Category Archives: Planning

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.

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.

A greenway for the Westside

Soon, the Eastside, Southside, and Northside will all have access to a cross-county network of greenways running through two of the three big valleys that intersect at Downtown Syracuse. That third valley—stretching from the City Center to Split Rock through Syracuse’s Westside—should have it’s own greenway too.

Existing network in dark green, proposed Westside Greenway in light green

Abandoned train bridges, a channelized creek, and public parks all link up to provide a largely level and car-free route through the City’s Westside. Beginning at Fay Road on the northern edge of the Geddes athletic fields, the greenway would run east past Bishop Ludden, the Centers at St. Camillus, and Westhill High School. It would follow Harbor Brook along the north side of Grand Avenue to the back entrance to Western Lights Plaza. There it would cross Grand to continue following Harbor Brook across Velasko Road, past Providence House and the Harbor Brook Wetlands Project, and into the City.

Harbor Brook as it enters Skunk City from the west

The greenway would cut through Skunk City to Grand Avenue, run along the edge of Burnet Park, and link back up with Harbor Brook where it crosses under Grand between Lydell and Herriman Streets. It would follow the brook and Amy Street to Seymour Street and then run across Fowler’s campus all the way to Fayette Street. It would cross Fayette on the existing abandoned train bridges, follow the County-owned abandoned railroad property to Geddes Street, cross that dangerous road on another abandoned train bridge, and then run along the north side of Fayette through Lipe Art Park.

A signalized crosswalk at Oswego Street—like the one on West Street at Otisco—would allow people to access the greenway from the Near Westside. The path would cross Fayette and West Streets with the existing rail viaduct and then come back down to street level on the existing rail siding that leads down into the parking lot behind the MOST. There, the greenway would link up with the Creekwalk and the rest of the metro area’s regional biking/walking network.

This greenway would connect major job centers, populous neighborhoods, three high schools, and three public parks. It would be almost entirely free from cars and almost perfectly level along its entire route. It would pass through one of the region’s most dynamic and least celebrated landscapes. It would be a very good addition to both Syracuse’s park system and its transportation network.

Will the Inner Harbor become the new Central Business District?

White collar companies are building new office space at the Inner Harbor instead of Downtown. This could be the start of a tectonic shift that remakes the City’s economic and social geography.

Equitable’s plan to move from its landmark office building on Madison to a brand new building on Clinton Street is just the most recent (and most dramatic) example of this trend. BHG is building a brand new office to consolidate its workers in one facility at the Inner Harbor. Rapid Response Monitoring built a $22 million addition to its Inner Harbor office in 2018.

This is not what City Hall had planned when it hired Cor to redevelop the Inner Harbor. The plan was for a totally new neighborhood of mixed use buildings with retail at street level and apartments above, densely built townhomes, a college satellite campus—a ‘24-hour neighborhood.’ Instead, the Inner Harbor is getting huge office buildings sharing their enormous parcels with gigantic surface parking lots while Cor plans to build even more surface parking and even fewer apartments on the land that it controls.

Syracuse has realized City Hall’s 1965 vision for a Downtown ringed by surface parking lots

In some ways, this is a real triumph for Syracuse. For 70 years, City Hall has been trying to figure out how to get companies that want new buildings and huge parking lots to stay Downtown. For most of that time, the plan has been to demolish enough of Downtown to provide parking spaces for everybody whose building was left standing. That policy failed to retain office jobs, and it turned a lot of Downtown into a moonscape. It was also one of the longer strands in the tangle of public policies that have made Syracuse one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the nation.

In the Inner Harbor, City Hall has found a collection of empty building sites that it can pitch to companies like Equitable that might otherwise move to the suburbs and to those like BHG who might never consider moving Downtown. This is a good thing because it maintains the City’s property tax base while also keeping thousands of opportunities for employment centrally located where they are more accessible to more people.

But it can only work so many times. Companies moving to the Inner Harbor are gobbling up land pretty fast. Equitable’s new building and parking lot will occupy 6.9 acres all on their own. Downtown, that company was just one tenant among many in a high-rise tower that sat on a 4.7 acre block. There simply isn’t enough room to give every company a spot in the semi-suburban office park that’s getting built at the Inner Harbor.

It also poses some real challenges to Downtown’s small businesses. Downtown’s residential population is not nearly big enough to support all of the businesses in the neighborhood. Those restaurants and shops thrive because so many non-residents come Downtown every day for work, and while they’re there they eat lunch, buy clothes, grab drinks. Every time a company moves a few hundred employees out of the neighborhood, it reduces that customer base and makes it harder for those small businesses to succeed.

Spreading all of those jobs out over a larger area will also make it harder for people to get to work by bus. Centro’s bus lines are all designed to terminate Downtown so that it never takes more than one bus to get to work there. Only one bus line runs up Solar Street, though, so anybody with a job at the Inner Harbor will have to take two buses to get to work.

BHG’s new building will take up less space than its parking lot, and it won’t have a door facing the sidewalk.

The big question is whether or not continued development will be the result of new jobs moving into Syracuse or existing jobs moving around within the City. BHG is bringing new jobs, but Equitable is just moving them from Downtown. If the Inner Harbor just leeches people and jobs from Downtown, then its development is best understood as more of the same sad story of Syracuse’s decentralization. But if instead it’s all new growth, then the conversion of the Inner Harbor into a sort of urban office park—the ‘Central Business District’ that mid-century city planners tried so hard to build—is a remarkable and welcome innovation in Syracuse’s development.