All posts by inthesaltcity

Demographic change between 2010-2019, part 2

Syracuse has long been one of the youngest municipalities in the county, and SCSD is one of the only districts that’s seen a growing enrollment in recent years. But over the last decade, Syracuse’s population started aging, and the total number of children decreased while the City’s adult population grew.

Like variations in total population, these changes were not even across neighborhoods. Their spatial distribution correlates with population gains and losses, and suggests that if Syracuse is going to achieve sustained growth, it will need to do better by the kids.

Change in median age

Median age is dropping fast (purple on the map) in the City’s center and in some outer neighborhoods like the far Northside, Eastwood, Elmwood, and the Valley. In general, these areas gained population over the last decade. Population in tracts where the median age decreased gained 2,473 people between 2010 and 2019.

Median age is rising ( pink on the map) across much of the Southside and in areas with large retirement homes like Ross Towers, Vinette Towers, Brighton Towers and Loretto. All together, census tracts where the median age increased lost 4,333 people over the last decade.

Change in percentage of population under 18 years old

In census tracts where the median age fell, children under the age of 18 tended to comprise a greater share of the population in 2019 than in 2010 (green on the map), and the reverse was true of tracts where the proportion of children fell (orange on the map).

Combined, census tracts where children under the age of 18 made up a smaller share of the population in 2019 than in 2010 shrank by 3588 people over that time. Census tracts where children accounted for a larger share of the population grew by 1728 over the same period.

Change in median household size

These trends make sense. If a family of three becomes a family of four, if an adult couple has their first child, or if a retired couple moves south and sells their house to a family with kids—if any of those changes occur, it will show up in the census data by lowering the median age, increasing the proportion of children to adults, and growing the overall population.

And so what you see pretty clearly is that the census tracts where the proportion of children to adults grew between 2010 and 2019 generally also saw rising household sizes (in blue on map) over that time.

Change in proportion of school-age to below school-age children

It’s an open question whether these trends will continue. In the parts of the City where kids are a growing share of the population, most of the growth (84%) came from census tracts where the population of children ages 0-5 (below school age, yellow on the map) outpaced the population of children 6-17 (school age, blue on the map). This increase in the proportion of young families could be a very good thing for Syracuse if it means that the City is gaining a stable cohort of long-term residents. But the increasing percentage of children below school age in growing neighborhoods could also signal something very bad—that families in growing neighborhoods are leaving the City when their kids start school.

Demographic change between 2010-2019, part 1

After years of precipitous decline, Syracuse’s overall population has held remarkably steady over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of people living in the City decreased by just 1,890 or 1.3%.

But look at the tract-level data, and it’s clear that Syracuse’s population has been anything but stable. Some neighborhoods boomed, others emptied out. And the compositions of those neighborhoods changed in ways that simple population counts can’t capture.

Change in population adjusted for area. Tracts shaded blue gained population, tracts shaded red lost population.

This map shows the change in population for each Syracuse census tract, adjusted for area. Tracts shaded red had fewer people in the 2019 than in 2010, and tracts shaded blue saw population growth.

Much of Eastwood and the Northside grew in the last decade, while the South, East, and West Sides all saw population loss.

The City’s center—Franklin Square, Downtown and University Hill—saw intense growth, but it is somewhat obscured in this map because much of SU’s student population gets counted South Campus and because Franklin Square is just a small part of a huge census tract that also includes the Inner Harbor, Mall, and part of Onondaga Lake.

Change in percentage of population that identifies as white. Areas shaded yellow got Whiter, areas shaded green got less White.

Syracuse became more diverse between 2010 and 2019. The White share of the city’s population decreased from 59% to 55% over that time. That decrease was driven by a combination of White flight and Black growth in outer neighborhoods on the North, West, and East sides, but it was counteracted by a combination of population loss in some neighborhoods with large Black populations and an increase in the White population in the City’s center.

Change in deviation from citywide racial composition. Areas shaded orange deviated further from the citywide average, areas shaded purple moved closer to the citywide average.

In the City’s center and the outer parts of the North, East, South and West sides, these changes have made neighborhoods more integrated—the racial makeup of those neighborhoods looks more like the City as a whole. But in a few pockets like the near Northside, Tipperary Hill, Park Avenue, the residential ring around Syracuse University, and the Southwest, neighborhoods have become more segregated over the last decade.

