would ever have cause to walk or bike.

Assemblyman Magnarelli is wrong: competing interests want mutually exclusive things out of this project. There is no way to reconcile all of the concerns that different members of different communities have expressed about NYSDOT’s current plan for I-81.

In fact, the DEIS has received so much criticism because it is a misguided attempt to find a “consensus” solution. The Grid should resemble a normal city street in order to accommodate local street life while discouraging through traffic from bringing air pollution, noise pollution, and traffic violence into the City. Instead, NYSDOT is offering something no one wants—the West Street Arterial but bigger—in order to appease powerful people like the Assemblymember who have demanded that the Grid accommodate high-speed high-volume car traffic.

There is no possible solution that can please both the Mall and Dr. King Elementary’s community. They simply want mutually exclusive outcomes from the I-81 project. That’s a hard truth because it requires our leaders to make a decision that will be unpopular with some people, but it’s the way things are. Anybody who continues to nurture this false hope—that if we just had more time, if we just thought a little harder about it, if we just spent more money, then everybody could be happy—is ignoring reality.

Neighborhood-Level Population Change

Since the 2000 census, the total number of people living in Syracuse has remained remarkably stable. From 146,070 people in 2000 to 145,170 in 2010 to 146,620 in 2020, the City’s topline population figure has never moved more than 2.4% between censuses, and the most recent count is within 1.7% of the 2000 count.

But that remarkably stable population figure obscures Syracuse’s massive demographic churn at the neighborhood level. Between 2000 and 2020 while the City’s overall population showed just a 1.7% increase, individual neighborhoods saw population shifts ranging from a drop of 21.7% to an increase of 59.1%.

To see these neighborhood-level changes, we need to look at the census tract level. However, because the Census Bureau adjusts tract borders every 10 years, we have to group multiple tracts in order to compare similar areas over the 2000, 2010, and 2020 censuses. The map above shows the groupings (between 1 and 4 census tracts) used in this analysis.

These population change maps show the population shifts that have characterized Syracuse’s neighborhoods during the first two decades of the 21st century. The maps show areas that lost population in red, and areas that gained population in blue. The intensity of each color corresponds to the magnitude of the percentage change in population.

The Northside, the Valley, and University Hill all gained population during each of the last two decades. Salt Springs, the Southside, the Westside, Tipperary Hill, and Strathmore all lost population both from 2000 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2020.

These broad trends held constant over the last twenty years even though Syracuse as a whole shrank between 2000 and 2010 and the city grew between 2010 and 2020. The City gained population between 2010 and 2020 because Downtown and Franklin Square grew by an enormous amount (65.7%) after shrinking modestly the previous decade, and because outer neighborhoods like Eastwood and Outer Comstock grew rather than shrank during the last decade.

This series of density maps shows how those population trends have changed the concentration of people in different Syracuse neighborhoods has changed over the last 20 years. The South and West Sides lost a lot of density while the Northside and University Hill became much more densely populated and Downtown/Franklin Square gained some density (although this area is still nowhere near as densely populated as the surrounding inner city neighborhoods).

Overall, though, Syracuse’s patterns of density remained relatively stable between 2000 and 2020: outer neighborhoods remained sparsely populated while inner neighborhoods house lots of people in a relatively small area.

The total number of people living in Syracuse has remained essentially stable for the last 20 years, but the populations of the City’s neighborhoods have varied widely. The South and West Sides have lost a huge percentage of their total population while the Northside and the City’s center have grown dramatically. Looking forward, Syracuse will need to reverse these downward trends in its shrinking neighborhoods while also accommodating continued growth in its booming neighborhoods.

A New Kind of Population Growth

The 2020 census is a big deal for Central New York. Not only did the City of Syracuse post its first decade of population growth since 1950, but—more importantly—the City’s rate of growth exceeded the rest of the county’s. Between 2010 and 2020, Syracuse’s population grew by 2.38% while the towns’ collective population grew by just 1.88%.

To understand just how crazy this is, we need to back up to 1850: the first census taken after Syracuse became a city. From this point until 1930, Onondaga County grew from a population of 85,890 to 291,606—a 240% increase. Over the same period, Syracuse grew by 840% while the towns that make up the rest of the County grew by just 29%. Syracuse accounted for 91% of the County’s overall population growth during this time.

