Category Archives: Planning

Get Rid of ReZone’s Apartment Bans

City Hall’s ReZone project is an opportunity to unmake the mistakes that have made Syracuse into a segregated city. That will require change, though, because the new zoning map is drawn in such a way that it will entrench inequality and exacerbate the disparities between the City’s neighborhoods.

To see how, look at Census Tract 45 on the Eastside. This tract includes most of Westcott—a neighborhood where people want to move, where new businesses are opening, where people are investing. But Westcott is also a neighborhood where there’s not enough housing to accommodate all the people who want to live there, so rents are going up, and more people are having to crowd into what little housing there is.

3,784 people live in 1,649 homes in tract 45. Just over half of those homes are in multifamily buildings (green on the map below). The remainder are 1-family houses (yellow on the map below). Both types of housing are mixed across the tract.

Housing in tract 45. Single family homes in yellow and multifamily homes in green.

ReZone allows single family housing everywhere in the City, but it bans multifamily housing from huge swaths of Syracuse, mostly in high opportunity neighborhoods like Westcott. The most recent draft of the new zoning map bans multifamily housing from most of tract 45. If it had been law when Westcott was originally laid out, less than half of the existing multifamily housing in the neighborhood could ever have been built.

Thankfully, all that existing multifamily housing will be grandfathered into ReZone as ‘noncomformities,’ but that label limits owners’ ability to invest in these homes—they won’t be able to make major renovations or additions—and the lot-by-lot ban on multifamily housing also will limit the opportunity to build enough new housing to relieve the neighborhood’s housing shortage. That will drive up rents even further, leaving Westcott unable to accommodate the people who want to live there and excluding people according to their income and wealth. The predictable result is increased residential segregation and the spread of gentrification to other parts of the City.

Westcott is a good neighborhood with access to jobs, businesses, schools and transportation. All of those things attract people looking to make a good life in Syracuse. But legal limits on multifamily housing exclude too many of those people who want to take advantage of all that Westcott and so many other neighborhoods have to offer. This exclusionary zoning is one root of Syracuse’s shameful history of economic and racial segregation, and ReZone is an opportunity to rip it out. The new ordinance must legalize multifamily housing across the entire City if neighborhoods of opportunity are going to be fully accessible to everyone who wants to live in them.

Finding Space for Social Distancing

Coronavirus has put space at a premium. A lot of the places where we gather weren’t set up for people to keep six feet apart from each other. Packing into crowded restaurants, churches, arenas, or malls just won’t work the way it used to, and if those businesses and institutions are going to work at all, they’re going to need more space.

You don’t have to look far to find extra space. Just watch this video from the Post Standard, and you’ll see just how much space Syracuse really has.

Acres and acres of empty streets, freeways, and parking lots. All of that space is up for grabs right now, and all of it could be put to better use.

Let’s put some numbers to that. This picture shows part of Armory Square—a spot where lots of people used to pack into tight spaces. But restaurants, shops, and offices only account for about half of the total space in this picture. Sidewalks and tiny Armory Square Park are another eighth of the space. The rest is parking garages, parking lots, parking lanes, and travel lanes. Fully one third of Armory Square is reserved for the movement and storage of cars.

This is so obviously stupid that people have fought against it for years. New buildings have gone up on parking lots, pop up markets have taken over entire streets, businesses have turned parking lanes into outdoor seating, and City Hall is looking at closing one block of Walton Street to cars for good.

Coronavirus only makes all that even more necessary in every city neighborhood—people need space to meet up, to have church, to pass each other on the sidewalk. Syracuse can’t work the old way—ample room for cars, but not enough for people—when we’re all keeping our distance. If it’s going to work at all, then we’re going to have to make more space for people, and the fastest way to do that is to take it back from cars.

Three Reasons to Free Streets From Cars

As Syracuse plans to reserve more of its streets for buses, bikers, and people on foot, it’s important to be clear about why that’s a good idea. There are at least three different reasons to keep cars off a city street.

