Tag Archives: I81

The highways are walls

81, 690, and the West Street Arterial are designed to make Downtown more accessible from the suburbs, but they’re also designed to make Downtown less accessible to city residents.

They do this in two ways. The first is to cut off local streets that connect adjacent neighborhoods. 81—and the urban renewal projects that went with it—closed Jefferson, Cedar, Madison, Montgomery, and McBride Streets. The interchange with 690 closed Oswego Boulevard and Pearl and Canal Streets. The West Street Arterial closed Belden Avenue and Walton Street, and it severed Marcellus, Otisco, and Tully Streets from their connection to Downtown too.

The second is to funnel so much vehicular traffic onto the remaining streets that they become unusable to anybody not in a car. This is the state of Harrison and Adams most obviously, but it’s also a problem on Fayette, Genesee, and Erie Boulevard. A car driver approaching from the East used to have 11 different options for entering Downtown—now there are only 6. These remaining swollen streets are awful to walk along, difficult to cross, and impossible to bike in, so they crowd out local foot traffic between adjacent neighborhoods.

Any plan to fix that damage has to do more than just remove the highway—it also has to break down the barriers that segregate neighborhoods by establishing new connections between them.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Grid does this a little bit. It reopens streets like Pearl and Oswego Boulevard,  expands the Creekwalk, adds a few blocks of bike lanes, and shortens crosswalks at major intersections.

But those are just starts. Syracuse needs a more comprehensive plan to reconnect Downtown to the City. That will mean adding low-traffic pedestrian-friendly connections—like a bridge over Onondaga Creek at Fabius or opening footpaths through Presidential Plaza. It will mean narrowing West and Adams so that people can walk across them safely. It will mean building a functional public transportation system.

It should not be easier, cheaper, and more convenient for a person from Van Buren to drive Downtown than it is for someone from Park Avenue to walk Downtown. It shouldn’t be that way for no other reason than that Van Buren is 10 miles from Clinton Square while Park Avenue is less than a mile away. We’ve successfully warped the County’s geography so that 10 miles seems like less than 1, but we did it by building a wall between Downtown and the surrounding City neighborhoods. It’s time to tear that wall down and reestablish the City’s connection to its center.

We Shouldn’t Widen Highways in the Suburbs Either

This week it came out that NYSDOT wants to take land away from people living in Cicero and the outskirts Syracuse in order to widen 481 as part of the plan to get the viaduct out of Downtown.

That’s bad. Highways are loud, they’re ugly, and they blacken people’s lungs. People who live next to the highway out in Cicero know this. That’s why a lot of them plant a thicket trees at their property’s edge to shelter their homes from the highway. Now that’s the very land where NYSDOT wants to build a bunch of drainage ditches so that it can make the highway even wider and more noxious.

It’s not so different from NYSDOT’s original plans to rebuild the viaduct Downtown. They were going to make it wider and straighter so that more cars could fit on it and so they could make even more noise. NYSDOT was going to knock over dozens of buildings and put the highway even closer to so many people’s homes.

For what? To double down on 1965’s idea of the future? To attract more cars, accidents, and congestion? We don’t need any of that. We don’t need it in the middle of Syracuse, which is why we’re getting rid of the viaduct there. We also do not need it in Cicero, which is why we shouldn’t be widening the highway out there.

An Ugly Idea

Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”

When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.

What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.

It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.

Centro and I81

At the March 22 hearing on public transportation in Syracuse, State officials asked Centro CEO Rick Lee why more people don’t ride the bus. Lee responded that Syracuse is a 20-minute city—overbuilt car-infrastructure and a spread-out population mean that there’s very little traffic, so people who can afford to own a car choose to drive. Magnarelli immediately interjected with “I hope it stays that way.” Rick Lee laughed kind of nervously and muttered ‘no comment.’

This exchange laid bare the absurdity of Centro’s public stance on I81. Centro has refused to take a position on the biggest transportation project that its service area has seen in 50 years, pretending that no matter what happens, Syracuse’s bus service will chug right along. That’s a nice thought, but it’s stupid. The viaduct is an impediment to bus service now, and replacing it with the Grid will make Centro more useful to more people.

