Category Archives: Planning

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.

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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.

Walking to Armory Square

Syracuse City Hall is working with the SMTC to make it easier for people to walk around Armory Square. That’s great news! Lots of people get around that area on foot, and they often have to put up with cars blocking the crosswalks, speeding down the street, failing to yield to pedestrians at stop signs, etc.

SMTC has lots of good ideas—like widened sidewalks, raised intersections, and curbless streets—to make the area safer by slowing cars down and giving pedestrians more room. They’re even talking about banning cars from Walton Street entirely to create a ‘pedestrian mall.’

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That all sounds great, but it takes more than banning cars to make a place truly accessible to people who don’t drive. 

Look at Downtown’s other pedestrian mall. You know, the 200 block of East Genesee Street between Warren and Montgomery. If you’d forgotten about that block, it’s probably just because no one actually goes there. Despite having all the same features that SMTC is talking about for Walton—landscaping, furniture, no curbs—few pedestrians use it because there’s no reason to walk there. No businesses occupy any of the storefronts that line the street even though there are popular restaurants and retail on all the surrounding blocks.

There’s another kind of mall in Syracuse that’s no good for pedestrians in a different way. Inside, Destiny USA is the ultimate pedestrian environment. It’s an entire downtown’s worth of retail compressed into a highly walkable, climate controlled, carless simulacrum of Syracuse’s old city center. People go there to walk for exercise without ever entering any of the stores. The problem is that, even though walking is the only way to get around the mall, almost no one actually walks to the mall. It’s surrounded on all sides by parking lots, so nobody can live within walking distance of it, and because no one lives within walking distance of it, most everybody has to drive to get there.

Even though these two places look very different, they both failed for the same reason: they’re isolated attempts to carve out pedestrian space in a car-dominated city. Genesee Street is a pedestrian shortcut between Clinton Square and Columbus Circle, but too few people actually walk between those two places to support a business that might open up on the first floor of the State Tower Building. Destiny has always catered to car traffic from Canada and Pennsylvania, assuming that people in Syracuse will have to drive to shop there too. 

Armory Square can’t just be a destination—a carless street that’s cool because it’s so different from the rest of the car-dominated city—a quaint pedestrian island in a sea of car traffic. If that happens, Walton Street will stay a place that people necessarily reach in a car, and it will either have to be surrounded by parking lots and garages (already sort of true), or it will wither and die when people stop driving there. Either outcome would make it impossible to duplicate Walton’s success on the surrounding streets.

Parking lots and garages surrounding Armory Square

The way to avoid that trap is to make more space for people to walk, bike, and bus throughout the entire City. That means big things like extending the Creekwalk through the Southside, and it means small things like fixing cracked sidewalks. It means taking space from cars by narrowing travel lanes, and giving it back to people in the form of bike lanes and wider sidewalks. It also, most definitely, 100% means improving Centro as a way for people to get all around the City at all times of day. Do all that, and Armory Square will become a better place to walk because Syracuse will be a place where people get around on foot.

This process is still in the planning stages. You still have the opportunity to read the slides from the presentation, and email SMTC to let them know that Syracuse needs to elevate carless transportation in the whole city if it wants to make Armory Square better for pedestrians.

How Valuable is Street Parking, Really?

This week, the Common Council passed a budget that will raise the prices drivers pay to park at the curb. The higher parking meter rates are supposed to bring in $600,000. City Hall needs that money to keep property taxes under the state cap. In this way, the Common Council is treating parking meters primarily as a source of revenue.

Of course, metered parking also has another purpose—demand management. When it costs money to park at the curb, drivers minimize the amount of time that they leave their cars just sitting there. This is a good thing when that curb space is valuable to lots of people. Spots right in front of popular stores, for instance, can accommodate more customers over the course of a day because no one hogs the space for too long.

Parking meters reveal how much drivers value on-street parking spaces. If parking costs $1.25 an hour, and the spaces are full, then it’s a good bet that drivers are willing to pay even more to park at the curb. If the rate goes up to $5.00 per hour and people stop parking on the street, then you’ll know that drivers value street parking at less than that amount.

