Category Archives: Community

Public Parks and Climate Change

Climate change is here, and Syracuse is already feeling it. The last several summers have been some of the hottest on record, and new weather patterns are scrambling all our seasons. We need to do everything we can to stop climate change, of course—driving less, greening the grid—but in the meantime we also have to mitigate the negative effects of climate change that are already here. City parks are some of our best tools to do that. 

In a map of average temperature variation across the City, parks pop out as islands of cool. They are 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the city on average. This is because of their ample tree cover and the lack of heat retaining buildings, and it’s a big part of why people flock to parks in June, July, and August. In a town built for harsh winters where many houses have never had air conditioning, parks offer a respite in increasingly hot summers.

Public pools are a super-charged version of this same phenomenon. Many families and children build their summers around the public pool because it’s a fun, safe, affordable, guaranteed way to beat the heat. That’s why kids were so insistent that City Hall find a way to open up the pools last summer—we had a historically hot summer and there wasn’t anything else to do.

Climate change isn’t just about rising temperatures—it will also cause more rainfall. Parks can act as ‘green infrastructure’ that protects neighborhoods from flooding. On the Eastside, the Barry Park Detention Basin is a constructed wetland designed to keep Meadowbrook from flooding, and it’s worked. City Hall should construct a similar pond along Onondaga Creek to minimize flooding there too. And as an added bonus, people actually like living near Barry Park pond.

This is all wrapped up with racial segregation and economic inequality. Homes in richer whiter census tracts and more likely to have private backyard pools than homes in poorer blacker neighborhoods. Barry Park protects home values in a richer whiter area while the lack of similar protection has made it impossible to build wealth through homeownership in a poorer blacker neighborhood. This is environmental racism, It’s up to City Hall to combat it.

. . .

Parks are not just amenities. They are not just . In the 21st century, in a warming world, they are necessary community infrastructure. It’s time we started acting like it.

Downtown’s suburban population

We’ve all heard about Downtown’s growing residential population, but the most recent census figures only put the neighborhood at 3,298 permanent residents. That’s just 2.3% of Syracuse’s entire population, and it’s far fewer people than live in Eastwood, the Southside, Westcott, or just about any other city neighborhood. If Downtown were a village, it’d be medium sized for Onondaga County—bigger than Liverpool, but smaller than Fayetteville and less than half as large as Baldwinsville.

Downtown’s village-sized residential population is dwarfed by the roughly 20,000 people who commute into the neighborhood for work. 78% of those workers live outside of the City. The Downtown that exists during the workday—the Central Business District filled with commuters—disappears at night and on the weekends when its primarily suburban population is absent.

This same pattern repeats itself at festivals like the Taste of Syracuse, and entertainment events like Symphoria concerts. These crowds sustain Downtown’s businesses, its infrastructure, its vitality—they’re what make Downtown different from other city neighborhoods and the villages that its purely residential population otherwise resembles.

But they also mean that when there are lots of people Downtown, a majority of them likely live outside the City, and that throws a lot of Downtown-specific policy choices into a new light. City tax cuts for Downtown companies often go to supporting suburban households. Panhandling bans protect suburban visitors from having to interact with city residents. Circulator bus routes that skip the Hub and only run from 11am to 7pm are designed to ferry suburban office workers to business lunches and happy hours for the short time that they spend within the city limits every day.

Downtown is the City’s center, but it’s also—in an economic, cultural, and governmental sense—the center of the entire region. That makes it some of the most contested space in the county, and it is key to understanding this demographically dynamic neighborhood.

Preparing for sustainable, equitable growth

A lot of people are pretty pessimistic about Syracuse’s prospects for future population growth. ‘Our best days are behind us,’ ‘this place is going nowhere fast,’ ‘who’d want to live somewhere with this weather?’ People who think this way are fatalists—they think Syracuse is fated to decline, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

But there are other fatalists who are more optimistic about Syracuse’s future. They think that Syracuse is fated to grow again because of some global phenomenon—usually climate change—is bound to draw people to the City in the future. We don’t have to do anything to make that happen, we just have to wait.