In the graph above, the thick black line represents the City’s population in the decade between 2010-2019. It barely moves from year to year, cutting a straight path across the screen and suggesting that Syracuse has achieved a measure of demographic stability.

All of the colored lines represent population change for each of the City’s 55 census tracts. They riot across the screen, painting a more complicated picture of demographic change. Looking at individual neighborhoods rather than the City as a while complicates the notions that Syracuse’s population has stabilized or that the entire City is trending in one direction or another, and it can point the way towards a future where Syracuse can sustain citywide population growth.

The mechanics of exclusion

Syracuse’s zoning ordinance makes most buildings illegal. Before anyone can build almost any new building or put an old one to almost any new use, they have to get a special exemption from the zoning code in the form of a variance or permit. This seemingly bureaucratic process is actually intensely political—the zoning appeals board and planning commission have discretion to approve or deny these permits and applications, and they can be influenced by well-connected people, businesses, organizations, and politicians. Vocal interest groups disrupt the hearings, political allies call in favors, campaign contributors air their concerns over lunch with the mayor.

This is how zoning actually works—the mechanics behind the ordinance that determine what gets built and in what neighborhoods. It exposes almost all new building—from high-priced apartments to emergency shelters—to political interference, and its practical effect is to decrease housing opportunity, drive up rents, and perpetuate exclusion across the City.

Take the apartment building planned for the Temple Concord site at the corner of University and Madison. Syracuse’s antiquated zoning code still considers that to be a semi-suburban residential area, so—among other onerous restrictions—it requires new buildings to have a 77’ rear setback. That’s just not practical for the kind of land use the neighborhood needs now, so the developer is requesting a variance to build closer to the property line.

The landlord next door doesn’t like that. Sure, his building is also ‘too close’ to the property line and would require a variance to get built today, but that’s not the point. The point is that incumbent landlords don’t like competition because it puts downward pressure on rents, and so he’s using a clearly outdated zoning ordinance to try and deny alternative housing options to his potential future tenants.

It’s hard to worry too much about two landlords fighting over tenants on University Hill, but these same bureaucratic mechanics also operate in other neighborhoods where they contribute to exclusion and segregation.

That’s what happened in Westcott two years ago when Syracuse’s overly restrictive zoning ordinance kept a developer from building 32 new apartments in a neighborhood with an acute housing shortage. Household sizes are shrinking in Westcott, but the century-old housing stock is mostly homes with 3 or more bedrooms, so rents are going up and people crowd together with roommates to afford this high-opportunity neighborhood.

32 new 1-bedroom apartments would have helped the neighborhood adjust to this changing demographic reality, but Syracuse’s zoning ordinance doesn’t really account for that kind of construction outside of a few very select areas, so the project required a variance. In a politically powerful neighborhood where the loudest voices often oppose new rental housing, the project was rejected out of hand, and 32 people who could have lived in Westcott have had to find alternative housing elsewhere.

But some people can’t just find housing elsewhere. The men who stay at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter don’t really have anywhere else to go, and now that shelter itself is struggling to find a place to operate. It had intended to relocate to an abandoned building on West Genesee in the shadow of the West Street expressway, but an influential political donor with nearby real estate interests has run the shelter off with threats of frivolous litigation.

Now, those same anti-housing forces are trying to make sure their task is easier next time by amending the zoning ordinance to require a permit for any new ‘care home’ anywhere in the City. This legislation would require the planning commission to approve each individual emergency shelter, group home, and assisted living facility, and it would open all of these different kinds of housing arrangements to the same kinds of bad faith opposition that have made new housing so hard to build in any high-opportunity neighborhood in this City.

This is how zoning really works in Syracuse today. The zoning code is intentionally restrictive so that almost all new housing has to be approved on a case-by-case basis. That opens each project to obstruction from well-connected developers, politically powerful interest groups, and campaign contributors. All too often, these actors find their interests in opposition to the City’s least politically connected residents—renters, low-income families, people with disabilities, the unhoused—and they use the zoning ordinance to perpetuate systems of exclusion and segregation that make it so hard for so many to find a decent place to live in this City.