This is an opportunity for Syracuse to find out how much drivers really do value that street space. After City Hall raises the meter rates in order to raise new revenue, it should keep an eye on how those higher prices affect demand for on-street parking. If there’s no significant change, that means City Hall is still undervaluing that street space. It can raise the rates again, generate even more revenue, and continue to watch demand. Repeat that process until demand slackens, and City Hall will have a good idea of how much that street space is worth to the people who park their cars in it.

This would be good information to have for all kinds of reasons. It would allow City Hall to accurately charge different rates on different streets where there’s more or less demand for parking. City Hall could also use this data to adjust the amount that it charges over the course of the day, anticipating regular surges and slacks in demand. Fine tuning Syracuse’s parking rates in these kinds of ways would maximize the revenue that City Hall brings in from this public resource.

Revealing the true value of on-street parking would allow City Hall to think about that street space differently. There are probably blocks where few drivers are willing to pay even $.50 per hour to store their car. Judging by how empty Downtown’s curbs are after 6pm—when it’s totally free to park on the street—City Hall might find out that drivers don’t really value on-street parking very much at all. That opens an opportunity to put those parking lanes to better use.

Take Washington Street. Through Downtown, parking lines it on both sides. That means between ⅓ and ½ of the street is given over to car storage whether or not people actually store their cars there. Washington Street is also a major bus corridor where all the Eastside routes share space with many of the Northbound routes. Street-space on Washington is valuable to Centro, and those Downtown parking lanes might be better used as bus lanes Downtown.

Right now, it’s hard to make an argument about that one way or the other, but if City Hall can accurately reveal how much drivers really do value those parking lanes in dollar terms, then it will have hard data to inform decisions about better allocation of street space.

Washington Street on the left, Fayette Street on the right. Which wastes more space?

This goes beyond buses—other kinds of uses deserve priority on other streets. Parking lanes could be put to better use as bike lanes, bump-outs, rain gardens, parklets, or even just wider sidewalks on so many streets in Syracuse. It’s just this assumption that every street has to have curbside parking that’s keeping the City from considering all of those other options.

It’s time to revisit that assumption. The Common Council’s decision to raise meter rates will bring in new revenue, but it is also an opportunity to gage how much people actually value on-street parking in Syracuse. That data will empower City Hall to more intelligently allocate a scarce public resource—street space—for uses that 

Accounting For Parking’s Costs

Too much parking is a bad thing. It spreads people and buildings farther apart so that it’s difficult to deliver municipal services, it undermines public transportation by artificially reducing the cost of driving, and it reduces housing opportunity in good neighborhoods by wasting land on car storage. Those costs are spread out over the entire community, though, while the benefits of excessive parking space—always having a place to store your car, attracting tenants or customers who prefer to drive—mostly go to specific people. The problem is that those people who benefit most from parking—property owners—are the ones in a position to build it, and they rarely account for the wider community costs of building too much of it. This is a classic externality problem, and it’s the kind of thing that government should step in to fix.

Unfortunately, Syracuse’s City Hall doesn’t account for the negative effects of excessive parking either. Its zoning ordinance treats parking like a public good that needs to be preserved through regulation. That ordinance requires houses to have such-and-so-many parking spaces per family, and it requires restaurants to have a different number of spaces per square foot. Every potential use has a required minimum number of parking spaces, and that’s what’s most likely to influence property owners’ decisions to build parking on their land. The result is too much parking with too little attention paid to its external costs.

The simplest thing that City Hall can do to fix this is to eliminate parking requirements entirely. Families who don’t own any cars at all are forced to pay for the privilege of being able to store one at their home, and businesses that could hire bus riders end up having to locate where there’s enough space for a huge parking lot, even if that’s nowhere near a bus stop. These homeowners and employers are the kinds of people who might choose to build less parking all on their own, if only they were allowed to do so.

City Hall can also take a more active role to direct the costs of parking to the people who actually want it. Take big apartment buildings. If a developer figures that an apartment with a parking space will be easier to rent than one without, then they might build a new building with just as many parking spaces as apartments. That’s the proposed plan for a building on Genesee Street, despite the fact that those apartments are within easy walking and biking distance of both Downtown and University Hill. Tenants in this building will wind up paying for a parking space through their rent even if they chose it specifically because they don’t own cars and wanted a central location. Their rent will subsidize other tenants’ car-driving habit.