This optimistic fatalism has always been less popular than the pessimistic version, but covid is giving it something of a moment. Early on in the pandemic, Business Insider named Syracuse the 21st best city in America to live in after the pandemic. They cited the metro area’s low unemployment rate and the high share of jobs that could be worked from home. Local boosters also touted the region’s low population density, light car traffic, easy access to nature, and highly rated suburban school districts to make a sharp contrast with New York City where the virus was raging in the Spring and early Summer. And this past week, the Post Standard reported that at least a handful of households from New York City have actually relocated to Central New York because of the pandemic.

It’s easy to overstate these effects—nine new residents aren’t going to change the fate of a metropolitan area with two-thirds of a million people—but they highlight the problem with optimistic fatalism: population growth will only result in positive change for the entire community if we do the work to prepare for it ahead of time.

The Syracuse metro area’s most existential problem is uneven growth across a region riven by minor municipal borders. For the last 70 years, population and economic growth has occurred at the urban area’s fringe, and that fringe has been expanding ever outward. As the fringe passes through any particular city, village, town, or school district, it provides temporary prosperity and facilitates municipal expansion—so villages lay sewer lines, school district’s build athletic facilities, towns subsidize new subdivisions. But that fringe has always eventually moved on and left smaller populations and lower tax revenues in its wake.

This is why Syracuse can’t afford to repair its roads, it’s why Northern Lights is a ghost town, it’s why Liverpool is closing elementary schools, and—if this pattern is allowed to continue—it will be why Onondaga County struggles to maintain the massive sewer system that it’s building out now.

So when we learned that nine people moved from New York City to Syracuse because of covid, and when we learned that one of them moved into the City while the other eight settled in Manlius at the current edge of the exurban fringe, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. That’s just a continuation of the demographic processes that have been playing out in Onondaga County for 200 years.

And this is why optimistic fatalism about Syracuse’s future is so frustrating—metro level population growth, all on it’s own, is not a cause for optimism. We do need more people, and it is good that these three households moved to Central New York, but more than that we need to do the preparatory work to that will allow us to harness that population increase to help meet the community’s biggest challenges.

We need to figure out how to grow sustainably and equitably. How to accommodate new people while also preserving farmland and wilderness, how to bring new people into old neighborhoods without pushing out existing residents, how to reorient our transportation system so that it can move more people more efficiently, how to modernize our governments to meet the needs of a metropolitan community, how to secure the benefits of growth and prosperity for the people who need them most.

We should be optimistic because Syracuse’s best days are ahead of us, but we can’t be fatalists because there’s too much work to do to create that better future.

Demographic change between 2010-2019, part 3

Population is a function of two variables: the size of households and the number of households. If households get bigger, population will also grow even if the total number of households remains the same. And if the total number of households increases, population will also grow even if the average size of those households remains the same.

But although these two factors both influence the overall population count similarly, they have very different effects on the demographic reality that underlies that top line figure.

One of the main differences has to do with housing supply, demand, and pricing. If Syracuse’s population change was entirely the result of changing household size, that wouldn’t mean very much for housing prices—a three-person family that becomes a four-person family doesn’t necessarily need a new house, but a block that grows from three one-person households to four one-person households does. If that block doesn’t get a fourth house, then the household that gets left out is likely to be the one that can afford the least in rent.

This simple story played out over and over again across Syracuse between 2010 and 2019.

% change in the number of households by census tract.

Changes in the number of households largely reflect changes in the population across the City. Between 2010 and 2019, Syracuse’s overall population decreased by 1.3%, and the total number of households decreased by 2.1%

The neighborhoods that gained the most households (teal on the map) were Eastwood, the Eastside between Westcott and 690, Elmwood, University Hill, Downtown and Franklin Square. Neighborhoods that lost households (orange on the map) were the Southside along Midland Ave, the Westside along Onondaga and Geddes Streets, parts of the near Northside, and the vast majority of the Eastside.

% change in the number of housing units by census tract.

There was very little change in the total number of housing units in Syracuse (just a 3% increase overall) because the City is “built out” in the sense that it’s extremely difficult—from both a legal and financial standpoint—to construct new housing in old city neighborhoods.

Across the City, the vast majority of census tracts saw minor variations in available housing stock. A few dozen homes added to or removed from neighborhoods that house several thousand people. The only major areas of growth (purple on the map) were Franklin Square and University Hill, two neighborhoods that, taken together, saw a 32% increase in the number of housing units available between 2010 and 2019.

Decline was more widespread (yellow on the map), as would be expected in a City with a slightly shrinking population where it’s easier—and a matter of government policy—to demolish old buildings than it is to build new ones.

change in vacancy rate by census tract.

