Category Archives: Planning

Restore the canal without recreating its problems

More and more people are starting to talk about the benefits of rewatering the Erie Canal in Downtown Syracuse. Old photos of Syracuse are tantalizing. Clinton Square is full of people watching the canal, and the City looks like Venice or Amsterdam or Suzhou. Compared to the Erie Boulevard of today, it can seem like Syracuse was crazy to erase this urban waterway 100 years ago.

But back then, a lot of people thought the canal was a huge nuisance, and they were happy to see it go.

If Syracuse is going to rewater the canal—and we should—then we have to understand why people wanted it gone, and we have to make sure that a restored canal doesn’t recreate the original canal’s problems.

Syracuse filled in the canal for three very good reasons. First, it was gross. 19th century industrial cities used waterways as open sewers and garbage pits, and the Erie Canal was no exception.

Second, the City wanted more roads. Car ownership was exploding in the 1920s and real estate developers were building new neighborhoods—like Scottholm—out of walking distance of the City’s center. That meant a lot more cars driving across Syracuse, and they wanted more room on the roads.

Third, and most important, the canal blocked traffic and divided the City. Dozens of bridges crossed the canal (and dozens more streets just dead-ended at the water), many of those bridges moved up and down to let boats pass underneath, and they broke down all the time so people couldn’t get across the canal.

These are real practical problems, and it would be crazy to bring them back into Syracuse today.

Luckily, it’s possible to get the best of both worlds—to bring water back to Erie Boulevard without bringing back the nuisances of the original canal. NYSDOT already intends to build a fountain at the corner of Oswego and Erie Boulevards as part of their plan for a ‘Canal District.’ They should simply extend that fountain into Erie Boulevard and stretch it west to Clinton Square.

Combined with Clinton Square, this would recreate a 3-block stretch of the Erie Canal’s original path through Syracuse, and it would sidestep the three main problems that led Syracuse to fill in the canal 100 years ago.

First, cleanliness. Syracuse’s rewatered canal will be a large fountain instead of a working waterway. That means boat crews won’t use it as a sewer, factories won’t use it as a trash bin, and dead mules won’t fall into it. It also means the water won’t stagnate, and it can be treated to prevent algal blooms. A canal fountain will be a lot cleaner and smell a lot better than the actual canal did.

Second, road capacity. When Syracuse built Erie Boulevard, it was the City’s primary east/west highway and carried a lot of cars. But now we have 690 for that, and nobody in their right mind would drive from DeWitt to Camillus on Erie Boulevard anymore. The two blocks between Salina and Montgomery Streets, in particular, are not useful for getting from point A to point B, and Syracuse could easily repurposed them without any noticeable effect on road capacity.

And third, bridges. A rewatered canal stretching from Montgomery Street to Clinton Square wouldn’t require dozens of bridges like the original canals did. A rewatered canal would also not carry any barges, so the one necessary bridge (at Warren Street) wouldn’t need to move to allow boat traffic to pass underneath.

A two-block fountain stretching from Clinton Square to the site of the Erie/Oswego confluence at Montgomery Street will restore the canal’s presence in the City’s center without recreating the problems that made the canal a nuisance.

Fixing the Creekwalk Downtown

The Creekwalk has a problem: its most interesting spots—the places where people stop and stare, where they can get close to the water, the places that make it unique—flood and have to get blocked off after heavy rains. Seen from the other side, the Creekwalk’s most reliably dry portions—the sidewalks Downtown—are its most boring.

interesting but flood-prone vs boring but flood-proof

The I81 project shows how City Hall can fix this problem. As part of the removal of the West Street interchange, NYSDOT is going to build a new section of Creekwalk along the west bank of the Creek from Erie Boulevard to Evans Street. The new section of trail will have views of the canal aqueduct that still carries Erie Boulevard over the Creek. The new trail will also function like a bypass of the flood prone but beautiful part of the Creekwalk that currently dips below 690 and runs right near the water into Franklin Square.

the flood-prone portion of the Creekwalk is shown in blue. The image on the left shows NYSDOT’s planned Creekwalk extension which can function as a detour around flooding when the Creek is high.