City Hall could fix this problem by forcing landlord to unbundle the cost of parking from the cost of renting. Seattle’s done it, so landlords out there can’t hide the cost of parking in the rent. Tenants only pay for parking if they want it, and that pressures developers to build only as much parking as is actually useful.

The Seattle model sets a price for parking in a single building only after it’s constructed and occupied. At that point, it’s difficult for the property owner to respond to that price by either adding more parking or more apartments.

Syracuse can get developers to account for the cost of parking before they build with a city-wide cap-and-trade system. City Hall could change the current minimum parking requirements that apply to each property based into a maximum parking requirement. Property owners who build less than the maximum number of parking spaces would receive credits for the difference. They could then sell those credits to other property owners who want to exceed the parking maximums on their land. This would allow property owners to build as much parking as they think is necessary, but it would force them to internalize the costs of providing excessive parking. It would also give property owners an incentive to build fewer parking spaces. The result should be concentrations of parking in certain parts of Syracuse where cars are most necessary, and much less parking in the neighborhoods where cars are least necessary.

Parking imposes costs on Syracuse. Too often, those costs don’t enter into any one property owner’s decision about whether or not to build parking on their land. That’s a shame. City Hall can fix that problem by eliminating minimum parking requirements which distort decisions about how much parking is necessary, by passing laws that concentrate the costs of parking on the people who choose to use it by unbundling rent and parking fees, and by creating a cap-and-trade scheme to match the amount of parking to its demand across properties and neighborhoods. All of these policy interventions will balance the City’s transportation networks, and they will all give people in Syracuse more freedom to create the kind of City they want to live in.

Ending the Spatial Mismatch in Syracuse

Syracuse needs better bus service that empowers all kinds of people to meet all their different daily needs. One of those daily needs is getting to work. In a recent hearing on the effectiveness of public transportation in Syracuse, Assemblymember Pam Hunter addressed that directly when she asked about how Centro could overcome the spatial mismatch—the fact that a lot of jobs are located in the suburbs, but her constituents in the City can’t get to them.

That’s usually how people talk about the spatial mismatch: Jobs are in the suburbs and people who need jobs are in the City, so the solution is to get those people transportation to the suburbs. But running more buses out to the suburbs is no solution because that will just take buses away from existing routes in the City—routes that serve more people more efficiently than a line in the suburbs could.

A better solution is to eliminate the spatial mismatch by encouraging employers to locate where people already live and where the buses already run.

Consider this exchange between Kevin Schwab of CenterState CEO and Senator Rachel May. Schwab told a story about how a business located on Taft Road is difficult to reach by bus and how one of its bus-riding employees has to walk two miles from the bus stop to get to work. Schwab used this anecdote as evidence that Centro should run a bus line along Taft Road. Senator May agreed that it’s difficult for bus riders to get to work in the suburbs, but she also suggested that this company, if it wanted to be able to hire people who don’t own a car, should have set up shop closer to a bus stop. Schwab responded that employers have a hard time finding suitable sites near existing bus lines.

Suitable means cheap. Centro’s best service is in the County’s urbanized center, but the land in the center costs more money, is divvied up into smaller parcels, and is more often polluted than land on the County’s edges.

For a lot of employers, these costs are just too high a price to pay for the benefit of being able to hire bus riders. 70 years of subsidies for private cars and disinvestment in public transportation has marginalized bus riders to the point that they’re too small a portion of the labor market to sway employers’ behavior. Car drivers, on the other hand, have no problem getting employers to take on the enormous costs required to provide free parking.

It’s a question of power. Car drivers have more power over where employers choose to locate than do bus riders. The result is the systematic exclusion of bus riders from employment opportunity. In this City, that’s systematic racial and economic exclusion, it causes poverty and segregation, it hurts the entire region’s economy, and it needs to end. 

In the short term, City Hall and Onondaga County can do their part by supplementing bus riders’ power with incentives for employers to locate on bus lines and/or within walking distance of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. There is plenty of empty land on the Lakefront, at the Inner Harbor, Downtown and along Erie Boulevard where Centro runs good service (and plans to run even better service), and many of these sites are already under SIDA or OCIDA control. Steering economic development to these sites should be a part of County Executive Ryan McMahon’s PIE agenda (poverty, infrastructure, economic development).