This was a period of rapid urbanization. Syracuse was a major city at the front of economic, technological, and social change, and people flocked to the city—both from the surrounding countryside, from elsewhere in the United States, and from overseas—to get a better life.

But what these raw numbers don’t show is how Syracuse grew. New housing for all these new people was often built at the edge of town, and the city would annex it in order to provide municipal services. New transportation technologies like electric streetcars facilitated day trips between the growing city and existing villages like Geddes (now known as Tipperary Hill), and the two municipalities agreed to join. Developers built brand new communities like Eastwood—designed from the beginning to function as a suburb of Syracuse—and the City eventually annexed them too.

So this period of rapid urbanization was also a period of suburbanization. Syracuse grew by growing outward—as cities like Houston still do today—and the towns appeared not to grow much at all because the City’s boundaries ate into theirs in order to encompass all of these new people.

All that changed after the 1930 census. The 1920s saw a huge increase in car ownership that made it easier for people to move far beyond the City’s municipal boundaries, and new laws made it harder for Syracuse to annex land from surrounding towns. Syracuse annexed Eastwood, Meadowbrook, and parts of Salt Springs, Strathmore, and Winkworth between 1920 and 1930—a huge increase in both land area and population—but it was the last time the City was able to annex any significant amount of land.

After 1930, the County’s population continued to grow, but that growth occurred in the towns. Between 1930 and 2010 they grew by 291% while the County’s overall population increased by just 60%, and the City lost 31% of its population.

This was a big change with huge implications for life in Onondaga County, but the demographic trends after 1930 weren’t so different from those before: the County as a whole continued to grow both in population and in extent of urbanized land as prosperity attracted new people, and new transportation technology made it possible for people to live further and further away from each other. The only difference is that Syracuse’s city line used to expand to capture all that sprawl, but since 1930 municipal boundaries have remained essentially static.

So the 2020 census is a big deal because it might signal that Onondaga County has moved into a new phase of population growth. For the first time since Syracuse stopped growing in land area, its rate of population increase outpaced the County as a whole. The city’s population rose by 2.38% while the County gained just 2.03% and the towns only added 1.88%. For the second time since 1850, the lines on the graph on the right have intersected, and Syracuse is again adding people more quickly than the towns.

But what’s different this time is that the City is gaining population without spreading out. All of this past decade’s population increase occurred within a set boundary line. For the first time in its history, Syracuse has managed to house more people without subdividing farmland or forest, without lengthening anyone’s commute, without extending the sewer mains.

This is a new kind of population growth for Onondaga County. It’s fiscally sound because it fosters growth without overextending municipal infrastructure. It’s environmentally sustainable because it accommodates new people without using up new land and without requiring people to spend an hour of everyday behind the wheel of a car. It’s exactly what our community needs in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Lay new sidewalks, keep old trees

This should have gone without saying, but the municipal sidewalk program should preserve as many existing street trees as possible. Tall trees with full foliage shade the sidewalk and make walking around the City more bearable in Syracuse’s steamy summers. A sidewalk—even a brand new perfectly level one—will not be a good place to walk if it’s fully exposed to the elements.

So it’s really very bad that City Hall is trying to fix the sidewalks by cutting down a bunch of decades-old trees. There may be cases where a tree is so close to the sidewalk and its roots are so disruptive that it’s truly necessary to remove the tree in order to build a new ADA-compliant sidewalk. In those rare instances, fine, cut down the tree, but make sure to replace it immediately to avoid the same problem in the future.

But, as Syracuse History has pointed out, City Hall is choosing to cut down trees even when it’s not really necessary. It was probably easier, cheaper, and faster to just cut down this fully grown tree, but it wasn’t necessary. The sidewalk could have curved around the tree, it could have been raised over the roots, they could have removed just a single root. There are plenty of ways to build a decent sidewalk and preserve the mature trees that make walking safer, healthier, and more pleasant.

The Mayor has been making the case that Syracuse needs more trees. He’s using covid relief money to plant a bunch and wants to increase the City’s canopy by about 25%. That’s a good goal, but he will never reach it if he starts by removing the trees we already have.

