Category Archives: Planning

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 are 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.

Sidewalk maintenance and street trees

Sidewalks and street trees both make it easier, safer, and more comfortable to get around town on foot, so Syracuse’s new municipal sidewalk program and Urban Forestry Master Plan should make life better for pedestrians. But these two programs might work against each other if they’re not coordinated.

One side of the problem is that the sidewalks need fixing—in many cases—because tree roots have messed them up. Trees planted too shallow send their roots out near the surface, and they lift individual pavers to make the sidewalks impassable for people with wheelchairs, a headache for parents with strollers, and a hazard for anyone on foot. In many cases, fixing the sidewalk will mean removing a poorly planted tree.

The other side of the problem is that planting a new tree the right way often requires tearing up the sidewalk. Trees wont send their roots through the sidewalk if they’re given enough room, and on streets where there’s only a little space between the sidewalk and the curb that means planting the root ball deeply and partially underneath the sidewalk. Of course, that’s only possible if you tear the sidewalk up to plant the tree.

It’s not hard to imagine where this could lead: a tree gets cut down to fix the sidewalk, then a little while later, the sidewalk gets torn up to plant a new tree. The end result is less tree cover and a newly-busted sidewalk, and City Hall’s spent a lot of money to make the street worse.

Luckily, we have a model for doing this right. The Dig Once program coordinates pavement reconstruction with utility maintenance on Syracuse’s streets to minimize construction disruptions, save money, and to preserve the new smooth street surface for as long as possible. Basically, whenever DPW rips an entire street up in order to repave it, they fix everything underneath the street before laying new asphalt back over top. This is the kind of common sense coordination that delivers better municipal services without any extra cost to the public.

City Hall should take the same ‘Dig Once’ approach with its municipal sidewalk program. Tearing up a sidewalk in order to lay down a brand new one? Check with the City Arborist to see if that block is in line to get new trees, and let them get planted nice and deep before pouring the new concrete surface. It’s that simple.

Syracuse is used to hearing that it can’t have nice things because we can’t afford them, but a lot of times it’s less a matter of money and more a problem of just doing things efficiently. That’s the case with rebuilding our pedestrian infrastructure. We have the money for sidewalks, and we have the money for new trees—we just need to spend that money intelligently in order to buy a better City for people who get around on foot.

Plant more trees in Clinton Square

Clinton Square is Syracuse’s premier civic space. Bob Haley calls it “the center of the center of the center.” It’s the spot where the City of Syracuse started. It’s the site of our biggest city festivals. It’s where we gather as a community.

City Hall has always taken special care of the space. It’s been rebuilt several times since the Erie Canal defined the square 200 years ago, and the most recent renovation from 2001 added a beautiful fountain that recalls the canal’s original path through Downtown and provides a great place for kids to cool off in Syracuse’s increasingly hot summers.

But spend much time in Clinton Square, and it’s obvious how much better the space could be. While people gather in the fountain and the paved area along Water Street, they shun the northern part of the square along Genesee. It’s not hard to see why: sitting at one of the picnic tables near the Soldiers and Sailors monument is basically unpleasant. You’re stuck in the hot sun, and it’s hard to maintain a conversation over the noise of nearby car traffic. The too-open space feels more like a parking lot than a park, so people stay away.

Like so many unpleasant things Downtown, this is the result of car-first 20th century urban renewal. West Genesee Street is designed for much faster traffic than it used to handle, and the Post-Standard building sits much farther back from the street than the buildings it replaced. So instead of a quiet, comfortable space like you can find along Water Street, the north side of Clinton Square feels noisy and exposed.

But fixing those problems is a pretty heavy lift. City Hall plans to completely reconstruct Genesee Street without making any meaningful changes to its design, and the Post-Standard building’s new owners just announced that they intend to redevelop it without making any significant changes to the exterior.

Fortunately, there’s a much simpler short-term solution for Clinton Square: plant trees—lots of them—on the grassy lawns on either side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Trees would solve most of the problems with that side of the square. They’d provide shade, they’d slow cars, they’d deaden traffic noise, and they’d make the space cooler in summer.

Trees would also make the rest of the square feel more comfortable by ‘enclosing’ the space. Right now, there’s so much empty space north of Clinton Square that you can see clear to St. Joseph’s hospital. Lots of trees along the fountain’s northern edge would block that view of parking lots, highways, and potholes, and they would make the entire square feel much more protected and intimate.