In the long term, bus riders will need structural changes to the region’s transportation system in order to gain power in the labor market. Centro needs new investment to provide all-day frequent service that covers enough of the City that many different people can meet all their daily needs. That will make life without a car more feasible for more people, grow Centro’s ridership, empower bus riders in the labor market, and force employers to respond to that newly empowered constituency’s needs. That means building out the two BRT lines that SMTC planned in its SMART1 study, and it means expanding on that study to develop the full BRT network described in the STSA.

There are too many people in Syracuse who can’t get work because the jobs that are available are out in the suburbs and out of reach for people who ride the bus. This travesty is called the Spatial Mismatch, and it’s a problem of power—bus riders don’t have the power to force employers to respond to their needs by locating in places accessible by bus. The solution is to build bus riders’ power. In the short term, this means using economic development to incentivize development on existing bus lines. In the long term, this means investing in Centro so that more people ride the bus as part of their daily lives, increasing bus riders power over employers’ decisions about where to locate.

Exclusionary Zoning in One Neighborhood Will Gentrify Another

With all the new apartment buildings going up on Syracuse’s Eastside, it seemed like a fluke that one planned for Westcott Street never got past the drawing board. It wasn’t. That apartment building didn’t get built because of exclusionary zoning policies that prohibit new housing in some places and concentrate it in others. As Syracuse grows, that imbalance will push people looking for housing into certain neighborhoods, driving up rents, gentrifying them, and displacing current residents. ReZone—City Hall’s comprehensive rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinance—is a once-in-a-generation chance to prevent this by creating housing opportunity in more city neighborhoods. That’s a chance City Hall needs to take.

City Hall enacts exclusionary zoning policies when vocal neighborhood groups like UNPA pressure it to do so. Those exclusionary policies—minimum lot sizes, required setbacks, limits on multi-family housing, parking requirements—make it difficult or impossible to build new housing in a neighborhood. The Westcott Street project—one that would have added 32 middle-income apartments to this well-off neighborhood—ran afoul of all of these.

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Meanwhile, about a mile away on Genesee Street, three enormous new buildings are adding hundreds of new apartments to the foot of University Hill. Each of those buildings is much larger than what had been planned for Westcott Street, but they’re going up without much of a fight. That’s because Genesee Street is already zoned to allow apartment buildings by right—something that wouldn’t be true if a powerful neighborhood association like UNPA was guarding that land. In fact, there is no neighborhood association worrying about what all that new housing will do to Genesee Street’s ‘character’ because there are hardly any people living near that part of Genesee at all.

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For now, this works. People in Westcott get to keep their neighborhood to themselves, people looking for a place to live can move to Genesee Street, and everybody who relies on municipal services benefits from the new tax revenue. The same thing is happening across the City where the zoning is lax and there aren’t enough existing residents to block new residential construction—Franklin Square, East Brighton, University Hill, the Inner Harbor, and even Downtown. All that empty space has been a safety valve, allowing developers to build and market new housing without putting pressure on existing neighborhoods.

But Syracuse is running out of empty space. Three recent projects turned old factories into new apartments in established residential neighborhoods on the Westside. This month, City Hall and the Allyn Foundation announced that they want to build hundreds of new homes on land currently occupied by public housing on the Southside.

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New housing is not a bad thing. Too many older homes in Syracuse are poorly insulated, have roofs that leak, are painted with lead. New housing of good quality is an opportunity for current residents to live somewhere better. Similarly, too many older neighborhoods in Syracuse don’t have enough people. New neighbors pay taxes, shop at local businesses, bring up property values, and increase the neighborhood’s political power.

The problem is that limited supply and geographic concentration mean that a lot of this new housing isn’t affordable for the people who already live in the neighborhoods where it’s being built. Developers can’t build much new housing at all, so they’re pricing and marketing what little is allowed to attract the small pool of tenants who can pay $1,385 for a 1-br in the Dietz Lofts, say. That’s more than twice the median gross rent of the Westside neighborhood where the Dietz building sits—a neighborhood where half of tenants spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent.