Cutting down fully-grown street trees in order to lay new sidewalks is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Street trees take decades to grow tall enough to provide all of their benefits. The trees we have now are gifts from previous generations that we can’t quickly replace. City Hall needs to figure out how to lay new sidewalks and preserve these treasures.

The Grid and Bus Rapid Transit

The I-81 project can and should help build a Bus Rapid Transit system in Syracuse. BRT will make public transportation much more useful for current riders, it will attract many new riders, and it will reduce traffic congestion and improve traffic safety for everybody who uses Syracuse’s streets.

In the DEIS, NYSDOT lists “maintain[ing] access to existing local bus service and enhanc[ing] transit amenities within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse,” as one of the I-81 project’s five objectives. These transit amenities “could include bus stops and shelters, bus turnouts, and layover and turnaround places.”

NYSDOT elaborates:

“Apart from the Downtown transit hub, Centro has few amenities for its customers. Most stops have a sign, but no seating, lighting, or shelters. Syracuse has a temperate climate with cold winters and hot summers, and the city sees substantial snowfall each year. Lacking any amenities, customers must wait for buses outdoors without the protection of shelters. Where practical, enhanced amenities for riders could provide a better experience for transit customers and facilitate their use of existing transit services.”

This is good. It is ridiculous that the snowiest big city in the nation asks its bus riders to stand in the street to catch the bus in the winter. It is ridiculous that a town where the sun sets as early as 4:30 pm doesn’t provide adequate lighting at its bus stops.

But even though better amenities are good, what we really need is better service. Even the most comfortable bus shelter won’t do much if riders have to wait an hour for the bus to show up.

Luckily, Uplift Syracuse just released a new report—“Better Bus Service”—that shows how investing in infrastructure like better bus stops can make more frequent service more possible by speeding up buses and reducing the annual operating cost of providing improved service.

Basically, faster buses cost less to run than slower buses because they allow a single operator to complete more runs in a single shift. Uplift Syracuse estimates that if bus speeds on Centro’s best performing corridors could be increased from roughly 10 mph to 15 mph, then Syracuse could have an 8-line, 28-mile, citywide network of fast and frequent rapid transit service for roughly $8 million per year—that’s significantly cheaper than Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s estimate that running a network of just half this size would cost $8.3 million annually.

NYSDOT is willing to build new transit infrastructure anywhere in the I-81 project area shaded red on the map above. This area overlaps with much of the central portion of Uplift’s proposed BRT system. Here are the specific projects NYSDOT should build in order to advance Bus Rapid Transit in Syracuse:

New Stations

potential BRT stations located in the I-81 project area

BRT stations are significantly different from the bus stops Syracuse knows now. They are more than just a place to wait—BRT stations actually increase average bus speeds by minimizing the amount of time that it takes for riders to board and alight from the bus.

BRT stations do this in two ways. First, they are raised up above the sidewalk to sit even with the bus floor. That makes it easier for everybody to get on and off the bus, and it’s especially important for people who use mobility devices. Second, they allow riders to pre-pay their fare while waiting for the bus to arrive. This makes boarding much faster because it eliminates the line at the farebox.

And BRT stations do also have the amenities that every bus station really should have: shelter from the snow, rain, and sun, a nice place to sit, lighting, and real-time information about when the next bus will arrive.

the park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets will host a major BRT transfer station

Several potential BRT stations are located within the I-81 project area. One of the most important is the small park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets. That’s where two BRT lines will converge, and a station on that park would allow riders to transfer between those lines without the need to cross the street.

Other potential BRT stations are on Fayette near Crouse and Irving, on State Street at Willow, on Adams at McBride, and at the corner of Adams and Irving. Centro needs to finalize its plans for where to locate new stations, and then NYSDOT needs to build the ones that will be in the I-81 project area.

Transit Lanes

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area

Transit Lanes speed service by letting buses bypass traffic congestion. Syracuse doesn’t have much traffic congestion so transit lanes probably won’t be necessary across most of the City, but Downtown streets do sometimes back up during rush hour. Happily, these same streets are significantly wider than they really need to be, so there’s plenty of room to give BRT buses their own space.