Currently, the 30, 58, 62, 68, 76, and Connective Corridor buses all run in the area around the 81/690 interchange. That’s 40 acres of barren land where very few people (often no people at all) get on or off the bus.


Running a bus through the I81 dead zone is a lot like running a bus along an unpopulated stretch of rural road—it adds expense without making the bus more useful to anybody. Centro can’t avoid the I81 dead zone—like it could shorten a rural route—since people need to cross it to get between Downtown and the Eastside.

So the dead zone needs to disappear. That means making it into a place where people live and work—where people will get on and off of all those buses that already run on its streets.

The Grid is Syracuse’s best chance to get rid of the I81 dead zone. The Gifford Foundation envisions new housing, businesses, and institutions in that area, and the Allyn Foundation is working with City Hall on a project that could bring all of those things into that space. ReZone will help by allowing more homes and businesses on those blocks, but it needs to go further by eliminating parking requirements there (and, really, across the entire City).

All of that new building will allow more people to live and work in a part of the City that already has pretty good bus service (and could get even better service), so the bus will be a good option for more people in Onondaga County to get around. That’s how Centro can benefit from the I81 project, and that’s why Centro needs the Grid.

Moving Forward After the Viaduct

On April 22, NYSDOT (finally) released its plans for the I81 viaduct in Downtown Syracuse. The highway’s coming down, and it’s staying down. This is good news for the City, but it’s not the end of the process. NYSDOT still has to finalize its designs, hire contractors, and actually do the work. Syracuse needs to stay engaged to ensure that this process results in a better more equitable city.

NYSDOT’s plans should also direct the City’s attention to the future. Removing the viaduct means rebalancing Syracuse’s citywide transportation network to elevate walking, biking, and busing—not just driving. The DEIS includes some of the new infrastructure necessary for that rebalanced transportation system, but, because NYSDOT confined itself to the area immediately adjacent to the existing highway, its plans are just the beginnings of a truly citywide system. It’s up to the City to build out the rest.


Take the planned addition to the Creekwalk. That new trail will follow the creek’s west bank from Erie Boulevard to Evans Street, it will provide new views of the old Erie Canal culvert, and it will actually be useful for people getting between the Westside and Franklin Square.

But Evans Street has no sidewalks where it connects with this new trail. It’s just a blind curvy street—not a good place for people to walk. If the new trail is going to actually be useful for people getting around on foot, Evans Street needs new sidewalks.


Or look at this plan for a bike lane for State Street:

“A two-way raised cycle track would be provided on the west side of State Street between James Street and Erie Boulevard. A shared use (bicycle and pedestrian) path would be installed between Erie Boulevard and the Empire State Trail on Water Street”

That’s a great adjustment to a street that will see a lot less car traffic once it stops feeding the highway, and a raised cycle track is far superior to a lot of the bike infrastructure that Syracuse has now, but NYSDOT’s planned track only runs for 2 blocks. At one end, the track will connect to the Canalway Trail, but at the other it just stops at a big car-dominated intersection.


City Hall’s 2012 Bike Plan included bike lanes for both State and James Streets at this intersection. If they existed, then NYSDOT’s 2-block cycle track could actually be useful to someone trying to get across town by bike.


A few blocks north, NYSDOT’s plans to remove the northbound highway onramp from the Butternut Street bridge will mean a lot less traffic at the intersection of Salina, State, and Butternut Street. 


That’s good news for Centro, whose eventual BRT network should make that intersection a major transfer point for Northside buses. NYSDOT is offering to “coordinate with Centro on potential street improvements (transit amenities such as bus stops and shelters, bus turnouts, and layover and turnaround places) in the project limits to enhance and support access to Centro’s transit initiatives”—what a great opportunity for Centro to build a high quality transfer station built with somebody else’s money! It’d be hard to make that ask now, though, because, as it stands, there isn’t a transfer station planned for that intersection because there aren’t even any planned BRT lines that could intersect there. Centro needs to get a move on with it’s BRT network before this opportunity slips away.