So once NYSDOT builds the new section of trail, it will never really be a problem when the Creek rises after heavy rains. City Hall can block off the flooded section, and people using the trail can take the—much higher and unlikely to flood—west bank path to avoid the problem area entirely. (for this reason, the Empire State Trail—which follows the Creekwalk from Downtown to the Inner Harbor—should shift to the new west bank path once it’s complete).

City Hall should apply this same logic to more of the trail. In effect, the Downtown section of the Creekwalk we have now is more like a flood-time detour than a real multi-use path. It crosses city streets, uses existing sidewalks, and is totally out of sight of the Creek all to avoid dealing with flooding closer to the water’s edge. The result is flood-proof but boring.

And it’s a huge missed opportunity because the Downtown section of Onondaga Creek is one of the most interesting spots in Syracuse. Beneath the modern city at street level, the Creek winds through old stone bridges, some built before the Civil War. The running water drowns out traffic noise, and the shade and stonework makes the path along the Creek cool and comfortable on hot days. It’s an amazing space, and more people should be able to experience it.

All City Hall has to do to make this happen is clear out some weeds, install a couple bridges, and build a few short connections between the existing path at the Creek’s edge and the current official Creekwalk up at street level. The end result would be two continuous parallel paths from Onondaga Place on the Westside to Plum Street in Franklin Square.

One—the current Creekwalk plus NYSDOT’s planned west bank detour, shown in green on the map below—would be totally flood proof, a viable option for using the Creekwalk no matter the weather, and a good route for the Empire State Trail.

The other—a water-level route along the Creek bank all the way through Downtown and Franklin Square, shown in blue on the map below—would keep people away from street traffic and follow the water’s hidden path through the very center of the City.

The Creekwalk is a huge success story. It’s the most impressive park City Hall has built in decades. It connects neighborhoods across Syracuse and puts people in touch with parts of the City they would never experience otherwise. But the oldest part of the path—the street-level portions Downtown—are simply not up to the high standards this success has set. City Hall can fix that by adding a water-level route that parallels existing street-level path through Downtown.

Scaling up Weekends on Walton

As the weather warms up and people start spending more time outside, it’s time to expand one of City Hall’s best pandemic-era pilot programs: Weekends on Walton.

For the last two summers, Syracuse has created new outdoor public space in Armory Square by opening two blocks of Walton Street for people to walk, sit, eat, and drink. It was an idea City Hall had already been investigating, and the pandemic made it necessary—when nobody could spend time inside, restaurants needed new outdoor seating to stay afloat.

The pilot worked. Restaurants did well, people were able to gather safely outdoors, and Armory Square got a much needed breath of life. When Summer 2021 rolled around, City Hall ironed out some kinks and ran the program again.

As with any successful pilot, City Hall should now scale the program up. There are three good ways to do this.

First, Weekends on Walton should become more permanent. The 2019 SMTC study that inspired the pilot program recommended physical changes to the street that would make Weekends on Walton more attractive and easier to implement. These include removable bollards at Walton’s intersections with Franklin and Clinton Streets, and making Walton a ‘curbless street’ like Genesee in Hanover Square.

These simple changes would constitute another iteration of the Weekends on Walton concept. They’d make the street—which is in a terrible state of repair and difficult to walk on—more attractive, accessible, and safer. They’d make Weekends on Walton more popular, and they’d make it easier to scale the project up again by keeping Walton open to pedestrians full-time like Genesee Street in Hanover Square.

Second, City Hall should replicate the Weekends on Walton pilot in other parts of the City. There are several spots Downtown where the program could succeed. Willow Street between Dinosaur BBQ and Apizza Regionale, and Montgomery Street next to City Hall, Bank Alley are all flanked by multiple restaurants and unnecessary for cars driving around Downtown.

