Tag Archives: I81

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.

The case for bus lanes

Syracuse should build bus lanes on specific high-traffic streets as part of the I-81 project. Giving buses dedicated space on city streets makes public transit faster, cheaper, and more reliable, and it’s an important step towards building a transportation system that works for everybody.

But bus lanes weren’t included in NYSDOT’s draft plans for I-81, and they weren’t even part of SMTC’s design of Centro’s planned BRT lines. Even though bus lanes (and preferably, separated bus lanes) are considered necessary for any project to call itself BRT, Centro isn’t asking for any dedicated street space for its buses.

There’s some sense to that. Syracuse doesn’t have the same level of traffic congestion that makes dedicated bus lanes so essential and successful in cities like New York and Boston, and it’s better to focus on other infrastructure improvements—like signal priority and level boarding platforms—that will have a greater impact in Syracuse.

But even though dedicated bus lanes shouldn’t be Centro’s top priority, there are at least three good reasons they should still be part of the I-81 project.

Centro buses are often held up by congested car traffic

FIrst, Centro buses do get stuck in traffic. It doesn’t happen on every bus route, and it doesn’t happen all hours of the day, but there are plenty of times that buses moving through the middle of town get stuck behind a bunch of cars, and that sucks.

Centro should make it a priority to build bus lanes in the specific places where excessive car traffic slows buses down.

Adams Street has ample room for bus lanes

Second, there’s plenty of room for bus lanes already. The places where Centro most needs its own dedicated running lanes just so happen to be overly-wide traffic sewers leading to and from 81’s off and onramps. Parts of James, State, and Adams Streets are 5 lanes and more than 60’ wide. That’s crazy!

These streets have enough room to build dedicated bus lanes without needing to do the costly work of moving a single curb. Just repurpose some of that ample existing street space by painting it bright red with a sign that says “bus only” and call it a day.

These bus lanes would be useful even before BRT is fully implemented, and they should be included in the I81 project.

Third, it’s important to claim that space for public transportation now before doing so becomes politically difficult. Removing the 81 viaduct will temporarily reduce car traffic on these overbuilt streets, but the project will also open up new space for new homes and businesses in the City’s center. When new people move into the center of town, they’ll build their lives around whatever transportation system Syracuse provides. If there’s still mediocre bus service and lots of room for cars, they’ll drive everywhere and create all kinds of new traffic congestion that’ll slow the buses down and make public transportation even less appealing to new residents.

And if Syracuse waits until the buses really are bogged down in terrible traffic, it will be too late to build bus lanes because the drivers bogging down the buses will scream bloody murder at the idea of giving any of ‘their’ space to public transportation. Better to get ahead of that problem now by laying the groundwork for a transportation system that can handle population growth—a transportation system built on high-capacity modes like walking, biking, and public transportation.

This is an opportune moment. Downtown is riven by a few overly wide streets clogged with traffic shunting to and from the highways. When 81 comes down, the excess space on those streets will be immediately—but only temporarily—up for grabs. Syracuse should turn that space into bus lanes as part of the I81 project in order to secure fast reliable public transportation now so that the City’s center can handle population growth in the years ahead.

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.

The price of delay

Now that it’s clear that I-81 is coming down, the viaduct’s supporters have adopted a new tactic: delay. They’re done trying to influence the final outcome of the project—compare the in-depth 2-year tunnel analysis to the half-assed Skyway proposal—and they are instead trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The Mall has hired a lawyer who argues NYSDOT needs to redo all of its economic analyses with newer data. Busybodies from Skaneateles want additional traffic studies for locations 50 miles away from the highway. Congressman John Katko just managed to get NYSDOT to extend the comment period by another 30 days. Expect to see more of this nonsense as we take the final steps towards tearing down the viaduct.

None of these delaying tactics will change the project’s ultimate outcome. The Grid is so obviously the correct choice from an environmental, safety, economic, social justice, cost, and transportation perspective. In the long run, the viaduct will come down, and Syracuse will be better off for it.