Combine those two measures—total number of households and total number of housing units—and you get the vacancy rate: the percentage of unoccupied housing units in an area. This map shows census tracts where the vacancy rate decreased in red, and those where it increased in brown. So much of the map is lightly shaded because changes in the number of households and housing units tracked pretty well across most of the city—where new families moved, new housing was built, where families left, housing was demolished. The City’s built environment adapted to its changing demographic reality.

A great example of this adaptation is Franklin Square. That census tract saw huge growth in the number of households over the last decade (54%), but it also saw a similarly large increase in the number of housing units (59%), so the vacancy rate barely changed (+3%).

The real outlier is Downtown, where the total number of households increased by 43%, but the number of housing units available only increased by 6%, so the vacancy rate decreased by 24%.

% change in median rent by census tract.

And changes in vacancy rate translate pretty well to changes in the cost of rent. Although Franklin Square and Downtown occupy a similar place in Syracuse’s housing market—in terms of who’s moving there, what kind of housing they’re looking for, the intensity of population growth—median rent in Franklin Square actually decreased by 5% between 2010 and 2019 relative to the rest of Syracuse, while median rent Downtown increased by 33% over that same time.

For the most part, this same pattern holds elsewhere: rents went up where the vacancy rate dropped, and dropped where the vacancy rate went up.

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.

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.

National Elections are Local Too

The City of Syracuse is governed by City Hall, Onondaga County, New York State, and the Federal Government. Each level of government has jurisdiction here, and each one owes a responsibility to this community that goes beyond their duty to its residents as individual voters. National elections are local elections too.


Syracuse’s population loss is such a mammoth problem and is the result of so many different factors that it’s often hard to pin on any one cause, but if the 2020 Census declares that fewer than 145,270 people live in the City, it will be Donald Trump’s fault.

First, because he intentionally sabotaged the census count in a transparent effort to deny places like Syracuse the federal funding and political representation that they deserve.

Second—and more importantly—because this racist, xenophobic President and his congressional enablers have made it almost impossible to immigrate to America. For more than 200 years, Syracuse has grown and prospered because people have moved here from somewhere else. For the last 20 years, those people have been moving here from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan. Keeping people from coming to America is keeping them from coming to Syracuse, and it’s killing the City.


Coronavirus destroyed the local economy, and—because local governments fund themselves with a direct tax on local economic activity—it has destroyed City Hall’s and Onondaga County’s municipal budgets. The Federal Government at least tried to help the economy, but—for purely ideological reasons—it has ignored local governments. Congressional Republicans—including Syracuse’s representative, John Katko—are denying City Hall the relief that it so obviously needs.

This is an ongoing disaster for Syracuse. It’s crippled the city libraries (but not the suburban ones), it closed the pools during a record-breaking heatwave, it’s making it even harder and more dangerous to walk anywhere in a town where more than 1 in 4 families don’t own a car.


I could go on. There are so many ways that local issues depend primarily on the action of the Federal Government, and so if you care about this community you have to care about national politics too. Syracuse depends on it.

Who will ride BRT?

Talk to non-bus-riders about Centro, and eventually they’ll say something to the effect of “you know a specific challenge that we have in Syracuse is that bus ridership is associated with socio-economic class, and so the question is how do we get people of all classes to ride the bus. How does Centro get me to leave my car at home?”

That question comes from a good place. Public transportation is a public service, and it should be no more stigmatized than checking out a library book or drinking water from the tap. Asking where that stigma comes from and how to eliminate it is good.

But instead of asking how better bus service will work out for me specifically, it’s better to work from the other end and think about who is most likely to benefit from improvements to Syracuse’s public transportation system.

Getting around on Centro takes time. Slow buses meander through City neighborhoods, and they run so infrequently that getting to and from anywhere includes a lot of wait time—you might only need a half an hour to shop for groceries, but if there’s an hour gap between runs, then an hour is how long you’re going to be spending at Tops.

This depresses ridership because it limits the number of places that any bus rider has time to get to in a day. Riding Centro to and from Tops takes so much time and effort that it’s often practically impossible to then ride Centro to and from the doctors office, a PTA meeting, your aunt’s house. Forget trying to run an errand by bus after getting off from work.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase immediately because the people who have to plan their whole entire day around running one errand by bus would all of a sudden have the time to ride the bus two or three or four places.