To make an intersection safer

Intersections where lots of streets meet at odd angles can be hard to navigate. All the different traffic lights are confusing, and it’s hard to time them well. Traffic backs up, and no one’s sure when they’re supposed to go. People get frustrated, and that’s dangerous when so many of them are operating 2-ton steel motor vehicles.

Sometimes, cities can make these kinds of intersections simpler—and safer—by closing part of a street to car traffic. That’s what New York City did at Times Square, it’s what Boston has proposed for Kenmore Square, and it’s what Syracuse has done at Onondaga Circle, Columbus Circle, and is planning to do at Butternut Circle.

To create a destination

New York City’s Times Square redo also created a brand new public space in the middle of Manhattan—a place where people came to hang out, rest, and enjoy the city.

Plenty of other cities have closed small sections of central streets to create similar destinations: Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, Ithaca’s Commons, Boston’s Faneuil Hall. These ‘pedestrian malls’ are all at the center of their Downtowns—they’re all designed to draw people from across the metropolitan area, to act as commercial/cultural hubs for their regions.

But many tried to do this and failed. For every Ithaca Commons there’s a lifeless Buffalo Main Street. Arian Horbovetz recently argued that pedestrian malls are likely to fail in smaller cities, and that traffic calming is a better option. The reason is that, in Upstate’s car-dominated cities, most people could only reach these car-free destinations by car. Pedestrian malls will only work when people can walk, or bike, or bus to them.

To make it easier to get around

Cities can make it a lot easier for people to walk, bike, or bus by setting aside entire streets for those means of transportation. That was the idea behind taking cars off 14th Street in New York City and Market Street in San Francisco—buses running on those streets are now free from car traffic, and bikers on those streets don’t have to worry about getting run over anymore.

Syracuse can do the same. It was built to house and move a much higher mid-century population, and now it’s got plenty of extra streets that cars don’t need. Already, Onondaga Creek Boulevard is just for bikes and walkers. City Hall should do the same thing on Water Street between Erie Boulevard and Townsend Street, creating a safe, convenient, flat connection between Downtown and the Eastside.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 at 11.25.21 PM

The good news is that Syracuse doesn’t have to pick just one of these reasons for keeping cars off some of its streets. Simplifying an intersection can create a new public square where people can sit and enjoy the city. Turning a regular street into a bikeway can bring more people to a city’s public squares. Reserving one street for buses can simplify a whole bunch of intersections. All of these different reasons can work together to create a safer, simpler, happier city.

Walking to the Market

It was 5 degrees Saturday morning, but people still walked to the Farmers Market. They put up with the cold, the unsafe streets, and the snow-covered sidewalks because the Market provides access to good cheap food, and because Saturday’s weather was too common to change anybody’s weekly routine.

And if people were willing to walk there on Saturday, then you know they’re willing to walk there in just about any weather. People walk to the Market because that’s how they get around town.

So it’s a mess that walking to the Market is so dangerous. There aren’t sidewalks between Hiawatha Boulevard and the Market. That’s a problem all year, but especially when it snows. No sidewalks mean no one has to shovel a path for people to walk, and so no one does. That forces some people to walk through the snow, and it pushes others onto the streets.

Even where there are sidewalks, they don’t go where people need them. The streets around the Market and RTC are all designed for cars not people. They’re too long and too circuitous, taking people way out of their way to get where they’re going. That’s not much of a problem when you’re driving a car, but it’s a huge hassle on foot—why walk an extra hundred feet along a curving driveway when it’s a straight line from the bus stop to the bus station? There’s no good reason, so people don’t, and so they end up having to walk through more snow because no one ever gave serious thought to making life easier for people who get around on foot.

So it’s a very good thing that SMTC and City Hall are working on plans to make it safer and easier for people to walk, bike, and bus in this area. The RTC/Market Area Mobility Study catalogs many of the ways that this part of the City fails people who live car-free, and it proposes some simple fixes: paving the gravel path at Carbon Street, adding crosswalks, a separated bike path, SIDEWALKS.

Tens of thousands of people in Syracuse get around on foot, but too much of the City ignores their needs. The Market and the RTC need to be more accessible to more people, and SMTC’s ideas are a good starting point to make that happen.