Major streets in the I-81 project area that might also have BRT service are Adams, State, James, Willow, and Salina. In all cases, the I-81 project area does not extend far enough to cover the entire portion of these streets that would need transit lanes, so it will be up to City Hall to complete the work of extending those lanes along State from Erie Boulevard to Harrison Street, say, or along Adams from the Hub to Irving.

These transit lanes will ensure that buses keep their schedules no matter the traffic Downtown, and that will make for faster, cheaper BRT service.

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area in dark blue with those located outside the project area in light blue

All of these minor transit infrastructure proposals are within the I-81 project area, all would meet one of the five objectives that NYSDOT has set for this project, and all would move Syracuse closer to getting the public transit system that we need and deserve. Let’s make them part of the final I-81 project.

You can let NYSDOT hear about it at this link: I-81 comment form

The Grid and the Northside

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.

Getting the Grid’s details right

NYSDOT’s new I81 project report lays out a good framework to undo the damage that car-only transportation planning has done to Syracuse. But although the overall vision of the Grid is good, NYSDOT needs to change some significant details of the Grid’s design in order for this project to be as effective as possible.

When you get into the nitty gritty of the design drawings, there are some troubling details. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says that travel lanes on city streets should be 10’ wide—maybe 11’ if it’s a major trucking or transit route — but NYSDOT plans to build Almond Street with four 12’ wide travel lanes. That’s the standard for highways, and it’s the same lane width that NYSDOT plans to use for the grade-separated portions of 81.

NACTO also says that curb radii—a measure of how sharply a car has to turn at an intersection and a key determinant of pedestrian safety—should be no more than 15’ in order to make crosswalks safe for people on foot. NYSDOT plans for 15’ curb radii on many local streets, but on Almond most intersections will have curb radii of between 20’ and 35’, and the intersection of Almond and Erie Boulevard will have a mammoth 65’ curb radius.

NYSDOT also intends to speed traffic on Almond by leaving out crosswalks for existing intersecting streets. People on foot and bike won’t be able to cross Almond Street at either Madison or Monroe Streets even though NYCLU specifically called for a crosswalk at Monroe, and even though Madison is a prime candidate for a neighborhood greenway connecting Downtown, University Hill, and Westcott.

These are design standards for moving cars at very high speeds with little consideration for people who might travel the street by foot or bike. In fact, NYSDOT predicts that Level of Service—“a qualitative measure used to describe the experience of a user on an urban street segment”—will be significantly worse for pedestrians and bicyclists than it will for car drivers. Levels of Service for cars on Almond Street range between grades of A, B, and C, while people using the sidewalks and bike lanes get service grades of C and D.

NYSDOT also predicts that their design could actually increase the number of cars on local streets by bringing more interstate through-traffic into Downtown:

“Businesses on BL 81 south of I-690 would experience an increase in pass-by potential customers, which could marginally benefit sales. Furthermore, the business loop designation may attract through travelers on I-81 looking for convenience retail and restaurant uses.”

NYSDOT helpfully lists the types of businesses that would likely benefit from this added traffic and might want to set up shop along Almond Street: “gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food.”

The design standards NYSDOT is proposing—12’ lanes, large curb radii, and limited access from local streets—are identical to those that define the West Street arterial between Fayette and Onondaga Streets. That hostile highway is a significant barrier between Downtown and the Near Westside, and we shouldn’t be replicating its failure along Almond Street.

It’s possible to make a very wide street that actually fits in a city and knits neighborhoods together, one that’s pleasant to walk or bike along, one that will support small-scale retail and attract quality housing.

Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, for instance, is a really nice street even though it carries three lanes of traffic in each direction. It’s lined by apartment blocks and businesses that cater to the neighborhood—not interstate through traffic. Crucially, Eastern Parkway has narrow travel lanes (10’), many intersections, and sharp corners at those intersections to encourage drivers to slow down when they turn through the many crosswalks.

This is the kind of street we should be building in the center of Syracuse—not another grade-level high-speed arterial. NYSDOT is accepting comments on their most recent design. Let them know.