To begin to unmake those inequitable systems, City Hall first needs to reject this care homes zoning amendment. It’s practical effect will be to ban emergency housing from politically connected neighborhoods and concentrate it—along with so many other social services—in the places where no deep-pocketed donors live.

And then, City Hall needs to pass a new zoning ordinance that does away with all of this nonsense. ReZone—City Hall’s delayed plan to modernize the zoning ordinance—needs to be amended so that it doesn’t just reinstate these existing inequalities, and then it needs to be put into law so that everybody in this City can get the housing they need.

Congressman Katko, impeach this president

John Katko must uphold his oath of office by voting to impeach Donald Trump this week.

The president lost his bid for reelection, badly, and is scrambling for alternative means of remaining in office. Simple fraud has not been working, so on Wednesday he incited an armed mob to commit an act of domestic terrorism designed to force Congress to overturn the will of the American people and install him as president despite his historic failure at the polls.

Donald Trump’s terrorists looted the Capitol. They ripped down the American flag and replaced it with fascist banners. They killed security officers who were protecting John Katko’s life. 

This is abhorrent. This is disgusting. This is treasonous. This vile act demands the strongest possible response: prosecution of every one of those terrorists, expulsion of the members of the House and Senate who goaded them on, and impeachment—at the very least—of the demagogue and would-be dictator who caused the whole seditious disaster.


All John Katko can muster, though, is this tepid statement: “I can’t support him going forward and I don’t think the party will support him going forward”

No, you don’t have deja vu. That is basically exactly what our congressman said in 2016 after the Access Hollywood tape came out, and we all heard Donald Trump brag about sexually assaulting multiple women.

And what was that statement worth? Nothing. Not only because John Katko couldn’t find the courage to vote for Donald Trump’s opponent in that one election, but also because he has voted for Donald Trump at just about every opportunity since then. Over and over and over again he’s voted against our needs and for Donald Trump’s interests in Congress, and then when Donald Trump’s name was back on the ballot, John Katko broke his word and voted for him for president.

So when John Katko says that this time Donald Trump has gone too far, who can really believe him? Who can believe that the congressman actually believes that. Who would be so gullible when the man has already admitted that he won’t take any action that could prove it?

Unless John Katko actually does something—unless he actually votes to remove Donald Trump from office, unless he actually defends American democracy—we can’t believe him. His feckless record of lies, equivocations, sly winks to fascism, and coy nods to racism do not allow us to believe him.


John Katko is not the worst person in Congress. He has colleagues who are true believers, out-and-out conspiracy theorists, unrepentant Nazis, and priests in Donald Trump’s cult of personality. John Katko is not as insane as they are.

But it doesn’t really matter because he has not shown himself to have the the strength or the character to stand up to those dangerous lunatics or their maniac leader, Donald Trump.

This is a crisis, and we need more than stern expressions of disapproval. We need positive action to secure our government against the threats that have been allowed to grow so large and so threatening over the last four years. Our congressman must prove that he is equal to the moment by taking that action, removing Donald Trump from office, and barring him from ever holding it again.

Who Rides Bikes?

Biking is an activity and transportation mode that cuts across race, class, and gender lines. But spend much time talking about bicycles, the infrastructure they require, and their place in the community, and you’ll quickly find out that a lot of people hold very a specific idea of what a ‘biker’ is, and that fixed image blinds them to the great diversity of people who ride bikes regularly.

The irony is that different people have very different ideas of who bikers really are, but if you combine all of those different stereotypes then you get something like an accurate picture of the different reasons and conditions that lead different people to ride bikes. Here is a short list of different types of bike, the stereotypes associated with them, and—to make them more relatable to those who don’t bike—their closest car-analog.

Old Beater

Any day of the year, you can find dozens of used mountain bikes on craigslist, offer up, and facebook marketplace for less than $25. If what you need is a machine that makes it a little easier to get around town for cheap, this is the obvious option.

Buying a used bike from craigslist is a lot like buying a used car from craigslist. You can’t be picky, you can’t be so upset that it needs a little work to get running or that the front bumper is held on with duct tape, but it does the job.

Hybrid

Bikes built for comfort and adaptability, these are sort of like America’s answer to the opa bikes that are so popular in Amsterdam. Couples ride them together in Onondaga Lake Park, office workers pedal in dress pants and skirts.