The decade-long fight over the I81 has been a fight over what kind of city Syracuse is going to be. One that caters to car-owners over everybody else, or one that balances and incorporates the different needs and habits of everybody who lives in and uses the City. Hopefully, this DEIS means that fight is over. The challenge now is to actually remake Syracuse in that image. These three projects are just examples of ways to do that—the DEIS is full of other starts and suggestions. The important thing is to act on them and make Syracuse into the city that it needs to be.

I81’s Environmental Impact

Last week, Onondaga’s Town Supervisors—a group of people without any governmental responsibility for the City—got together to again let everybody know that they would like for I81 to stay in the middle of Syracuse. They want that, in part, because they’re concerned about the ‘environmental impacts of removing the I81 viaduct.

On the face of it, that’s a stupid concern. The environment will be better off with one fewer piece of obsolete, overbuilt, car-only transportation infrastructure. Get rid of the viaduct, and there’s room for new housing within walking distance of major employers, making it more possible for more people to drive less.

But those supervisors were never really concerned about the environment. They’re concerned about upending the status quo where all of the County’s environmental problems get dumped in the City. Ed Michalenko doesn’t care that vehicular exhaust is giving kids asthma so long as those kids don’t live in DeWitt. Jim Lanning doesn’t care that trucks are driving through Onondaga County so long as they go through Syracuse instead of Skaneateles.

That’s the danger of shoving all of the County’s problems onto one communityit lets these suburban supervisors believe that if a problem doesn’t exist for them, then it doesn’t exist at all. It’s telling that their ‘compromise‘ for I81  is to bury it through the middle of Syracuse, as if putting those cars out of sight is the same thing as taking them off the road.

The only way that this project will do anything positive for the environment is if it makes Onondaga County into a place where fewer people have to drive to run every single errand. That’s the promise of the Grid—more walkable neighborhoods that can support better bus service, fewer miles of highway subsidizing and necessitating car ownership. That’s an environmental impact to be excited about, and by making car ownership less necessary in Onondaga County, it might just reduce the traffic in places like Skaneateles and DeWitt.

Two Views of Syracuse’s Future

2019 will see two policy announcements that will shape Syracuse for decades to come. New York State plans to let us all know what it’ll do to replace I81’s downtown viaduct, and Syracuse City Hall plans to adopt its first new zoning ordinance since 1922. With each of these the community has the choice to make a big change or to keep things the same as they are now, and its decisions will reveal whether or not Syracuse believes in its own future.


Take I81. NYSDOT is going to demolish the downtown viaduct and uncover a lot of land in the city center, and a lot of people see the potential for something transformational to fill in that space. Here’s just one possibility, described by the Gifford Foundation:

“[The Community Grid plan is] the best opportunity for reclaiming the geography presently occupied by I-81 as a transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there”

That’s a vision of a better future–for a Syracuse that’s an inclusive empowering city–and that vision drives the Gifford Foundations decision to endorse NYSDOT’s plan to move the highway out of Downtown.

Contrast that with State Senator Bob Antonacci’s argument that Syracuse has nothing to gain by removing all those off and on ramps from the middle of town:

“The theory goes that tearing down I-81 through downtown Syracuse will unlock a dormant potential and uniting downtown with the University Hill neighborhood. I personally am skeptical of this. A previous attempt, the Connective Corridor, at uniting those two areas was described as having brought crime into the university and surrounding neighborhoods.”

He doesn’t think any significant positive change can come from getting the highway out of Downtown and that unless we all realize this, then “the 81 debate will end in a zero-sum game where a significant portion of the community will feel they lost.” The best result that Antonacci can imagine is to maintain the status quo.


It’s the same with the new zoning ordinance. At the beginning of the ReZone project, City Hall published the Land Use and Development Plan. That document sees Syracuse as the region’s future:

“Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living…. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods… over the long-term the City may market its ability to cost-effectively absorb regional population growth—based on existing infrastructure and an urban land-use pattern that lends itself to walkable neighborhoods, local commercial and business services, and efficient transit service.”

This Syracuse is a place where people want to live, a place that can welcome those people, and a place that will be better off for having done so. That vision informs the Land Use and Development Plan’s prescriptions for more housing, more housing options, better bus service, more opportunities for small businesses, and neighborhoods where people can meet all of their needs easily.