City Hall’s recently released Urban Forestry Master Plan calls for planting 3,500 new trees in the City every year in order to increase quality of life and decrease urban heat islands. That’s exactly what Clinton Square needs, and when City Hall starts planting those new trees they should make the community’s premier civic space a top priority.

How cars killed Syracuse

81’s construction was a cataclysmic event in Syracuse’s history. Building the highway—and 690 soon after—meant tearing down dozens of city blocks and demolishing hundreds of homes. But although that event stands out for the scale of its destruction, it was neither the beginning nor the end of Syracuse’s campaign to demolish itself. Aerial images from 1938, 1951, 1966, and 2021 show how the area now known as Downtown has been gradually turned to asphalt in order to make room for cars over the course of decades. As NYSDOT prepares to remove the I81 viaduct from Downtown, they must account for the broader damage done to Syracuse by all of these cars.

To see some of the highways’ most direct devastation, look at the corners of Pearl and Canal Streets. That intersection used to be the northern edge of Downtown—now it doesn’t even exist. The three city blocks that surrounded it are completely covered by the 81/690 interchange.

But even through the interchange wouldn’t destroy these blocks until the 1960’s, the car had already started degrading the area by 1951. Compare the image from that year (second in the series) to the one from 1938 (first in the series). A handful of buildings and some green space from the 1938 image are gone just 13 years later, all replaced by surface parking lots.

The highways accelerated this degradation elsewhere in the City. 81 did less direct damage around Forman Park, but it preceded a similar scale of destruction by creating an enormous need for car storage that Syracuse supplied by demolishing dozens families’ homes.

Two church buildings survived this demolition derby, but their congregations didn’t. According to the logic of the day, I-81 should have made AME Zion and First Christian Scientist more accessible (by car) than ever, but destroying their neighborhood meant emptying the church buildings. Both congregations are still active in 2021, but they have had to build new houses of worship closer to their congregants’ new neighborhoods.

A little further south, Syracuse has tried to create institutions that can withstand the destruction of the surrounding neighborhood. The War Memorial, the Everson Museum, and the OnCenter are all supposed to capitalize on the highways by drawing people from the entire region. No one needs to live near these attractions because the car makes them accessible from any home in the County. There just needs to be enough space to store everybody’s car once they get Downtown, and Syracuse found that space by demolishing people’s homes (specifically, Black people’s homes).

City Hall cleared much of this land at the same time NYSDOT was building 81, but the War Memorial (and its parking lot) came before any of that wholesale destruction, and the OnCenter (and its parking garage) came much later.

Even places not directly affected by the highway construction program have seen this same pattern of car-driven demolition. The area around City Hall has been losing buildings—and even whole streets—to car storage since the 1920’s. The small park in front of City Hall is now car storage. So is the Yates Hotel and most of what used to be Genesee Street between Montgomery and State. All of this happened between 1961 and 2021, after the construction of the highways.


The highways aided, abetted, and accelerated Syracuse’s destruction, but they did not cause it. The City has been destroying itself ever since the first people bought cars, moved out of town, and demanded that Syracuse remain completely accessible to them.

So it’s been alarming to watch NYSDOT justify the Grid by pointing out how little it will affect driving conditions for suburban commuters, or to see their plans for replacing the West Street interchange with parking lots. Just removing the highway (or 1.1 miles of it) won’t fix the basic problem. We also have to make it so that people don’t feel the need to bring (and store) their cars Downtown.

That means deconstructing the system of arterial streets that feed the highways. It means building the grid so that it can’t carry the same amount of traffic that runs over the viaduct today. It means making it safe, easy, and pleasant to bike or bus across the City. It means building new housing on all of those parking lots so that more people can live in the City Center and get around it on foot.

Syracuse is a city, and cities are for people. For 90 years, our City’s leaders have been trying to replace people with cars, and they’ve done a pretty thorough job of it. The 81 project is a real chance to change course, but we have to make sure that NYSDOT understands that opportunity and acts on it. When they release their final Environmental Impact Statement this summer, watch to make sure that it goes beyond just removing the viaduct and puts Syracuse on a path to rebuild itself.

Food Deserts and Parking Lots

Too many people living in too many neighborhoods have too hard a time getting fresh food. In part, this problem has to do with the fact that grocery stores won’t open in poor neighborhoods—so-called ‘food deserts.’ But, because food deserts are only ‘deserts’ for people without cars, it also has to do with how accessible  grocery stores are to pedestrians.

