Category Archives: Planning

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.

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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.

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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.