But we don’t live in the long run. We live here now, and the interested parties have a lot to gain or lose by dragging this decision out as long as possible.

Take the Delayer-in-Chief, former State Senator John DeFrancisco. He was able to muck up the NEPA process for years. In that time he moved his home and business to the suburbs, and he retired from public life so he no longer needs campaign contributions from viaduct supporters. He couldn’t actually convince NYSDOT to build a tunnel or a new viaduct, but he managed to keep the current viaduct up until it didn’t matter to him, personally, anymore.

Or look at the mall. The long run doesn’t matter to them because structural changes to the world economy is killing their business anyway. But in the short run they sincerely believe they’ll make more money with the viaduct than without it. From that perspective, it’s in their financial interest to keep the viaduct up as long as possible. A 13-year process is better than a 5-year process—even if the viaduct comes down at the end either way—because it means 8 more years of marginally higher profits.

But just as these bad actors benefit from delay, stretching out this process hurts Syracuse. Tearing down the viaduct and building the grid is going to give a lot of people a recession-proof paycheck—it would have been great for that work to have already started before the pandemic caused a recession last year.

The pandemic also caused a huge increase in demand for housing in the Syracuse metro area. Much of that demand matched with supply in the exurbs—places like Clay, Lysander, and Manlius—and furthered sprawl and inter-municipal inequality. If the viaduct had already come down, new housing in the City’s center could have soaked up some of that new demand and made Syracuse a more sustainable, more equitable place.

Most importantly, every single day, the viaduct makes life worse for the people who have to live near it. Noise and air pollution cause chronic illness along the highway’s path, and every day that John DeFrancisco, John Katko, and the Mall delayed construction was another day that kids breathed in exhaust and fell asleep to the sound of speeding cars.

The viaduct will come down. Syracuse will be safer, cleaner, more just, and more pleasant for it. But there are people who want to delay that better future off as long as possible. They talk about caution and making every voice heard and making sure we get this right. But they’re really just interested in running out the clock until they retire, until their business fails, until they move. We don’t need to humor their cynicism for another year.

False hope for the viaduct

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli just wrote an op-ed arguing that we can’t move forward with the I-81 project until there’s consensus. This is wrong, and we need to move past the false hope that the I-81 project can possibly please everybody.

The Assemblymember pointed to widespread criticism of the recently release Draft Environmental Impact Statement as evidence that NYSDOT should not move forward with the Grid. People living in Pioneer Homes deserve better mitigation during the construction period; car drivers may have to stop at red lights; fewer people may drive directly past the Mall; car exhaust may cause students at Dr. King Elementary to develop chronic respiratory illness. 

From the Assemblymember’s perspective, these criticisms all point to his preferred outcome for this project: the status quo.

“We can have connectivity within the city, including walking and bike trails, and continue to keep the city connected to its suburbs and the rest of the region. These are not mutually exclusive… What we need is a community grid in conjunction with a rebuilt viaduct, tunnel, or new bridge to keep traffic flowing through Syracuse.”

The Assemblymember then implies that this outcome—one which has been opposed by the City’s elected leadership for a decade—would work for everybody:

“I do not believe that a consensus for this project has ever been reached by the city, suburbs and outlying towns in our region. Given the amount of federal monies available, why don’t we have an option that satisfies everyone’s needs?”

There is no option that can possibly meet everyone’s “needs,” and to see why all you have to do is read through the Assemblymember’s list of concerns. A new viaduct would certainly save car drivers from the terror of traffic lights, but it would also increase air pollution at Dr. King Elementary. A tunnel (it’s okay, you can laugh) would definitely keep cars moving past the Mall, but the interchange with 690 would be even bigger than what we have today, and it would create a blackhole in the middle of town where no one would ever have cause to walk or bike.

Assemblyman Magnarelli is wrong: competing interests want mutually exclusive things out of this project. There is no way to reconcile all of the concerns that different members of different communities have expressed about NYSDOT’s current plan for I-81.