Contrast that with how Owen Kearney, a city planner, described the project to Grant Reeher on WAER:

“We’re really a city of residential neighborhoods with neighborhood business districts and Downtown. And kind of thinking of those three elements: that Downtown core, our neighborhood business districts, and essentially the neighborhoods surround them, and continuing to protect all three of them and enhance all three of them through our land-use regulations, which is what zoning are, but to allow new uses in those neighborhood business districts, at the same time protecting those residential areas”

His focus is on protection and stasis. This explains all of the changes that City Hall has made to the draft zoning ordinance since the first draft–rolling back housing opportunity, restoring old parking regulations that penalize bus-riders, keeping it difficult for new people to move into stable neighborhoods. Those changes all ‘protect’ the status quo by limiting the City’s ability to welcome new people.


Where the Gifford Foundation sees the potential for connected neighborhoods that empower their residents, Antonacci can only see traffic and crime. Where City Hall once saw the possibility of new housing mixed with new businesses so that lots of people could walk to the grocery store, the current administration can now only see problem corner stores and absentee landlords.

With I81 and with ReZone, that reflexive urge to keep things the way they are–to ‘protect’ them–comes from a fear of the future. When you can only imagine change for the worse, it makes sense to hold onto the present. In that case, Syracuse’s best hope is to slow its inevitable and irreversible decline.

The City deserves better than that. A better future is possible, Syracuse can be a better place to live, big changes can leave us better off. It’s only possible, though, if the people with the power to effect those changes can imagine that better future. Let them know. Call City Hall, call your state reps, call the Governor, and tell them that you know Syracuse can make a better future, and you want their help to make it happen.

Alleys for Neighborhoods

Bank Alley is different from a lot of the other streets Downtown. It’s not like Salina or Fayette–wide streets that are good for getting across town–and it’s not like Clinton or Adams–one-way racetracks for cars getting to or from the elevated highways. It’s short and narrow and a lot calmer than the rest of the neighborhood.

That difference makes it possible for different people to make different uses of all the buildings with entrances on both Salina and Bank Alley. Retailers on the first floor of those buildings face Salina because that’s where so many potential customers are walking by, but renters living on the top floors enter those buildings from Bank Alley because it’s more private.

A good mix of different kinds of streets and buildings makes for a neighborhood where different kinds of people can make a life. That’s a neighborhood where grocery stores can sit near houses, churches near shops, and community centers near schools. That’s a neighborhood where the variety of people and activities mean that any single person can meet their daily needs easily.

That’s the kind of neighborhood that the Gifford Foundation was talking about when it wrote that the I81 project will be:

“the best opportunity for reclaiming the geography presently occupied by I-81 as a transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there”

So it’s a good thing that the area around the viaduct already has so many alleys. Landmark, Block, and Grape Alleys (shown in orange) cut through the blocks just west of the viaduct.

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 6.16.35 AM

Right now those alleys aren’t doing much for anyone because they’re surrounded by empty lots, but that will change once the viaduct comes down. Earlier in November, the AIA predicted that this part of town will see a lot of new construction in the next few years. When that happens, the buildings that go up and the people who use them will benefit from the alleys that are already there.

The I81 project also provides the opportunity to reopen an alley that hasn’t existed since the viaduct went up. People have talked about reconnecting major streets that the viaduct divided, and this smaller street (shown in blue) should be part of that conversation too.

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 6.16.10 AM

City Hall is already laying the groundwork for the right kind of neighborhood with its new zoning ordinance. It’s zoning these blocks MX-5 which means no minimum parking requirements and very few restrictions on how people can use the land. That will make these alleys more useful to the neighborhood.

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 7.41.40 AM

It’s going to take a lot of work to make these blocks into neighborhood. Alleys can help. They add variety to the kinds of streets in a place, and they make buildings useful in different ways for different people. They can make this part of Syracuse a good place to live, and that’s a good thing for the City.

Transformed Neighborhoods

Someday, NYSDOT will demolish the structurally suspect I81 viaduct that runs alongside Downtown. That’s going to uncover a lot of land in the City’s center. Some people want for NYSDOT to build a new viaduct on that land, but last week, the Gifford Foundation put out a statement suggesting that Syracuse instead use the land to build a new neighborhood.

