Tag Archives: I81

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.

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.

creekwalkoverlook

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.

newcreekwalktrail
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.

evans

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.

statejames

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.

bikeplanmap

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. 

butternutintersection

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.