***

Some people can’t or won’t abide Centro’s current inconvenient service, and they avoid it at all costs by walking and or biking around town. That’s not always convenient either, especially if you’re going very far, the sidewalks are busted up, and it’s snowing. Or maybe they bought a car, but can’t really afford to fill the tank or to keep it fixed up.

BRT can offer these people a better option: a service that’s safer, more convenient, and more economical than what they’re doing now.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase because more people will start riding the bus instead of walking 3 miles to work.

***

In the long term, better bus service builds its own ridership by making it possible for more people to build lives that include the bus.

Imagine a person moving to Syracuse from Boston to start a new job. They might make enough to be able to comfortably afford a car and a house with a garage, but they didn’t drive in Boston and would be happy to use public transportation in Syracuse if it was convenient enough. BRT can offer that convenience, and it can precipitate a series of major decisions—apartment or house, city or suburb, car payment or no—that lead that person to ride the bus because they have built a life where riding the bus makes sense.

Or imagine a kid moving out from their parents’ house into their first apartment and needing to provide their own transportation for the first time in their life. Right now, that might mean getting a place with a parking spot and buying a crappy used car. With BRT, it could mean finding an apartment near a station.

Run faster, more frequent service, and ridership will increase in the long term because more people will choose to build lives that account for and rely on the bus.

So to go back to that original question—”how will BRT get me to leave my car at home?”—the answer is that it might not. If your family owns multiple cars, if you don’t live within a short safe walk of a bus stop, if your neighborhood is so spread out that it can’t support good bus service, then there’s not a lot that Centro can do to create a service that will work for you. 

But there is so much that Centro can do to create a service that works for so many more people. Faster, more frequent service will get more people riding the bus more often. Better bus service will get current bus riders riding more often, it will get new people to ride the bus, it will make life better for people who rely on the bus in their daily lives, and it will come from making that way of living more attractive to more people.

Who Lives Downtown?

The dominant narrative of Downtown’s resurgence goes something like this: after years of neglect, a huge change in popular attitudes towards ‘the city’ have drawn people back to Downtown and supported millions of dollars in investment in new businesses, building renovations, and housing. No longer is Downtown just a place to go for work—a central business district—now it’s a real neighborhood where people actually live, a place where you can feel “the hum of city life.”

Which is why the people pushing this narrative cite Downtown’s rising residential population. 1,019 more people lived Downtown in 2018 than did in 2010. What better proof of the area’s resurgence than that more people are moving there?

But when you dig into the census data, that statistic doesn’t fit so neatly with the resurgence narrative. Focusing on the 1,019 increase in total population means ignoring the 2,146 people who already lived Downtown in 2010. Only talking about total population obscures the different reasons that people actually live within the 311 acre district, and it erases the people who live in public housing, the shelters, and the jail in Syracuse’s premier urban playground.

This 2010 map represents each resident of Syracuse as a single colored dot. The dots correspond to each person’s race—blue dots are White people, orange dots are Latinx, red dots are Asian, and green dots are Black people.

Here is that same map zoomed in on Downtown. The thick gray line that curves across the top and right side of the image is I81. The thick gray line on the left side of the image is the West Street Arterial. The thin horizontal line through the middle of the image is Fayette Street, and the thin vertical lines are, from left to right, Clinton, Salina, State, and Townsend Streets. The bottom of the image is Adams Street. Got your bearings?

One remarkable thing about this image is just how much of Downtown’s population is concentrated in just a few blocks. Nobody lives in the white space that dominates the map. People only lived on 21 of the 131 city blocks that make up the neighborhood. 

Old buildings with new lofts at Hanover Square

It’s not hard to break those 21 populated blocks up into four categories according to housing type and demographic profiles of their populations.

The biggest group is a single block that contains the urban renewal high rises at Presidential Plaza. In 2010 it was home to 668 people or about 31% of Downtown’s total population. 51% of the people living there were white, 38% were Asian, and about 8% were Black. This single block accounted for 85% of Downtown’s total Asian population in 2010. These towers are “popular with medical school students and staff,” and are much more likely to house people who commute to University Hill than the rest of Downtown. 

The next largest group was low-income housing—Clinton Plaza, the YMCA Senior Apartments and Mens’ Residence, and Catholic Charities. These three census blocks contained 27% (574 people) of Downtown’s total population, and they were 43% White and 47% Black.