Apartments Go Up and Rents Come Down

Two new residential projects planned for Downtown’s eastern edge indicate that developers may have finally run out of tenants willing and able to pay $2,000 a month to live in the city center, and now they’re building more affordable apartments.

For a full decade, this didn’t feel possible. Every single new apartment project got a front page story in the Post-Standard, they all filled up immediately, and they all charged ridiculous rents.

But for all of the noise it made, Downtown’s population boom wasn’t actually all that big. Downtown’s boosters estimate that about 1,500 more people live there now than did in 2010. That was a big increase for a small part of town, but it only accounts for 0.22% of the metro area’s total population. There just weren’t that many new apartments getting built, and so there weren’t that many people moving Downtown.

Developers understood that they were only building enough new housing to accommodate .22% of potential tenants, so they priced their apartments to attract the richest .22% of the metro area that they could get. $2,000 a month is an affordable rent for people making at least $75,000 a year. In 2010, only 71 Downtown households made that much. In 2018, 290 did. Households making at least $75,000 a year accounted for 83% of Downtown’s population growth over that period.


But there are only so many people willing and able to pay that much to live in the city center, and at least two developers think that part of the market is pretty much tapped-out. Grazi Zazzara (who previously turned the Blue Cross Blue Shield building into $2,000 a month apartments) and Matthew Paulus (who previously turned the Dietz Lantern factory into $2,000 a month apartments) have both recently announced separate projects to renovate Downtown buildings, and both developers will only charge people $1,000 a month to live in them. These guys are capitalists—they’re not lowering their rents out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because they don’t think they can get enough people to agree to pay $2,000 to live in these new apartments, and that’s because most people willing and able to pay that much already have a $2,000 apartment to live in.


Syracuse has a housing shortage. Too many people can’t make their rent, too many houses are poisoning the people who live in them, there are too few section 8 vouchers for everybody who needs them. These are the most pressing housing problems that City Hall, HUD, and all of the housing non-profits need to address.

But while all of those actors are attacking those problems, it’s good to see private developers building so much new housing that they’re forced to lower the rent in order to attract tenants who make a little less than the people living in Downtown’s penthouses. Those new tenants will still be richer than the City as a whole, those developers will still call the apartments ‘luxury,’ there’s still a lot more work to do to make Syracuse’s housing market equitable, but this is a sure step in the right direction.

Trouble with the Curb

In the 2020 State of the City address, Mayor Ben Walsh announced that City Hall is going to try and find a way to take full responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and snow removal, and he announced that City Hall is going to repair a lot more pavement. These two promises have the potential to remake Syracuse’s streets so that they work for everybody in the City.

Streets are the publicly-owned space (all of it) between private property lines. That space contains the paved lanes where cars drive and park, and it also contains the raised concrete area where people walk and wait for the bus, where neighbors stop and chat, where kids set up lemonade stands.

For decades (forever?) City Hall has spent millions of dollars to maintain the portion of that public space below the curb, and it has sheepishly suggested that everybody else could, maybe, if it wasn’t too much trouble, use their own time, money, and energy to maintain the little plot of public space above the curb in front of their property. This local experiment in the Tragedy of the Commons has left Syracuse with broken sidewalks covered in snow, and it’s left people dangerously exposed to car-traffic because the only place they can walk is on the pavement below the curb.

So it’s a big deal that Mayor Walsh is trying to get City Hall to take full responsibility for the full width of the public street instead of confining DPW’s maintenance work to the car-dominated area between the curbs. So many people get around Syracuse some way other than in a car, and they need wide, clear, level, ADA-compliant sidewalks across the City. The Mayor’s commitment sidewalk maintenance can meet that need.

But it would be much better to get past this backwards notion that got Syracuse in this mess in the first place. The notion that the street is made up of two parts—space for cars below the curb, and sidewalks above the curb. One the real street that has to be maintained, and the other a nice amenity if we can afford it.

The Mayor’s commitment to major road reconstruction has the potential to eliminate that division by redesigning city streets to actually accommodate all of the different people who need to use them in different ways.