Converting empty factory buildings into expensive apartments won’t displace anybody, but the same zoning laws that made the Dietz Lofts possible also allow property owners to convert existing 1-family homes into multi-family apartments. The same economic pressure that set the Dietz’ rent at $1,385 will do the same to any newly renovated duplex. That will displace people.

People have to live somewhere, and developers are building new homes for them where it’s easiest—where the zoning already allows it. Because some neighborhood groups have been so successful at redrawing the City’s zoning map to exclude new residential construction, it’s concentrated in a select few neighborhoods. Because developers will always go after the highest rents first, they’re building homes that are often unaffordable for the people who already live in those neighborhoods. This is how exclusionary zoning in some neighborhoods causes gentrification in other neighborhoods.

Syracuse’s zoning map controls the supply and geographic concentration of housing in the City. City Hall needs to amend that map to allow more housing in more neighborhoods. City Hall needs to make those changes now—before Syracuse runs out of empty land for new residential development—in order to get ahead of the economic trends that have led to rising rents, displacement, and housing crises in other cities.

ReZone provides the opportunity to do just that. City Hall’s Land Use & Development Plan—the document that’s supposed to guide the ReZone project—contained a map that showed how to disperse new residential development and population growth across many city neighborhoods. It recommended zoning to allow 1 and 2-family homes (shaded bright yellow) in almost all of Westcott, the Northside, the Southside, the Westside, and in half of Eastwood. It recommended zoning to allow bigger apartment buildings (shaded olive green, magenta, and pink) along neighborhood main streets and in parts of all those same neighborhoods. If Syracuse was zoned this way now, that Westcott Street apartment building could have been built.

LUDP map

ReZone is now on its third draft zoning map. The first draft (February 2017) followed the LUDP’s recommendations to allow new residential construction in most city neighborhoods with three unfortunate exceptions. First, the February 2017 draft zoning map all but banned multi-family housing from Eastwood outside of James Street itself. Second, it significantly reduced the amount of multi-family housing that could be built in Westcott. Third, it significantly increased the amount of multi-family housing allowed on the South and West sides, particularly in an area where Onondaga Creek regularly floods.

Since that February 2017 draft, it’s only gotten worse. From the Northside, to Tipperary Hill, to Lincoln Square, each successive draft has limited the amount of housing that can go into certain Syracuse neighborhoods, effectively funneling future population growth into a select few others with predictable negative consequences. (Lots shaded yellow are zoned to exclude new apartment buildings).

Syracuse needs people. It needs for kids to grow up and make their lives here, and it needs for people to move in from out of town. It needs these people to pay taxes, ride buses, shop at local businesses, attend PTA meetings, vote, and invest in the community.

And those people need a place to live. As it stands, they’re going to have a hard time moving into some neighborhoods where exclusionary zoning policies have artificially limited their access to housing opportunity, and they’ll have an easier time moving into other neighborhoods where their presence will, at least in the short term, be a hardship on their new neighbors.

It shouldn’t be this way. That 32-unit apartment building should go up on that Westcott Street parking lot, and a few dozen people should be able to choose to live there, lowering demand for new housing in other neighborhoods and spreading out the effects of new residential development and population growth across the entire City. That’s the only way to equitably harness the population growth that Syracuse needs and ensure that it benefits everybody who lives in the City.

Writing ReZone for Better Bus Service

Buses work best where there are lots of people, businesses, and institutions all within walking distance of each other. Zoning laws that allow a mix of people, businesses, and institutions work best in places with good bus service. Transportation planning and land use planning go hand in hand.

In Syracuse, the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Take ReZone, City Hall’s once-in-a-generation rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinance. It grants a 30% reduction in off-street parking requirements for lots within .25 miles of a public ‘transportation terminal,’ but it doesn’t define what a transportation terminal is. The 2012 Land Use & Development Plan—upon which ReZone is based—suggests that ReZone is talking about stations on a Bus Rapid Transit network:

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The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified six “major transportation corridors” for improved bus service, but it did not identify any “fixed stations” along them. The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s SMART1 report does identify station locations, but only for two BRT lines.

 

It’s anyone’s guess, though, when and if Centro will actually run that BRT service. The fixed stations identified in the SMART1 report don’t actually exist yet, and if the Common Council turned ReZone into law tomorrow, there would be no clear ‘transportation terminals’ in the City to trigger the ordinance’s 30% parking requirement reduction.