The Gifford Foundation isn’t interested in just any neighborhood–it thinks that this is an opportunity to do something “transformational”:

“A transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there, promote health and safety, and create jobs”

That sounds like a great place to live and a positive addition to the City. It’s the best possible outcome of this whole drawn-out process. Here’s hoping that kind of a neighborhood goes up when the viaduct comes down.

But in the meantime, let’s recognize that what the Gifford Foundation has described isn’t just a good blueprint for building a transformational new neighborhood. It’s also a call to transform the neighborhoods that Syracuse already has. Everybody living in this City deserves access to good schools, services, community, health, and employment, so while we’re all waiting for the possibility of getting a neighborhood that’s brand new, let’s do the work to make those things a reality in the neighborhoods that are already here.

It’s dangerous to focus too hard on something like I81. It’s such a big thing that’ll have such a big effect, that it’s too easy to just wait around for it to happen. But Syracuse can’t wait. Blodgett is falling apart now, people are showing up hungry at the Samaritan Center now, Centro’s out of money now, and this City needs to respond to all of that with urgency. If it does, then that new neighborhood the Gifford Foundation’s imagined won’t be so transformational. It’ll just be a new addition to a Syracuse that’s already transformed.

The New I-81 Tunnel Options are not Compromises

On January 11, syracuse.com published a letter from State Senator John DeFrancisco. In it, Senator DeFrancisco again pushed what he calls the “hybrid option” as a compromise between those who want to get rid of the “unsightly viaducts” and those who want to maintain “efficient movement of interstate traffic.” According to him, that compromise means “tearing down the viaducts and creating a community grid” and then adding “a short tunnel to keep interstate traffic flowing efficiently through the city.”

The Senator has been banging this drum for more than a year, but this is the first time he’s written to the Post-Standard since WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff released its independent report on the feasibility of building a tunnel under Downtown Syracuse. That report was supposed to show exactly how a tunnel+grid design could compromise between the interests of businesses located along I-81’s current path, city resident groups, suburban politicians, and University Hill all while meeting NYSDOT’s standards for the project. That’s a pretty tall order, and this report didn’t fill it.

For city resident groups, the point of removing the viaduct is to encourage property development and raise property tax revenues on the east side of Downtown. The viaduct discourages development there because it covers up some land and makes adjacent land unattractive. This is a problem along the viaduct’s entire length, but it’s worst where the viaduct’s curving interchange’s ramps cover multiple full city blocks near the intersection of Almond and Fayette Streets.

All four of the recommended tunnel designs include off-on ramps for a new I-690 exit at Almond Street that recreate this exact problem:

“Providing a direct local-to-interstate connection would be critical to maintaining acceptable levels of service in downtown Syracuse. To provide this connection from the north end of Almond Street, on- and off-ramps would begin and end in a wide center median at the intersection of Almond Street with Fayette Street, and ascend north and west toward over Washington Street, Water Street, and Erie Street, ultimately tying in to I-690 EB and WB. This would necessitate the closure of Washington Street and Water Street due to vertical clearance requirements.”

The report claims that the switch from a highway interchange to highway off ramps “would provide a substantial amount of residual state-owned land for potential disposal north of Fayette Street between McBride Street and Almond Street,” but it’s hard to believe that any developers would be willing to buy that land since the 2nd and 3rd stories of any building built on it would be just yards away from heavy traffic travelling at forty miles an hour.

It’s strange, really, that WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff would include these ramps in all of its designs when NYSDOT didn’t think an exit from I-690 at Almond Street was necessary “to maintain acceptable levels of service in downtown Syracuse.” NYSDOT’s Community Grid plan instead included new exits at Irving and Crouse Avenues, and it kept the on-off ramps parallel to I-690 to leave as much land open for development as possible. The result is more land that’s more attractive for development and more likely to yield more property taxes to fund city services.


Senator DeFrancisco can keep trying to say that he wants a compromise, but he’s going to need to start actually respecting what people would want out of a compromise. It’s not enough to just say the words “hybrid option” and “community grid.” He’s got to actually advocate for a design that benefits the City in the way that NYSDOT’s community grid design can.