In fact, the DEIS has received so much criticism because it is a misguided attempt to find a “consensus” solution. The Grid should resemble a normal city street in order to accommodate local street life while discouraging through traffic from bringing air pollution, noise pollution, and traffic violence into the City. Instead, NYSDOT is offering something no one wants—the West Street Arterial but bigger—in order to appease powerful people like the Assemblymember who have demanded that the Grid accommodate high-speed high-volume car traffic.

There is no possible solution that can please both the Mall and Dr. King Elementary’s community. They simply want mutually exclusive outcomes from the I-81 project. That’s a hard truth because it requires our leaders to make a decision that will be unpopular with some people, but it’s the way things are. Anybody who continues to nurture this false hope—that if we just had more time, if we just thought a little harder about it, if we just spent more money, then everybody could be happy—is ignoring reality.

The Grid and Bus Rapid Transit

The I-81 project can and should help build a Bus Rapid Transit system in Syracuse. BRT will make public transportation much more useful for current riders, it will attract many new riders, and it will reduce traffic congestion and improve traffic safety for everybody who uses Syracuse’s streets.

In the DEIS, NYSDOT lists “maintain[ing] access to existing local bus service and enhanc[ing] transit amenities within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse,” as one of the I-81 project’s five objectives. These transit amenities “could include bus stops and shelters, bus turnouts, and layover and turnaround places.”

NYSDOT elaborates:

“Apart from the Downtown transit hub, Centro has few amenities for its customers. Most stops have a sign, but no seating, lighting, or shelters. Syracuse has a temperate climate with cold winters and hot summers, and the city sees substantial snowfall each year. Lacking any amenities, customers must wait for buses outdoors without the protection of shelters. Where practical, enhanced amenities for riders could provide a better experience for transit customers and facilitate their use of existing transit services.”

This is good. It is ridiculous that the snowiest big city in the nation asks its bus riders to stand in the street to catch the bus in the winter. It is ridiculous that a town where the sun sets as early as 4:30 pm doesn’t provide adequate lighting at its bus stops.

But even though better amenities are good, what we really need is better service. Even the most comfortable bus shelter won’t do much if riders have to wait an hour for the bus to show up.

Luckily, Uplift Syracuse just released a new report—“Better Bus Service”—that shows how investing in infrastructure like better bus stops can make more frequent service more possible by speeding up buses and reducing the annual operating cost of providing improved service.

Basically, faster buses cost less to run than slower buses because they allow a single operator to complete more runs in a single shift. Uplift Syracuse estimates that if bus speeds on Centro’s best performing corridors could be increased from roughly 10 mph to 15 mph, then Syracuse could have an 8-line, 28-mile, citywide network of fast and frequent rapid transit service for roughly $8 million per year—that’s significantly cheaper than Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s estimate that running a network of just half this size would cost $8.3 million annually.

NYSDOT is willing to build new transit infrastructure anywhere in the I-81 project area shaded red on the map above. This area overlaps with much of the central portion of Uplift’s proposed BRT system. Here are the specific projects NYSDOT should build in order to advance Bus Rapid Transit in Syracuse:

New Stations

potential BRT stations located in the I-81 project area

BRT stations are significantly different from the bus stops Syracuse knows now. They are more than just a place to wait—BRT stations actually increase average bus speeds by minimizing the amount of time that it takes for riders to board and alight from the bus.

BRT stations do this in two ways. First, they are raised up above the sidewalk to sit even with the bus floor. That makes it easier for everybody to get on and off the bus, and it’s especially important for people who use mobility devices. Second, they allow riders to pre-pay their fare while waiting for the bus to arrive. This makes boarding much faster because it eliminates the line at the farebox.

And BRT stations do also have the amenities that every bus station really should have: shelter from the snow, rain, and sun, a nice place to sit, lighting, and real-time information about when the next bus will arrive.

the park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets will host a major BRT transfer station

Several potential BRT stations are located within the I-81 project area. One of the most important is the small park at the intersection of Butternut, North Salina, and North State Streets. That’s where two BRT lines will converge, and a station on that park would allow riders to transfer between those lines without the need to cross the street.