There are also several spots outside of Downtown that meet these criteria: McBride Street at Amos Park on the Northside, Dell Street in Westcott, Collingwood Avenue in Eastwood, Green Street and Hawley Avenue. Replicating the Weekends on Walton concept in spots like these would spread the project’s benefits to more neighborhoods.

Third, City Hall should expand the purpose of the project. The first iteration of Weekends on Walton was clearly designed to help some specific businesses get through the worst days of the pandemic. Those days are past now, and it’s time to ask how the broader public could benefit from giving streets back to the people.

In neighborhoods across the City, people beat the heat by getting outside. Walk through most any neighborhood on a hot day, and you’ll see people on their porches, on their stoops, in their front yards, enjoying the breeze and their neighbors’ company.

This is undoubtedly a good thing, and City Hall can help it out by turning individual blocks into public space in neighborhoods across Syracuse. That’d put small public parks right outside more people’s front doors.


Weekends on Walton is a great success story for City Hall. In a time of crisis, our government worked to try something new, and it made people’s lives better. Now we should build on that success by scaling the project up—making it more permanent, bringing it more places, and expanding its purpose.

ADUs in ReZone

City Hall wants to legalize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, or small 1-bedroom apartments built in extra space on a residential property). That’s good, but in order to secure all the benefits that this type of housing can offer, City Hall will have to do more than just list it as an ‘allowed use’ in the zoning code—ReZone will also have to adjust other regulations that would functionally ban ADUs in most of the City if enacted as drafted.

ADUs (also sometimes called in-law apartments or granny flats) are a traditional housing type that used to be common in Syracuse and cities across America. Families that needed a little extra money to afford a mortgage—adults who wanted their aging parents close by to help with childcare—parents whose adult children who’d moved away and left the house mostly empty. People in all of these situations responded by turning some small part of their property—maybe the attic, or by building a garage with living space above—into an additional apartment where another person could live in privacy.

different types of ADUs

ADUs were banned from many cities during the era when planners and politicians tried to apply suburban ideals to urban neighborhoods. They thought it was strange and slightly deviant for unrelated people to live near each other, so zoning codes—like Syracuse’s—reserved a lot of residential land for single-family homes only and banned other traditional housing types including ADUs.

But ADUs are becoming popular again for the same reasons that they were popular in the past. People want the flexibility to adapt their property to meet their family’s needs. We’re not all picture-perfect midcentury sitcom families with identical needs that can all be served by suburban-style houses. ADUs are a good way to make Syracuse’s housing stock work for more people.

So it’s a very good thing that City Hall is amending ReZone to allow ADUs in all residential districts. Previous drafts of the new zoning law had excluded ADUs from any lot zoned R1, but in a February presentation to the Common Council, City Planner’s implied that the new draft would allow ADUs in R1 as well as all other residential districts.

However, the current draft outright bad on ADUs is not the only regulation that would make them a practical impossibility for most homeowners—lot coverage regulations are another barrier. ReZone says that built structures can only cover 30% of the area of residential lots with single-family homes. But most homes in most Syracuse’s neighborhoods (except its post-war semi-suburban areas like Meadowbrook and Winkworth) already cover more than ⅓ of their lots. In these situations, it would be impossible to build an ADU in the rear yard (either as a standalone structure or as an addition to the house) even though the rest of the ordinance is written to encourage that kind of construction.

This coverage requirement isn’t about environmental considerations like stormwater runoff. Homeowners are allowed to cover much more of their lots—up to 65%—with impermeable surface so long as that extra 35% is surface parking. There’s no good reason to value space for parked cars over housing for people who need it.

So when City Hall finally releases the new ReZone draft (they promised it by March, but that deadline’s long past), look to see whether they’ve taken the necessary steps to make ADUs not just legal, but also practical for the people who need them in neighborhoods across the City.

Housing and highways in Onondaga County, 1940-2019

Central New York’s highways remade the geography of where people live in Onondaga County. A new dataset makes it possible to track change in the number of housing units in each of the County’s census tracks from 1940-2019. These numbers show heavy housing losses in the few highway-adjacent neighborhoods that had lots of housing in 1940, and they also show thinly spread housing construction in previously rural census tracts now served by the highways.