 

In the meantime, City Hall’s very reluctance to zone for transit is affecting Centro’s ability to offer the service. Centro is going to need money from the Federal Transportation Administration in order to build out this BRT network, and the FTA takes a city’s land use policies into account when it decides whether or not to fund a project there. According to the STSA, Syracuse’s current zoning policies hurt its chances of getting funding from the FTA.

Even worse, City Hall keeps revising ReZone in ways that will make Centro’s life harder. One glaring example is the area around the Regional Transportation Center. The RTC is supposed to be the last stop on one of SMART1’s BRT lines. The first ReZone draft would have allowed housing and businesses on all of the parking lots around there, but the current draft actually bans new housing in the area—how’s that for TOD?

Less obviously, each new draft of ReZone has reduced housing opportunity along the corridors that the STSA picked out for BRT service. Around N Salina, Solar, W Fayette, and W Genesee Streets, City Hall has amended its zoning map to either ban or minimize residential development in the very areas where SMTC and Centro are planning to provide better bus service.

 

The idea of a TOD-overlay makes sense, but it’s impossible to implement while planning for that BRT service is independent from the ReZone project—the overlay won’t come into effect until the BRT service starts running, and the BRT service is difficult to plan until the overlay comes into effect. It’s a catch-22.

City Hall, Centro, and SMTC can fix this with a little cooperation. All three organizations need to get together and narrow the STSA’s transportation corridors to specific streets. City Hall has already said that it wants the eastern half of the Camillus-Fayetteville corridor to run along Erie Boulevard. It shouldn’t be so hard to make similar decisions for the rest of the corridors—will that line’s western half run on Fayette or W Genesee? Will the Northside-Western Lights line run on Gifford or Onondaga? Where will the buses stop?

Once they’ve agreed on specific streets where BRT service would run, the ReZone project team will have enough information to write transit-supportive zoning policies into the new ordinance without relying on an unnecessarily complicated mechanism like the ‘proximity to transit’ parking reduction. That means making all lots within .25 miles of the planned BRT stations MX-4 or R-4—zoning classifications that allow enough housing to mix with businesses and institutions so that people can meet their daily needs on foot.

The project team should also eliminate all minimum parking requirements from ReZone.

These changes won’t cost a penny, they will make land more valuable, and they will lay the groundwork for better bus service in the future.

The Green New Deal, Housing, and Transportation in Onondaga County

Congress is full of new members talking about a Green New Deal—a “broad and ambitious package of new policies and investments in communities, infrastructure, and technology to help the United States achieve environmental sustainability and economic stability.” The ideas for those new policies include regulations on carbon emissions, subsidies for alternative energy, and wetland reclamation. Less has been said about the relationship between housing and transportation, but Onondaga County’s experience shows that the Green New Deal needs to focus on that link in order to grow environmentally sustainable communities.

For 70 years, almost all new settlement in Onondaga County has contributed to global climate change. New housing has been built on former farms, it has been built too far away from jobs and schools for people to meet their daily needs on foot, and it has been built with big yards and cul-de-sacs that make public transportation ineffective and inefficient.

At the same time, people have been leaving Onondaga County’s older settlements—its City and its villages—where it was possible to live without a car. Syracuse, Liverpool, Solvay, and East Syracuse have all lost about ⅓ of their population since the 1950s and 1960s. That depopulation has drawn jobs and schools out of those older communities, it has made it more difficult for the people who remain to meet their daily needs on foot, and it has made established bus and train routes less effective and less efficient.

The result has been that many families living in Onondaga County can’t live their daily lives without the help of cars, and they drive those cars to run every single errand, attend every single church service, and visit every single friend. This is a terrible result for the environment.

It’s also reversible. In fact, the City’s Land Use and Development Plan anticipates that Syracuse’s neighborhoods will see exactly the kind of population growth that would allow Onondaga County residents to drive less often and burn less carbon:

“Several of Syracuse’s neighborhoods have borne the brunt of population loss and economic decline as regional population has shifted dramatically toward the suburbs since the 1960s. Despite this, Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living. The City of Syracuse possesses a concentration of interesting historic architecture, which dates from periods of dense urban settlement and is arranged in walkable neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods. Commercial corridors with low levels of activity and density today are dispersed through Syracuse’s neighborhoods in a connective, multi-nodal network which, when better utilized, are suited to provide centers of activity within walking distance of homes and support efficient mass transit.”