The third most populous group was the County Jail. The 2010 census listed it as the “primary residence” of 548 people—a full quarter of all the people living in Downtown. The inmate population was 38% White and 61% Black. Those 332 incarcerated Black people accounted for 50% of all Black people living Downtown during the 2010 census (those living in low income housing were another 40%).

And finally, sixteen Downtown blocks containing 17% of Downtown’s total 2010 population made up what you might call the “resurgence” areas. This is Armory Square, Hanover Square, and the area around Dinosaur Barbecue where developers turned old commercial buildings into apartments marketed to white-collar professionals. These areas are not very densely populated—usually between 20 and 40 people living on each block—and they’re overwhelmingly white—85%.

The most recent population data for Downtown isn’t broken down all the way to the block-level—the Census Bureau only does that every 10 years—but by looking at block groups, we can make some educated guesses about the composition of Downtown’s population change. The census breaks Downtown into two block groups divided by Montgomery Street. Block Group 1—west of Montgomery, blue on the map—contains all of Downtown’s low-income housing and almost all of its resurgence blocks, but not Presidential Plaza and not the Jail. Block Group 2—east of Montgomery, red on the map—contains the Jail and Presidential Plaza, no low-income housing, and only two resurgence blocks which contain a total of just 18 people.

Between 2010 and 2018, Block Group 1 grew by 36% (326 people, or 32% of Downtown’s total population increase). The Block Group’s population became slightly whiter (from 58% to 60%), and it’s Asian population more than tripled (from 41 to 129 people, or from 4% to 10% of the total population). These changes are partly due to the growth of resurgence housing (like the Pike Block, a 2013 project that converted several 19th century commercial buildings into 67 apartments), but also new apartments (like Creekwalk Commons, a 2014 146-bed apartment building) that differed from older loft renovations in that they were marketed to students rather than professionals. In this way, the demographic profile of Presidential Plaza moved east as students moved further into Downtown. 

At the same time, the Black population in Block Group 1 actually decreased (from 279 to 261) even as the overall population of the area grew by more than a third. Consequently, the Black portion of Block Group 1’s population dropped from 31% to 21%. This is probably due to a decrease in low-income housing Downtown.

Over this same period of time, Block Group 2 grew by 56% (693 people, or 68% of Downtown’s total population increase). The vast majority of this increase came from growth in the White population (451 people, an 80% increase), so that Block Group 2’s total population went from 46% White to 53%. The Black and Asian portions of the population also increased (by 121 and 29 people, respectively), but their share of the Block Group’s total population fell (from 31% to 26%, and from 21% to 15%, respectively). This growth is partly the result of new housing in renovated high rises—like the new SUNY Upstate dorm that houses 272 students and opened in 2012—and partly the result of rising prison population at the chronically overcrowded Justice Center.

Geneva Towers, a high-rise SUNY Upstate dormitory in Presidential Plaza

So take this with a grain of salt, but here’s what it looks like the census data is saying:

New market rate apartments have accommodated modest growth in the resurgence population, and that population has spread over more of Downtown. Since 2010, developers have built new apartments marketed to professionals on Salina, Warren, and State Streets.

These same parts of Downtown have also seen an increase in the population that commutes to University Hill. Creekwalk Commons is explicitly marketed to students, and the terms of its leases (tenants rent bedrooms rather than full apartments) are similar to those of other new large apartment buildings on University Hill.

But these changes are dwarfed by the enormous increase of housing on Downtown’s west side, where a single renovated high rise accommodated more new residents than the dozens of tiny new projects around Armory Square, and where the system of mass incarceration has put even more people in prison.

And at the same time, all this growth has been counteracted by a decrease in the number of people living in low-income housing Downtown. That’s the definition of displacement, and it has probably led to a decrease in Downtown’s non-incarcerated Black population.

Some of those trends could definitely change in the near future. A redeveloped Clinton Plaza would bring back a lot of low-income housing, and Blueprint 15 could add new low-income housing if it expands its footprint as it should. New York State’s bail reform could significantly decrease the number of people living in the jail if it’s allowed to work right.

So when you hear people talk about Downtown coming back, about how so many more people are living there, remember that the numbers they’ll use to justify that narrative include the the high rises, include the shelters, and include the jail.