The maps above show housing units per square mile by census tract in Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse in 1940. Housing was highly concentrated in the center of the County. There were some suburban pockets of moderate density in villages like Baldwinsville, Fayetteville, and North Syracuse—and also in some early inner ring suburbs like Mattydale and Westvale—but the vast majority of the County’s land was rural, and most of its people lived in city neighborhoods at the County’s center.

By 2019 that sharp division between city and rural had blurred. Suburban subdivisions sprawled out from Syracuse and covered the northern half of Onondaga County with tract developments that are much denser than the countryside but nowhere near as tight-knit as traditional City neighborhoods. This new kind of in-between neighborhood now accounts for the vast majority of Onondaga County’s urbanized area.

The highways caused these changes. These maps show the change in housing unit density between 1940 and 2019. Tracts shaded blue saw a net increase in the number of housing units, tracts shaded red lost housing. The yellow lines trace Onondaga County’s limited-access freeways.

Housing growth followed the freeways out of Syracuse and into the suburbs. In general, rural areas where highways were built transformed to sprawl while rural areas without highways remained rural. City neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the highways lost housing through urban renewal and targeted disinvestment, while neighborhoods away from highways gained housing.

For eighty years, the highways drove sprawl towards the County’s edges. Today, the northern and eastern suburbs have just about passed over into Oswego and Madison Counties. If this sprawl continues, it will leave Onondaga County with huge infrastructure maintenance bills, and little tax base to pay them. The County’s biggest challenge in the 21st century is figuring out how to grow without sprawling ever outward.

Removing the City’s highways is a good first step. They left a gaping hole in the County’s center and decimated neighborhoods that were built to accommodate growing communities through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once the highways are gone, those same city center neighborhoods will provide better homes for our growing community today.

A New Vision for the Parkway

Our long experiment of running a freeway through Onondaga Lake Park has failed. The Parkway doesn’t even function properly as a high-speed arterial, and it blights the County’s premier public park. The I-81 project presents an opportunity to shift traffic to a safer corridor and restore public access to Onondaga Lake Park itself.

Right now, the Parkway functions as a limited access highway—like 690 or 81. Car drivers use it to get between 81 and the heavily populated northern suburbs in Salina and Clay.

But the Parkway was never designed to serve that purpose. There is no center median, so fast-moving cars hit each other head-on. Instead of exits, the Parkway has unsignalized intersections, so traffic backs up behind cars trying to turn left into and out of popular destinations like the Butterfly Garden, Ska-Nonh Center, and the Onondaga Lake Park’s main entrance. The rail bridge was built to accommodate canal boats rather than commercial vehicles, so trucks and buses crash into it, and people die.

The I-81 project will make the Parkway redundant as a highway. Removing the Downtown viaduct will free up room  shift through-traffic away from the part of 81 between Salina and Downtown, and NYSDOT also intends to increase car-capacity on that stretch. The upshot is that Onondaga County is about to get a lot more highway capacity between the northern suburbs and Downtown Syracuse, so the Parkway won’t be necessary to handle commuter traffic anymore.

(drivers unwilling to use the Thruway to reach 81 can just take Old Liverpool Road, another underused route with a comparable travel time).

This is a perfect opportunity for City Hall, the Town of Salina, Onondaga County, and New York State to solve the Parkway’s problems by redesigning it to function more like a park-road and less like a high-way. The first step is to reduce (and enforce) the speed limit on the Parkway. Car drivers looking for high-speed through-routes will use 690 or 81 instead, and far fewer cars will travel the Parkway.

Then, the Parkway needs to be rebuilt more in line with those low traffic volumes and low speeds. The lanes can be a little narrower, and there can be fewer of them. County Parks can use the left over right-of-way to bring the Loop the Lake Trail down this side of the Lake where it will be a stone’s throw from the Creekwalk (the County should also extend the Beartrap Creek trail to connect with Loop the Lake here).