Bollards that carve out space below the curb for bikes, raised crosswalks that extend the sidewalk past the curb through the intersection, additional curbs that separate bus lanes from all other paved lanes, getting rid of curbs entirely, banning motor vehicles even below the curb—all of these potential changes blow apart the idea that the curb is some special boundary line that marks the edges of the real street. All help people make good use of the whole street—from property line to property line—in a variety of ways, and all make it clear that City Hall has an obvious responsibility to maintain the whole street for all of those uses.

None of this is guaranteed. The Mayor only announced his intention to maintain every sidewalk—City Hall still has to work out the actual details of how to actually do it. And more street paving could actually make Syracuse worse if it’s just a way to reassure car-drivers that City Hall still thinks they’re the most important people on the street.

But the promise is there, the potential is there. In a City where 30% of households don’t have a car, 20% of people are too young to drive, and 13% of workers walk to their jobs, it’s ridiculous that local government has left its sidewalks to deteriorate so badly for so long. This new commitment to sidewalk maintenance can change that, and a new understanding of how people really use our streets can make sure that it never happens again.

ReZone and Syracuse’s Housing Shortage

There aren’t enough places to live in many Syracuse neighborhoods, and the City’s new zoning ordinance needs to help do something about it. Between 2000 and 2016, in 18 census tracts containing ⅓ of the City’s population, the number of people looking for a place to live increased faster than did the total number of apartments and houses. In those neighborhoods, the housing shortage caused depopulation, high rents, and gentrification. ReZone can alleviate some of that stress by allowing more housing construction in those neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods where growth in the number of households outpaced growth in housing supply from 2000 to 2016

These are the neighborhoods where the housing shortage has gotten worse since 2000. They are all places where, relative to the rest of Syracuse, more families are moving in, but there are fewer apartments and houses for those new families to move in to.

Even though new people moved into all of these neighborhoods, population actually decreased in some of them (red in the map on the left). That’s because the average size of the families living in many of these neighborhoods decreased (yellow in the map on the right).

The housing shortage is pushing up rents (orange in the map on the left) in Downtown, Franklin Square, Westcott, Eastwood, Salt Springs, the Northside and the Valley. Housing costs are becoming unaffordable (brown in the map on the right) for more people living in most of these neighborhoods, and even in some other neighborhoods where rents are going down like parts of the Northside, Tipp Hill, Eastwood, the Valley, and the West End.

The two neighborhoods with housing shortages where rents are going up but people are more able to afford them are Franklin Square and Downtown. This is gentrification, and more housing is the only way to give more people access to all of the benefits that come from living in these two increasingly wealthy neighborhoods.

In Westcott, the Northside, and parts of the Valley, rents are going up, people are less able to afford them, and households are growing. These are neighborhoods where people want to be, but high housing costs are forcing them to find more roommates to share resources and split the rent. Something similar is happening in Hawley-Green as well. More, smaller, cheaper apartments could relieve pressure on the people living in those neighborhoods and better match the types of housing available to what people need.

In Tipp Hill, the West End, and Eastwood south of James, rents are falling but people are still increasingly unable to afford them, and the population overall is falling because households are shrinking. These are also places where more, smaller, cheaper apartments would give people living options better suited to their changing financial and living situations.

In parts of the Southside, Near Westside, Nob Hill, and Skunk City, rents are falling and becoming more affordable for the people who live in those neighborhoods, but overall population is falling because households are getting smaller. In these places, it should be legal to subdivide existing houses into smaller apartments in order to make more room for people who want to take advantage of the increasingly affordable housing.

 

New housing of different kinds would be so helpful in all of these neighborhoods, ReZone’s new zoning map will determine whether or not it’s legal to build new housing in any of them.

City Hall has released four drafts of that map in the last three years. The current December 2019 draft, on the right, addresses the housing shortage in some neighborhoods, but not others. It will allow new apartments across Downtown, Franklin Square, lower James Street, Nob Hill, and the Southside.

The map also allows 1-family houses to be converted to 2-(or more)-family houses in all of Tipp Hill, Skunk City, the Near Westside, Hawley-Green, and the Northside. But the most recent draft is worse than City Hall’s first map from February 2017 (above on the left). That earlier map allowed more housing with looser parking and setback restrictions in the MX (blue) zoning districts in these neighborhoods, but each successive draft has reduced MX zoning in all of them.