If food deserts were just about the presence or absence of a grocery store in any particular neighborhood, then just about every suburban subdivision would warrant the name. Fairway East in Clay is not a food desert even though the nearest grocery store is 2 miles away because the people who live in Fairway East have easy access to food. They own cars and can easily drive to any number of grocery stores.

A food desert isn’t just a neighborhood without a grocery store. It’s also a neighborhood where people don’t have cars. That’s why, last summer, Last Chance For Change walked to Green Hills Grocery to show how hard it is for a lot of people on the Southside to get to fresh food. Driving from the Southside to Green Hills (or to the Nottingham Tops, or to the Western Lights Wegmans, or to the South Ave Price Rite, etc) is easy—walking there is hard, and that’s what matters.

And if the goal is to get more grocery stores within walking distance of more people, then not all grocery stores are created equal. Some—like the Route 31 Wegmans out near Fairway East—are designed to be driven to. They’re huge buildings that sit back behind huge parking lots, and they have to draw a huge number of customers from a huge area in order to survive.

This kind of design is bad for pedestrians because it’s unpleasant to walk across parking lots, but it’s also bad for food deserts because those huge parking lots could be full of housing for people who need to live within easy walking distance of a grocery store.

Take the Pond Street Tops on the Northside. It’s a 32,000 square foot store with a 85,000 square foot parking lot. Its front door is about 50 feet from the sidewalk on Pond Street and about 500 feet from the sidewalk on 1st North. That means the closest houses are actually pretty far away from the front door, and it means that fewer houses are within walking distance of the fresh food for sale in this store.

Compare that to the Co-op in Westcott. It has no parking lot, and it’s front door is right at the sidewalk. The nearest houses are just next door. In fact, if you tally up all of the street frontage around these two stores, the Co-op is within walking distance of 22% more land than is the Pond Street Tops.

Neighborhood-scale grocery stores—like the Co-op or Dominick’s in Hawley-Green—are highly accessible to people who get around on foot. That makes them really effective at putting fresh food within walking distance of lots of people. If more grocery stores in Syracuse were like them—if less land around the grocery stores we already have was wasted on parking—more people in more neighborhoods would have an easier time getting fresh food.

The mechanics of exclusion

Syracuse’s zoning ordinance makes most buildings illegal. Before anyone can build almost any new building or put an old one to almost any new use, they have to get a special exemption from the zoning code in the form of a variance or permit. This seemingly bureaucratic process is actually intensely political—the zoning appeals board and planning commission have discretion to approve or deny these permits and applications, and they can be influenced by well-connected people, businesses, organizations, and politicians. Vocal interest groups disrupt the hearings, political allies call in favors, campaign contributors air their concerns over lunch with the mayor.

This is how zoning actually works—the mechanics behind the ordinance that determine what gets built and in what neighborhoods. It exposes almost all new building—from high-priced apartments to emergency shelters—to political interference, and its practical effect is to decrease housing opportunity, drive up rents, and perpetuate exclusion across the City.

Take the apartment building planned for the Temple Concord site at the corner of University and Madison. Syracuse’s antiquated zoning code still considers that to be a semi-suburban residential area, so—among other onerous restrictions—it requires new buildings to have a 77’ rear setback. That’s just not practical for the kind of land use the neighborhood needs now, so the developer is requesting a variance to build closer to the property line.

The landlord next door doesn’t like that. Sure, his building is also ‘too close’ to the property line and would require a variance to get built today, but that’s not the point. The point is that incumbent landlords don’t like competition because it puts downward pressure on rents, and so he’s using a clearly outdated zoning ordinance to try and deny alternative housing options to his potential future tenants.

It’s hard to worry too much about two landlords fighting over tenants on University Hill, but these same bureaucratic mechanics also operate in other neighborhoods where they contribute to exclusion and segregation.

That’s what happened in Westcott two years ago when Syracuse’s overly restrictive zoning ordinance kept a developer from building 32 new apartments in a neighborhood with an acute housing shortage. Household sizes are shrinking in Westcott, but the century-old housing stock is mostly homes with 3 or more bedrooms, so rents are going up and people crowd together with roommates to afford this high-opportunity neighborhood.

32 new 1-bedroom apartments would have helped the neighborhood adjust to this changing demographic reality, but Syracuse’s zoning ordinance doesn’t really account for that kind of construction outside of a few very select areas, so the project required a variance. In a politically powerful neighborhood where the loudest voices often oppose new rental housing, the project was rejected out of hand, and 32 people who could have lived in Westcott have had to find alternative housing elsewhere.