NYSDOT should also implement Salina Town Supervisor Nick Paro’s idea to replace the asphalt squid at the Parkway’s southern end with a roundabout connecting it with Buckley Road, Old Liverpool Road, and Park Street. This would protect the Parkway from highway traffic, and the Parkway off of this roundabout should be landscaped to create a formal entrance to Onondaga Lake Park. Another roundabout at Griffin Drive will allow drivers to make left-hand turns into and out of the main park without backing up traffic. At the Parkway’s northern end, the intersection with Oswego Street should be simplified, shrunk, and landscaped to make it easier to walk to Heid’s and to create a decent-looking entrance to the Village of Liverpool.

Onondaga County’s 2001 settlement plan proposed narrowing Onondaga Lake Parkway and simplifying its intersection with Oswego Street

These changes are a long time coming. Onondaga Lake Parkway has long been one of the least reliable, most dangerous freeways in Central New York, and it ruins a huge section of the County’s most popular public park. The Community Grid will make this freeway totally unnecessary, and we should seize the opportunity to tear it out and build vision of the Parkway.

The Community Grid and Neighborhood Restoration

Before urban renewal, tight-knit neighborhoods right next to Downtown provided housing and opportunity for tens of thousands of people. Now, most of those neighborhoods are mostly parking lots and home to very few people. In order for the Community Grid to succeed, Syracuse must restore those neighborhoods. 

Urban renewal hit the 15th Ward/Near Eastside worse than any other neighborhood. That’s a product of City Hall’s racism (the 15th Ward was home to 8 of every 9 Black people living in Syracuse at midcentury), and it’s important to note that Urban Renewal wasn’t a one-time event. City Hall began mass demolition of Black families’ homes in the 1930’s, and it’s continued into the 21st century with the willful neglect and destruction of Kennedy Square.

These maps show how land uses changed just east of Downtown between 1953 and 2021. Areas shaded yellow are housing (including mixed-use buildings), red are commercial, purple are institutional (churches, schools, hospitals, etc), blue are parking and vacant land, and green are parkland.

In 1953, the vast majority of this neighborhood was covered in housing, but it was also served by many small businesses, schools, churches, and synagogues. Small streets laid out before the Civil War cut the land up into small blocks, making the neighborhood easier to get around on foot.

By 2021 the neighborhood was dominated by vacant land and parking lots. Entire blocks of housing have been demolished, and many small streets have been either eliminated (Renwick, Washington, Irving, Cedar, McBride, Jefferson, Madison) or widened (Harrison, Adams, Almond, Townsend) in order to make the area easier to drive around at the expense of people on foot.

As a result of all these changes, the population of the Near Eastside fell from 14,646 in 1950 to 5,656 in 2020—a drop of 61%. With that huge loss of people, the neighborhoods has lost most of its character as well. Few children mean there are no more schools, most houses of worship have either closed or followed their congregants to some other neighborhood, and the local businesses that sustained the neighborhood’s permanent residents have been replaced (if at all) by office buildings staffed by commuters.

This neighborhood has transformed from a place where people can make a good life into a space that serves residents of other neighborhoods who come and go in cars.

The Community Grid is Syracuse’s opportunity to unmake these mistakes. We’re removing the highway, and the new street grid can be designed in a way that supports walking, biking, and transit, small businesses, new housing, and repopulation. It’ll take more than transportation planning to right urban renewal’s wrongs, but if Syracuse pursues that goal intentionally, we can restore these neighborhoods and create good places for people to make their lives in the City.

Corning’s lesson for the Canal District

NYSDOT’s idea for a “canal-themed district”—a combination of fountains, public art, and parklets centered around the spot where Oswego and Erie Canals used to intersect—is a good one. It would create a new public space in the center of town, and it would restore the canal’s place in people’s lived experience of the City. However, the DEIS’ designs for this space would scatter it around the edges of a high-traffic highway where very few people will ever want to be.

The City of Corning’s experience with a similar project shows how Syracuse could take advantage of new traffic patterns by extending the Canal District west to cover Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets and create a public space where people will want to be.