The new map also preserves the ban on multi-family housing, a ban that can only make the housing shortage worse, in most of Westcott, the West End, the Valley, and Eastwood. In those neighborhoods, big 1-family houses are either filling up with young people squeezing in to save on rent, or they’re emptying out as smaller families struggle to afford apartments too big for their needs.

The housing shortage in Syracuse is pushing up rents, emptying out some neighborhoods, and making it too difficult to move into others. It’s causing depopulation and gentrification. It’s bad, and one part of fixing it is removing City Hall’s purely administrative ban on new housing. ReZone is a chance to do that.

Safe Streets without Traffic Law Enforcement

Car-drivers break the law all the time. They speed, they roll through stop signs, they run red lights, they drive over crosswalks while people are trying to cross them on foot. They do all that because it’s accepted and expected behavior, even though it’s also dangerous and illegal behavior.

In a better world, this is a problem the police could solve by enforcing existing laws more strictly. If police actually ticketed anyone who broke one of those laws, people would break them less often, and the City would be safer for everyone.

But in the world as it is, we know that the police won’t ticket just anyone for breaking these laws. Traffic enforcement often falls hardest in certain neighborhoods on certain kinds of people, and it often results in gross injustice. This Summer the police beat Shaolin Moore after accosting him because his car stereo was too loud. In October 2017, the police sexually assaulted Torrence Jackson after stopping him because he signaled a turn in his car too close to the intersection. Pretext stops like these make Syracuse more dangerous and unjust, and we can’t give the police even more latitude to perpetrate that injustice.

What the City needs instead is to make its streets into places where people don’t want to break the traffic laws—places where it’s hard drive recklessly.

Right now, the travel lanes on most streets are 10’ wide even though a Honda CRV is only 6’ wide. All that extra room means that someone driving an SUV can go real fast without worrying too much about hitting any other cars. Narrow those lanes, and car-drivers will take notice and slow down all on their own without the need for police officers with speed cameras.

Right now, street corners are curved so that cars can round them without slowing down much at all. This lets car-drivers turn at speed, so they rarely slow down enough to notice if someone’s trying to walk across the street. Straighten those corners out, and car-drivers will have to turn more slowly, giving people on foot a better chance to actually cross the street.

The City’s streets aren’t safe because people drive on them recklessly and illegally. Too often, when the police do actually enforce basic traffic laws, it has nothing to do with safety and it leads to injustice. A better way to make Syracuse safer is to reconstruct the streets themselves so that people choose to drive more carefully all on their own.

Tax Downtown Parking Lots Out of Existence

Property owners enjoy a de facto tax break when they waste valuable land Downtown by using it as a parking lot instead of something more productive. Take these two lots on the 200 block of East Washington Street. Lot A is a Bank and Lot B is a surface parking lot.

lotalotb

City Hall says that Lot A is worth $362,000 and Lot B is worth $1,071,000. Despite that, TIMWIN LLC, the owner of Lot B, pays $47,904.87 in annual property taxes while KeyBank, the owner of Lot A, pays $133,739.39—almost 3 times a much.

KeyBank pays so much more even though its land is worth so much less because it’s actually putting its land to good use. Lot A has an actual building on it—a four story bank branch. City Hall assesses the value of that full property—the land plus the building—at $3,134,000. Meanwhile, the full value of Lot B is only $1,094,000 because TIMWIN is letting it languish as a parking lot.

This is a problem across Downtown. Property owners just sit on valuable land without doing much at all to improve it. They make the City worse off, and they get a tax break for doing it. 

The solution is to tax parking lots as if they were developed. The building on Lot A increases the lot’s value by 866%. Put a surchage on Lot B’s tax bill as if it were developed to the same intensity, and TIMWIN LLC would have to pay $395,676.48—more than 8 times as much as they do today. To make that payment, TIMWIN LLC would have to actually develop the property so that it could generate more revenue.

That new development could take a lot of different shapes—housing, retail, office, space, whatever—but anything would be better than a parking lot. Tax reform can make it happen.