But some people can’t just find housing elsewhere. The men who stay at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter don’t really have anywhere else to go, and now that shelter itself is struggling to find a place to operate. It had intended to relocate to an abandoned building on West Genesee in the shadow of the West Street expressway, but an influential political donor with nearby real estate interests has run the shelter off with threats of frivolous litigation.

Now, those same anti-housing forces are trying to make sure their task is easier next time by amending the zoning ordinance to require a permit for any new ‘care home’ anywhere in the City. This legislation would require the planning commission to approve each individual emergency shelter, group home, and assisted living facility, and it would open all of these different kinds of housing arrangements to the same kinds of bad faith opposition that have made new housing so hard to build in any high-opportunity neighborhood in this City.

This is how zoning really works in Syracuse today. The zoning code is intentionally restrictive so that almost all new housing has to be approved on a case-by-case basis. That opens each project to obstruction from well-connected developers, politically powerful interest groups, and campaign contributors. All too often, these actors find their interests in opposition to the City’s least politically connected residents—renters, low-income families, people with disabilities, the unhoused—and they use the zoning ordinance to perpetuate systems of exclusion and segregation that make it so hard for so many to find a decent place to live in this City.

To begin to unmake those inequitable systems, City Hall first needs to reject this care homes zoning amendment. It’s practical effect will be to ban emergency housing from politically connected neighborhoods and concentrate it—along with so many other social services—in the places where no deep-pocketed donors live.

And then, City Hall needs to pass a new zoning ordinance that does away with all of this nonsense. ReZone—City Hall’s delayed plan to modernize the zoning ordinance—needs to be amended so that it doesn’t just reinstate these existing inequalities, and then it needs to be put into law so that everybody in this City can get the housing they need.

What to do with Shoppingtown

After losing out on millions of dollars in tax revenue and spending millions more in bankruptcy court, Onondaga County has gotten legal control of Shoppingtown Mall. Now the County’s just got to figure out what to do with that 70 acre property. Given the geographic location of the site and the demographic trends in the immediate area, the best thing to do with this property is to redevelop it as a residential neighborhood.

The Shoppingtown property (in red) sits at the center of census tract 146 (in blue)

The Shoppingtown property sits in Dewitt near the eastern end of Erie Boulevard. This part of Dewitt is booming. Between 2000 and 2014, the population of census tract 146 grew by 31%, and median household income rose by 12% more than in the county as a whole.

The Town of Dewitt is also a major employment center. One out of every six jobs in Onondaga County is in Dewitt, and more than one out of every five jobs in Dewitt is in census tract 146.  19% of workers who live in the town also work there—only the Town of Skaneateles and the City of Syracuse employ a greater share of their local population.

All of this indicates that Dewitt is a good place to live and that lots of people really do want to live there.

But Dewitt also has some real problems. The relatively low ratio of workers to jobs means that 19 of every 20 people who work in Dewitt commute from outside the town. That’s the highest ratio of any town in the County, and it means that tens of thousands of people are bringing their cars into Dewitt every day. All those people driving all those cars leads to traffic congestion and air and noise pollution—concerns that loom large as NYSDOT prepares to remove the Downtown 81 viaduct.

And at the same time, Dewitt’s population growth is stagnating. Since 2014, census tract 146’s population has actually dropped by 9%, and median household income has barely kept pace with the rest of the County. Over that same period the tract saw almost no new housing construction, and median rent increased by about 7% or $50 a month.


Dewitt is a good place to live, so people want to move there. There isn’t enough housing, so that demand translates to higher prices and a stagnant population. Combine that stagnant population with a robust job market, and you get lots of people commuting into the town, bringing traffic and pollution.

The solution is to build more housing, and that’s what should happen on the Shoppingtown parcel.

The town government already has a plan to do this. They recently created a zoning overlay that designated this parcel as ‘mixed-use village.’ That designation allows for the construction of housing, retail, and park space all in the same area.

The goal of this new zoning overlay is to “encourage the adaptive reuse of aging commercial strip developments” by creating “village centers” that provide both “a high level of amenities that creates a comfortable environment for pedestrians, bicyclists and other users” and “a sufficient density of employees, residents and recreational users to support public transit.”

In other words, exactly what the Town of Dewitt needs. 

Redeveloped this way, Shoppingtown could become a desirable neighborhood like so many others in this part of the County. It could allow more people to move into this attractive area in order to access all of the amenities and opportunities that already exist there. It could reduce traffic congestion and pollution by letting more people live close to the places where they work by letting them get to work on foot, on bike, and on public transportation. It’s would bring new life to this dead mall.