The main problem with the current design for the Canal District is its location. The DEIS shows a new fountain, sculptures, benches, and park space lining Pearl Street and Oswego Boulevard near their intersections with Erie Boulevard. These streets are going to be de facto off- and on-ramps—like Harrison and Adams today—and they are going to carry a lot of car traffic, and 690 will still be running by just a block away. These intersections are going to be noisy and difficult to navigate on foot, and that won’t make for a pleasant place to hang out and look at a fountain.

Corning’s Centerway Square shows a better way to reclaim public space made available by changes in transportation infrastructure. In the late 19th century, the square was a civic gateway—it was the site of the New York Central Station, and it was many travelers’ first impression of the city. Corning built a monumental clock tower in the square, and capitalists surrounded it with the city’s most impressive commercial buildings.

In 1921 when it became clear that the city needed a new bridge to handle all of the new traffic travelling across the Chemung River, Corning built the Centerway Bridge to bring car traffic through the square for the first time. Within a short time, the city’s main civic square got turned into a parking lot.

By 1981, though, all that car traffic had overwhelmed the Centerway Bridge, and Corning needed yet another crossing over the Chemung River. The new Bisco Bridge could handle far more car traffic, and it was designed to avoid the busy public square with the confusing clock tower in the middle of its intersection. Car traffic left the Centerway Bridge, and Centerway Square was once again a primarily pedestrian space.

Today, the Centerway Bridge is an award-winning example of adaptive reuse, and the fully pedestrianized Centerway Square has regained its function as a public space. It’s the gateway to the Market Street Historic District for people walking from the Museum of Glass. It’s a place for rallies and public performances. It’s a place where people can just sit and enjoy the city.

The key to Centerway’s success is that new transportation infrastructure diverted car traffic away from the square and made space for people instead. When NYSDOT built the Bisco Bridge to accommodate lots of car traffic, they didn’t try to make its entrance to downtown Corning into a new public place—they revived the already existing space that the new bridge freed from car traffic.

The lesson for Syracuse and the Canal District is clear: don’t try to make BL-81’s new off- and on-ramps into pleasant public spaces—that’s impossible. Instead, look at where that new infrastructure will remove cars, and make those places into good public spaces.

Start thinking that way, and it’s pretty obvious where the Canal District can work best: Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets. That’s the canal’s original path through the middle of town, and it would be a great place to replicate something like Buffalo’s Canalside or Providence’s Waterfire by rewatering the canal from Clinton Square all the way to the new fountain being planned as part of the Canal District. It’s also a space that will see a lot less car traffic after the Community Grid removes the I-81 offramp from Salina Street, the onramps from State Street, and after the Pearl Street extension provides a new route for getting to the onramp at Belden.

Syracuse should seize this opportunity to create a new public space that will celebrate the City’s history and give people a new way to enjoy Downtown. Here’s how:

Bring the canal back to Erie Boulevard by running fountains down the center of the street. The fountains should connect to the “turning basin” water feature that NYSDOT has planned for the intersection of Erie and Oswego Boulevards. The surface of the water should be below street level to capture the feeling of the canal, and the street surface should be textured to slow what little car traffic does still use the street.

Convert Warren Street to two-way traffic and make it narrower north of Erie Boulevard. Give Salina a road diet so that there is only one lane of traffic travelling in either direction. Put in raised intersections where these two streets cross Erie, and install metal fences reminiscent of period-correct truss bridges to prevent cars from turning into the fountains.

Of course, line both blocks with street trees.

NYSDOT’s plan to create a new canal-themed public space downtown is good, but their plan to center it on a busy highway offramp is bad. NYSDOT should extend the Canal District concept to rewater the canal along Erie Boulevard between Clinton and Montgomery Streets. Instead of trying to create a new public space in a place where it’s doomed to fail, this would center the Canal District where it has the best chance to succeed. This area is directly adjacent to two of Downtown’s most successful pedestrian spaces—Clinton Square and Hanover Square. There is clearly already the demand for this kind of public space in this part of the City, and when the Community Grid removes highway-bound traffic from these streets, people will flock to well-designed pedestrian places.