Other potential BRT stations are on Fayette near Crouse and Irving, on State Street at Willow, on Adams at McBride, and at the corner of Adams and Irving. Centro needs to finalize its plans for where to locate new stations, and then NYSDOT needs to build the ones that will be in the I-81 project area.

Transit Lanes

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area

Transit Lanes speed service by letting buses bypass traffic congestion. Syracuse doesn’t have much traffic congestion so transit lanes probably won’t be necessary across most of the City, but Downtown streets do sometimes back up during rush hour. Happily, these same streets are significantly wider than they really need to be, so there’s plenty of room to give BRT buses their own space.

Major streets in the I-81 project area that might also have BRT service are Adams, State, James, Willow, and Salina. In all cases, the I-81 project area does not extend far enough to cover the entire portion of these streets that would need transit lanes, so it will be up to City Hall to complete the work of extending those lanes along State from Erie Boulevard to Harrison Street, say, or along Adams from the Hub to Irving.

These transit lanes will ensure that buses keep their schedules no matter the traffic Downtown, and that will make for faster, cheaper BRT service.

potential Transit Lanes located within the I-81 project area in dark blue with those located outside the project area in light blue

All of these minor transit infrastructure proposals are within the I-81 project area, all would meet one of the five objectives that NYSDOT has set for this project, and all would move Syracuse closer to getting the public transit system that we need and deserve. Let’s make them part of the final I-81 project.

You can let NYSDOT hear about it at this link: I-81 comment form

The Grid and the Northside

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed how NYSDOT’s plans to tear down the viaduct will change Downtown and the Southside, but that document also contained some very good plans for the Northside. By improving access to one highway onramp and removing several others, NYSDOT will make the Northside’s streets safer.

Pearl Street is a major onramp to 81 northbound, and it will become even more important once the Grid gets built. But right now, it’s not very easy to get to Pearl Street. A lot of traffic from Downtown comes up State Streets, crosses James, takes a left onto Willow, and then a quick right onto Pearl and the highway.

To accommodate all those highway-bound cars, traffic engineers turned State Street into a 5-lane 60-foot-wide racetrack between Fayette and Willow. It’s an unpleasant place to walk, a deadly place to bike, and a terrible place to run any kind of street-facing business besides a gas station (there are two on this short ⅓ mile stretch of de facto highway).

When NYSDOT tears down 81, they’re also going to extend Pearl Street two blocks south to Erie Boulevard. Then, car traffic from Downtown to 81 northbound will take Erie to Pearl to the highway, significantly reducing the number of cars on North State Street.

NYSDOT is also putting a fully protected bike lane on State Street from Water Street to James. This will provide a direct connection between the Empire State Trail and one of the flattest routes across the Northside.

The intersection of State, Salina, and Butternut Streets is a major gateway to the Northside, but it’s seen better days. There are some good local businesses hanging on, but many storefronts are vacant and so are a lot of the upper floors of the buildings surrounding the triangular intersection.

Again, a major problem is a nearby highway onramp that attracts too much car traffic. Actually, there are two: the onramp that comes off the Butternut Street bridge and the State Street onramp a block north of that. These two getaway points for suburban commuters draw thousands of cars from Downtown through this square, and they fill what should be a pleasant public space with noise and exhaust.

NYSDOT’s Grid plan will eliminate those two highway onramps. There’s just no need for them with an improved onramp at Pearl Street. NYSDOT also plans to reconstruct the Butternut Street bridge to make it narrower and safer, and they want to give away the land at the northwest corner of State and Butternut that’s currently being wasted with parking and an onramp.

With all those cars gone, new space for a new building that can house people and help ‘enclose’ the square, and a planned future BRT station, this intersection should become a major focal point linking the Northside to Downtown.

NYSDOT will do similar good work further north by removing highway exits at Spencer and Basin Streets. These ramps bring high-speed traffic to neighborhood streets, and they are a barrier between neighborhoods.