Think of the hybrid bike like a Toyota Corolla—a good basic option that works for most people.

Fixie

Bike messengers popularized fixed-gear bikes by using them to weave through gridlocked traffic in big cities in the 1980s. No coasting and no hand breaks means that riders can exercise minute control over their speed, acceleration, and stopping, but it takes a lot of skill and strength to master.

It’s like people who drive cars with manual transmission and can use it to weave through highway traffic at 75 mph.

BMX

These bikes are built to jump in the air and then land hard, which makes them good both for popping wheelies and for rolling over curbs, rough pavement, and potholes. People ride them to get around cities and to have fun doing it.

They’re kind of like the souped up street rods in The Fast and the Furious—flashy, fun to show off, and a source of community for the people who ride them.

Specialty Racer

The people who ride these bikes zip along well-paved streets in packs, each one of them decked out in spandex like they’re on the Tour de Onondaga. The bikes are like something from science fiction—carbon fiber molded into incredible shapes and so light that you can lift it onto a car rack with one hand.

They’re the bike version of a Ferrari. That thing is for going fast, it’s not for getting anywhere specific. And you can be damn sure that it’s not coming out of the garage while there’s salt on the roads.

Different people ride different kinds of bikes for different reasons. There’s no one image of what a real biker is just as there’s no one image of what a car driver is—there are just people who ride bikes. It’s a more complicated picture than imagining that all bikers are Lance Armstrong impersonators or tattooed vegetarians, but it’s also makes biking more normalized because it’s just something that anybody could choose to do without seeming deviant. When more people can learn to see the act of biking like that, we’ll be in a good position to make our transportation system work better for all these different people who use it.

Plowable Bike Lanes

City Hall needs to figure out how to plow its bicycle infrastructure. No one will use even the best bike lane if it’s buried under six inches of snow.

Safe bike lanes aren’t easy to plow, though. The best ones are physically separated from car lanes—by a curb or some other barrier—so a plow can’t clear them at the same time as it clears a street’s car lanes, and the big city-plows are too wide to fit in a bike lane anyway.

The priority routes for City Hall’s (temporarily paused) sidewalk plowing program would make a very good bike network

City Hall’s popular (but paused) sidewalk plowing program is an opportunity to square that circle. It used smaller plows to clear snow off the sidewalks, and that same machinery could easily clear bike lanes too. That’s how SU keeps part of the University Ave cycle track clear.

The trick is to figure out how to do it efficiently. Giving the sidewalk plows entirely new work will make the program much more expensive. The sidewalk plowing pilot got cut to help shore up the municipal budget, so asking to have those small plows make extra runs down protected street-level bike lanes isn’t a great option.

Some parts of the Creekwalk are level with the existing sidewalk

Some of Syracuse’s existing protected bike lanes—like those on Hiawatha where it crosses Onondaga Creek, or Franklin where the Creekwalk connects to the Empire State Trail—already do this. In those places, the bike lane is above the curb and level with the sidewalk. The pavement is wide enough to give pedestrians and bikers enough room, but there’s no physical barrier between their lanes, and so a single plow can clear the entire area at once.

The Franklin and Hiawatha bike lanes should be Syracuse’s preferred model for future bike infrastructure. They’re safer than painted lanes like those on Onondaga St, and they’re easier to plow than fully separated lanes like those on University Ave. And as a bonus, they provide more sidewalk space for people on foot or using a mobility device too. This is a solution that meets Syracuse’s specific needs.

Transit’s Network Effect

Public transportation works best as a network. When riders can transfer between multiple buses to access more of the city, the service is exponentially more useful than if it consisted of just a single line. And since additional service makes existing service even more useful, Centro should build out the biggest BRT network that it can as soon as it can.

To see how this works, just look at the 2 lines that SMTC proposed in the SMART1 study. 3,912 workers live within a 5 minute walk of a station on the SU-RTC line. 512 of them (13%) also work within a 5 minute walk of a station. 7559 workers live within a 5 minute walk of the Eastwood-OCC line, and 1101 of them (15%) also work along that line.

If you account for the 552 workers who live within walking distance of both lines, about 1,500 workers (14%) could use one of these two lines to get to the jobs that they work now.