How tearing down I-81 will reduce traffic

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement put a lot of effort into explaining exactly how many minutes it would take to drive a car between different points in the County depending on what NYSDOT ultimately decides to do with the I-81 viaduct. NYSDOT estimates, for instance, that in 2056 during the morning rush it’ll take 27 minutes to get from Cicero to Lafayette if they leave the viaduct as it is, 23 minutes if they build a brand new viaduct, and 27 minutes if they build the Community Grid.

But the I-81 project’s biggest transportation impact won’t have anything to do with how long it takes to drive a car between Cicero and Lafayette. Instead, the I-81 project is going to decrease the number of car trips between such far flung locations and replace them with much shorter carless trips by changing the geography of where people can live in Onondaga County.

In general, if you were to walk from the edge of the Syracuse metropolitan area to its center at Clinton Square, each area you passed through would be more densely populated than the one you saw last. Onondaga County is more densely populated than predominantly rural Madison and Oswego Counties. Onondaga County’s inner ring suburbs are more densely populated than its newly built exurbs. The City’s neighborhoods are more densely populated than most all of its suburbs. The City’s older closer-in neighborhoods are more densely populated than the more recently developed neighborhoods at its edge.

And this makes a good deal of sense because it’s good to live near the center of things, so that’s where lots of people choose to live. It’s good to have ready access to hospitals and schools and places to work and places to socialize and lots of people to socialize with. Syracuse is the only place in all of Central New York where a person could step out their front door and be within walking distance of 50,000 jobs.

But once you reached the very center of the city, this pattern of increasing population density would all of a sudden reverse. Downtown Syracuse and the area that immediately surrounds it is significantly less densely populated than neighborhoods like the Northside and the Southside.

This is a real paradox, because the City’s center is one of the best places to live in order to enjoy the benefits that cities bring—being near stuff—and it’s obvious that people want to live in this area since the few that do pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

But very much of the very middle of Syracuse is basically barren because of I-81. Cars promised to provide ready access to everything Syracuse had to offer—the jobs, the institutions, the community—without actually having to live near any of it. All they required was a highway and a parking spot. Syracuse’s leaders happily got to work demolishing housing, schools, businesses, and churches to make space for I-81, its arterial feeders, and the parking lots that surround and sustain them.

All that pavement creates a huge dead zone around the center of town that hurts Syracuse in two ways. First, it prevents people from living in places where people absolutely want to live. Second, it cuts City neighborhoods off from the opportunities available in the City’s center. 

People want to live near the center of town, but they can’t because the highway takes up too much space. The highway makes it so that the most desirable areas to live instead are on the exurban fringe. So people move out to the exurban fringe, but everybody’s moving to a different part of that fringe whether it’s Camillus or Lysander or Clay or Manlius. The community gets dispersed over an enormous area, and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they regularly need to get from Cicero to Lafayette for book club or work or their kid’s soccer game.

Tearing down the I-81 viaduct is a huge step towards fixing this transportation failure. The viaduct covers 18 acres of land, and tearing it down will free up a lot of space where people could find a good place to live. It will also make a lot of currently vacant land much more suitable for housing because there won’t be a big ugly polluting noisy highway right nearby anymore.

With more people living closer together, more of the places they need to go and the things they need to do will be located in a smaller area, so the post office and the pharmacy will be a 5 minute walk from home rather than a 5 minute car ride. As more people move to the center of town, there will be less need for all that parking and all those arterials, and there will be even more room for more people.

This trend is already underway. The five census tracts that surround the I-81 viaduct grew by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The people who accounted for that growth are not going to have to drive nearly as often or nearly as far as they would if they had instead moved to someplace like Fabius. When NYSDOT tears down the viaduct and replaces it with the Grid, they will make it more possible for more people to live similarly. That’s going to be the Grid’s biggest transportation impact.

Lay new sidewalks, keep old trees

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

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

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

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

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