ReZone’s Final Draft

Last week City Hall released the final draft of its new zoning ordinance and zoning map. This new draft includes some big changes on parking, transit oriented development, and housing opportunity.

Parking

City Hall should eliminate parking minimums entirely. They’re regressive, expensive, polluting regulations that subsidize car ownership at the expense of the poorest people living in Syracuse.

ReZone’s final draft doesn’t go that far, but it does reduce parking requirements significantly, particularly for residential properties. In the March 2018 draft, almost all types of residential building were required to provide one parking space for each housing unit. The final draft eliminates that requirement for 1-family houses, accessory dwelling units, and boarding houses, and it reduces that requirement to .5 spaces per unit on properties that can house three or more families. (Strangely, the one space per unit rule still applies to 2-family houses, but only if they’re built on a lot of more than 5,000 square feet).

The final draft also does make it easier for all types of properties (residential, commercial, and mixed) to get around these baseline parking requirements. It includes a 30% reduction for properties within 1000 feet of a bus stop (you can read more about earlier versions of this exemption here and here) and a new 15% reduction for properties that provide space to park 1 bike for every 4 cars.  Crucially, it allows individual properties to combine multiple reductions (the March 2018 draft had capped the total cumulative reduction at 75%), and it rounds the required number of parking spaces down to the nearest whole number (so a 3-family house—which would need 1.5 spaces—only has to provide 1 space, not 2).

The only bad change in this draft’s parking regulations is a new requirement that any property making use of these exemptions must apply for a special use permit or site plan. That means that there will be a public hearing where NIMBYs might show up to demand that the City look out for the interests of car-owners instead of everybody else. Here’s hoping the Planning Commission has the spine to tell them ‘no.’

 

Transit Oriented Development

Centro doesn’t currently run any kind of rapid transit, but they’re working on it. The SMTC proposed two BRT lines in 2017, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team proposed a third when he took office. When that new service starts running, as many people as possible need to be able to live and work near those lines.

Proposed BRT lines


This new draft will make that more possible. The Eastside BRT line will probably run in the Erie Boulevard Median—a route that will take it past miles and miles of parking lots. This draft changed many of those lots—at least on the south side of the street—from Commercial to either MX-2 or MX-3. That incentivizes mixed-use infill, it will bring any new development to the property line, and it will limit the amount of off-street car parking on those lots.

The northern end of the proposed SU-RTC line has similar problems—there’s a lot of empty space around the RTC and not a lot of housing. The March 2018 draft would have banned anybody from living there, but this new draft allows multi-family housing to be built on all of the empty space north of Park Street and Hiawatha Boulevard.

And finally, this draft changed a bunch of properties around the intersection of South Ave and Valley Drive—a proposed stop on the Eastwood-OCC line—from MX-2 to MX-3. That change allows for taller buildings which means more people will be able to live and work right at a BRT stop.

 

Housing Opportunity

City Hall’s Land Use & Development Plan—the document that was supposed to guide the ReZone project—called for letting more multi-family housing in more neighborhoods. That would have allowed Syracuse to accommodate a greater variety of people, and it would have made the City’s neighborhoods more resilient in the face of demographic and economic change.

So it’s bad that each new draft of the ReZone map has banned multi-family housing from more of the City. That will lead to either depopulation or displacement, and it’s a totally unnecessary response to neighborhood demands to keep commercial development out of residential areas.

This new draft continues that unfortunate trend. It switched dozens of properties along Teall and Euclid Avenues from MX-1—a zoning classification that allows multifamily housing—to R-2—a zoning classification that bans multi-family housing. This change will make these areas less walkable, less affordable, and less able to support quality bus service.

On the other hand, this draft restricted commercial development in neighborhoods like University Hill and Westcott without restricting housing opportunity. It did this by changing parts of those neighborhoods from mixed use zoning to R-4 or R-5—purely residential classifications that still allow multi-family housing.

There are other changes—clarification on rowhouses, tweaks to the height restrictions—but these are the big ones. They will determine who can live where, how people will get around, what neighborhoods become. Those are high stakes—Syracuse has to get this right.