But good transit doesn’t work as a series of individual lines—it’s a network. These two BRT lines will intersect at both St. Joe’s and at the Hub, so anybody who lives along either line could use those connection points to change buses and access any job that’s located along the other line.

And when you account for that network effect, it turns out 2,407 of the 10,919 workers (22%!) who live within walking distance of a planned BRT station could use the service to get to the jobs that they already have. Some people who live along the SU-RTC work along the Eastwood-OCC line and vice versa, so when the two lines operate as a network, each one is more useful to more people.

Add more lines, and those numbers will climb even higher. Run a line up South Salina and out Erie Boulevard to Shoppingtown, and 4,403 out of the 16,808 workers (26%) living within walking distance of a BRT station could commute to their current jobs by bus. Run another from Shop City to Western Lights through the North and West sides, and the number of potential bus commuters rises to 6,714 out of 23,969 workers (28%). That’s 1 out of every 10 people who work within walking distance of this 4-line BRT network.

And what’s true for commuters is true for people who ride the bus for any other reason too. Someone living just off North Salina might be able to use the SU-RTC line to get to the Mall, but they’d need to connect to the Eastwood-OCC line to get to school at OCC, or the Valley-DeWitt line to visit family in Salt Springs. More lines going more places make the network more useful to more people.

The network effect is what makes transit work. No individual line can be very useful all on its own, but any line gets more useful when it operates in tandem with another line. Every single line in a network gets more useful every time another one gets added to the network. That’s why Centro takes such pains to facilitate transfers at the Hub, and it’s why when Syracuse starts running BRT it should build out as many lines as quickly as possible.

The Syracuse University Bus Network

Walk west on Euclid Avenue, and from the time that SU’s campus comes into view to when you get to Comstock Avenue, you’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of buses pulling in and out of the University. SU operates as a sort of second Hub, and the buses that originate, terminate, and run through there constitute a sort of second bus system nested within Centro’s larger tri-county network.

every bus line that serves SU’s College Place bus stop

Although College Place acts as the hub where every single bus line meets, it’s possible to make transfers at other stops too. Lines that leave that College Place in different directions sometimes meet back up again at important points like the intersection of Genesee and Westcott or the corner of Westcott and Broad. This creates secondary transfer points that riders can use to move between different lines in the system without ever going through the main hub. Low service frequencies make that kind of transfer unlikely, but it is at least possible within the network design.

Every 40 minutes or so, a lot of buses leave the Downtown Hub all at once. One or two buses leave College Place every couple of minutes

And although College Place acts as a Hub, the network doesn’t rely on lineups to help riders transfer between different lines. This is partly because the overwhelming majority of riders are either trying to get to or from SU, so there’s no need for them to transfer. And it’s partly because some lines (like the South Campus/Connective Corridor) run right through College Place, so there’s no need to actually change buses to ‘catch’ that connection.

Ditching the whole concept of the lineup frees Centro to run significantly more useful service for SU. The South Campus line, for instance, makes 138 runs between 7am and 3am. That’s service every 8 to 10 minutes all day long, and it’s so useful that students living at South Campus simply don’t need to own a car in order to get back and forth between their housing and their classes. That kind of service is only possible at SU because they’re not concerned with fitting every single bus run into the rube-goldberg service model that is the lineup.

These are good lessons to apply to Centro’s main network. The Downtown Hub doesn’t have to be the network’s only transfer point—people travelling from Mattydale to Liverpool should be able to change buses at the Mall, say. And it shows that Centro can run both frequent service and pulse service simultaneously—frequent service on high-performance BRT routes, say, while maintaining pulse service for suburban coverage routes. Centro’s SU service offers a model for the kind of public transportation that the rest of the City needs and deserves.

What to do with Shoppingtown

After losing out on millions of dollars in tax revenue and spending millions more in bankruptcy court, Onondaga County has gotten legal control of Shoppingtown Mall. Now the County’s just got to figure out what to do with that 70 acre property. Given the geographic location of the site and the demographic trends in the immediate area, the best thing to do with this property is to redevelop it as a residential neighborhood.

The Shoppingtown property (in red) sits at the center of census tract 146 (in blue)

The Shoppingtown property sits in Dewitt near the eastern end of Erie Boulevard. This part of Dewitt is booming. Between 2000 and 2014, the population of census tract 146 grew by 31%, and median household income rose by 12% more than in the county as a whole.