The document refers to the City specifically, but what it says is true of Onondaga County’s villages too. They all have relatively affordable houses. They all have neighborhoods where people can meet their daily needs on foot. They all have better bus service than their surrounding suburbs. They are all places where people can live more environmentally sustainable lives free from cars.

Affordability and sustainability sometimes work against each other, though. If a house is too cheap, then it’s difficult to get ahold of the money necessary to make major repairs. Banks won’t lend out the money to replace the roof on a house that isn’t even worth enough to be collateral for the loan. That situation—which exists in so many of the neighborhoods where the houses need new roofs but the residents don’t need cars—makes it financially impossible for many people to move into the communities where they can live environmentally sustainably.

The Green New Deal can remove this financial barrier by awarding grants for the renovation and/or construction of housing in neighborhoods where people can live without a car.

There are challenges to writing that kind of a policy well. To be effective, it will have to actually determine which communities offer the chance to live without a car—a determination that Syracuse’s City Hall has struggled to make as it rewrites the City’s zoning ordinance. To be efficient, the policy should limit its grants to those projects that wouldn’t happen without government subsidy—a limitation that both SIDA and OCIDA routinely ignore.

The effort of overcoming those challenges is worth the reward of creating a climate policy that makes it possible for people to live in communities where daily life burns less carbon—communities where people can walk to meet their daily needs, where Centro can provide quality bus service—communities like Syracuse, Liverpool, Solvay, and East Syracuse. That’s a policy that recognizes the link between housing and sustainable transportation, that addresses the difficulties of creating more of both, and it is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be a part of the Green New Deal.

Flexibility is Adaptability is Resiliency

I used to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the back end of a building on the City’s Northside. The building had been a standard Syracuse double-decker—two identical three-bedroom apartments stacked one on top of the other—but at some point the owner split the second floor into two one-bedroom apartments. That was good for me because it meant there was a one-bedroom apartment that I could afford, and it was good for the landlord because the combined rent from those two second floor one-bedroom apartments was $980 a month—significantly more than the $750 a month that the three-bedroom apartment on the first floor brought in.

Small modifications like this one—putting up a wall and building a new kitchen and bathroom to convert a two-family building into a three-family building—make Syracuse resilient. The City is full of old buildings that have been modified over the years to better meet the needs of a changing population, and you’re most likely to find them in the neighborhoods that are most diverse and that provide people with the greatest variety of opportunity.

It’s a problem, then, that City Hall’s new zoning ordinance would make that kind of responsive modification largely illegal in so many of the neighborhoods where it’s most useful.

ReZone divides all residential buildings into 1 of 3 categories: one-family, two-family, or multi-family. That double-decker apartment I lived in would have originally been considered a two-family home, but now with its three apartments, City Hall will call it a multi-family home. ReZone allows two-family homes in all of Syracuse’s inner neighborhoods, but it bans multi-family housing from almost all of Tipperary Hill, the Southside, Westcott, Skunk City, and the Northside. That ban restricts people’s ability to modify their properties in the small ways that will make those neighborhoods able to cope with change.

City Hall needs to amend its draft zoning ordinance to accommodate a greater variety of housing types. The could mean adding more categories to its list of residential uses (three-family, four-family, five-family, etc.), it could mean expanding the two-family category to include other small-scale apartment buildings with more than two units (up to six, say), or it could mean getting rid of the two-family category entirely to allow all kinds of multi-family housing in every neighborhoods except those quasi-suburban spots like Meadowbrook and the Valley.

Syracuse’s strength is its flexibility. The City’s been around for about 200 years now, and the people who call it home have adapted to huge economic, demographic, and technological changes in that time. Left to their own devices, city residents will keep on doing the little things—like converting a two-family home into a 3-family home—that will keep the City responsive to the needs of the day, but those kinds of modifications will only be possible if City Hall relaxes its planned restrictions on multi-family housing. Do that, and Syracuse might just make it another 200 years.