Take the Spencer/Catawba exit. There are three brand new Franklin Square apartment buildings within a walking distance of the North Salina Street business district, but the only way to get between the two neighborhoods is the Spencer Street bridge. Because a highway offramp dumps cars travelling 60 mph off right at that bridge, it’s not a very nice place to walk, and very few people do. Removing the Spencer Street offramp will make it much easier for people to walk the short distance between the Northside and Franklin Square, and that will be better for both neighborhoods.

NYSDOT’s plan for the Community Grid will remove 9 of I81’s off and onramps between Hiawatha Boulevard and I690. That will significantly reduce high-speed traffic on the Northside’s local streets, it will make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant, and it will better connect neighborhoods currently divided by the highway.

Getting the Grid’s details right

NYSDOT’s new I81 project report lays out a good framework to undo the damage that car-only transportation planning has done to Syracuse. But although the overall vision of the Grid is good, NYSDOT needs to change some significant details of the Grid’s design in order for this project to be as effective as possible.

When you get into the nitty gritty of the design drawings, there are some troubling details. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says that travel lanes on city streets should be 10’ wide—maybe 11’ if it’s a major trucking or transit route — but NYSDOT plans to build Almond Street with four 12’ wide travel lanes. That’s the standard for highways, and it’s the same lane width that NYSDOT plans to use for the grade-separated portions of 81.

NACTO also says that curb radii—a measure of how sharply a car has to turn at an intersection and a key determinant of pedestrian safety—should be no more than 15’ in order to make crosswalks safe for people on foot. NYSDOT plans for 15’ curb radii on many local streets, but on Almond most intersections will have curb radii of between 20’ and 35’, and the intersection of Almond and Erie Boulevard will have a mammoth 65’ curb radius.

NYSDOT also intends to speed traffic on Almond by leaving out crosswalks for existing intersecting streets. People on foot and bike won’t be able to cross Almond Street at either Madison or Monroe Streets even though NYCLU specifically called for a crosswalk at Monroe, and even though Madison is a prime candidate for a neighborhood greenway connecting Downtown, University Hill, and Westcott.

These are design standards for moving cars at very high speeds with little consideration for people who might travel the street by foot or bike. In fact, NYSDOT predicts that Level of Service—“a qualitative measure used to describe the experience of a user on an urban street segment”—will be significantly worse for pedestrians and bicyclists than it will for car drivers. Levels of Service for cars on Almond Street range between grades of A, B, and C, while people using the sidewalks and bike lanes get service grades of C and D.

NYSDOT also predicts that their design could actually increase the number of cars on local streets by bringing more interstate through-traffic into Downtown:

“Businesses on BL 81 south of I-690 would experience an increase in pass-by potential customers, which could marginally benefit sales. Furthermore, the business loop designation may attract through travelers on I-81 looking for convenience retail and restaurant uses.”

NYSDOT helpfully lists the types of businesses that would likely benefit from this added traffic and might want to set up shop along Almond Street: “gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food.”

The design standards NYSDOT is proposing—12’ lanes, large curb radii, and limited access from local streets—are identical to those that define the West Street arterial between Fayette and Onondaga Streets. That hostile highway is a significant barrier between Downtown and the Near Westside, and we shouldn’t be replicating its failure along Almond Street.

It’s possible to make a very wide street that actually fits in a city and knits neighborhoods together, one that’s pleasant to walk or bike along, one that will support small-scale retail and attract quality housing.

Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, for instance, is a really nice street even though it carries three lanes of traffic in each direction. It’s lined by apartment blocks and businesses that cater to the neighborhood—not interstate through traffic. Crucially, Eastern Parkway has narrow travel lanes (10’), many intersections, and sharp corners at those intersections to encourage drivers to slow down when they turn through the many crosswalks.

This is the kind of street we should be building in the center of Syracuse—not another grade-level high-speed arterial. NYSDOT is accepting comments on their most recent design. Let them know.

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.