The Town of Dewitt is also a major employment center. One out of every six jobs in Onondaga County is in Dewitt, and more than one out of every five jobs in Dewitt is in census tract 146.  19% of workers who live in the town also work there—only the Town of Skaneateles and the City of Syracuse employ a greater share of their local population.

All of this indicates that Dewitt is a good place to live and that lots of people really do want to live there.

But Dewitt also has some real problems. The relatively low ratio of workers to jobs means that 19 of every 20 people who work in Dewitt commute from outside the town. That’s the highest ratio of any town in the County, and it means that tens of thousands of people are bringing their cars into Dewitt every day. All those people driving all those cars leads to traffic congestion and air and noise pollution—concerns that loom large as NYSDOT prepares to remove the Downtown 81 viaduct.

And at the same time, Dewitt’s population growth is stagnating. Since 2014, census tract 146’s population has actually dropped by 9%, and median household income has barely kept pace with the rest of the County. Over that same period the tract saw almost no new housing construction, and median rent increased by about 7% or $50 a month.


Dewitt is a good place to live, so people want to move there. There isn’t enough housing, so that demand translates to higher prices and a stagnant population. Combine that stagnant population with a robust job market, and you get lots of people commuting into the town, bringing traffic and pollution.

The solution is to build more housing, and that’s what should happen on the Shoppingtown parcel.

The town government already has a plan to do this. They recently created a zoning overlay that designated this parcel as ‘mixed-use village.’ That designation allows for the construction of housing, retail, and park space all in the same area.

The goal of this new zoning overlay is to “encourage the adaptive reuse of aging commercial strip developments” by creating “village centers” that provide both “a high level of amenities that creates a comfortable environment for pedestrians, bicyclists and other users” and “a sufficient density of employees, residents and recreational users to support public transit.”

In other words, exactly what the Town of Dewitt needs. 

Redeveloped this way, Shoppingtown could become a desirable neighborhood like so many others in this part of the County. It could allow more people to move into this attractive area in order to access all of the amenities and opportunities that already exist there. It could reduce traffic congestion and pollution by letting more people live close to the places where they work by letting them get to work on foot, on bike, and on public transportation. It’s would bring new life to this dead mall.

A greenway for the Westside

Soon, the Eastside, Southside, and Northside will all have access to a cross-county network of greenways running through two of the three big valleys that intersect at Downtown Syracuse. That third valley—stretching from the City Center to Split Rock through Syracuse’s Westside—should have it’s own greenway too.

Existing network in dark green, proposed Westside Greenway in light green

Abandoned train bridges, a channelized creek, and public parks all link up to provide a largely level and car-free route through the City’s Westside. Beginning at Fay Road on the northern edge of the Geddes athletic fields, the greenway would run east past Bishop Ludden, the Centers at St. Camillus, and Westhill High School. It would follow Harbor Brook along the north side of Grand Avenue to the back entrance to Western Lights Plaza. There it would cross Grand to continue following Harbor Brook across Velasko Road, past Providence House and the Harbor Brook Wetlands Project, and into the City.

Harbor Brook as it enters Skunk City from the west

The greenway would cut through Skunk City to Grand Avenue, run along the edge of Burnet Park, and link back up with Harbor Brook where it crosses under Grand between Lydell and Herriman Streets. It would follow the brook and Amy Street to Seymour Street and then run across Fowler’s campus all the way to Fayette Street. It would cross Fayette on the existing abandoned train bridges, follow the County-owned abandoned railroad property to Geddes Street, cross that dangerous road on another abandoned train bridge, and then run along the north side of Fayette through Lipe Art Park.

A signalized crosswalk at Oswego Street—like the one on West Street at Otisco—would allow people to access the greenway from the Near Westside. The path would cross Fayette and West Streets with the existing rail viaduct and then come back down to street level on the existing rail siding that leads down into the parking lot behind the MOST. There, the greenway would link up with the Creekwalk and the rest of the metro area’s regional biking/walking network.

This greenway would connect major job centers, populous neighborhoods, three high schools, and three public parks. It would be almost entirely free from cars and almost perfectly level along its entire route. It would pass through one of the region’s most dynamic and least celebrated landscapes. It would be a very good addition to both Syracuse’s park system and its transportation network.