Tag Archives: ReZone

ADUs in ReZone

City Hall wants to legalize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, or small 1-bedroom apartments built in extra space on a residential property). That’s good, but in order to secure all the benefits that this type of housing can offer, City Hall will have to do more than just list it as an ‘allowed use’ in the zoning code—ReZone will also have to adjust other regulations that would functionally ban ADUs in most of the City if enacted as drafted.

ADUs (also sometimes called in-law apartments or granny flats) are a traditional housing type that used to be common in Syracuse and cities across America. Families that needed a little extra money to afford a mortgage—adults who wanted their aging parents close by to help with childcare—parents whose adult children who’d moved away and left the house mostly empty. People in all of these situations responded by turning some small part of their property—maybe the attic, or by building a garage with living space above—into an additional apartment where another person could live in privacy.

different types of ADUs

ADUs were banned from many cities during the era when planners and politicians tried to apply suburban ideals to urban neighborhoods. They thought it was strange and slightly deviant for unrelated people to live near each other, so zoning codes—like Syracuse’s—reserved a lot of residential land for single-family homes only and banned other traditional housing types including ADUs.

But ADUs are becoming popular again for the same reasons that they were popular in the past. People want the flexibility to adapt their property to meet their family’s needs. We’re not all picture-perfect midcentury sitcom families with identical needs that can all be served by suburban-style houses. ADUs are a good way to make Syracuse’s housing stock work for more people.

So it’s a very good thing that City Hall is amending ReZone to allow ADUs in all residential districts. Previous drafts of the new zoning law had excluded ADUs from any lot zoned R1, but in a February presentation to the Common Council, City Planner’s implied that the new draft would allow ADUs in R1 as well as all other residential districts.

However, the current draft outright bad on ADUs is not the only regulation that would make them a practical impossibility for most homeowners—lot coverage regulations are another barrier. ReZone says that built structures can only cover 30% of the area of residential lots with single-family homes. But most homes in most Syracuse’s neighborhoods (except its post-war semi-suburban areas like Meadowbrook and Winkworth) already cover more than ⅓ of their lots. In these situations, it would be impossible to build an ADU in the rear yard (either as a standalone structure or as an addition to the house) even though the rest of the ordinance is written to encourage that kind of construction.

This coverage requirement isn’t about environmental considerations like stormwater runoff. Homeowners are allowed to cover much more of their lots—up to 65%—with impermeable surface so long as that extra 35% is surface parking. There’s no good reason to value space for parked cars over housing for people who need it.

So when City Hall finally releases the new ReZone draft (they promised it by March, but that deadline’s long past), look to see whether they’ve taken the necessary steps to make ADUs not just legal, but also practical for the people who need them in neighborhoods across the City.

The mechanics of exclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multifamily Housing and Neighborhood Character

331 Winton St is a 2-story, 3-unit apartment building on the Northside. Jefferson Tower is a 23-story, 295 unit Downtown high rise. ReZone can’t tell them apart—as far as City Hall’s new zoning ordinance is concerned, both are ‘multifamily’ housing, and both will be banned from most of Syracuse.

That will cause 2 huge problems: it will make neighborhoods less able to adapt to change—both population gain and loss, changing family size, climate changeand it threatens neighborhood character because 331 Winton St is part of Lincoln Hill and contributes to its character, so banning that building from that neighborhood necessarily means changing the neighborhood’s character. Fixing the first problem is easy (just add housing), but fixing the second is harder because it means coming up with a definition of ‘multifamily housing’ that can differentiate between 331 Winton St and Jefferson Tower.

The question ReZone needs to answer is this: how many apartments can a building have and still fit in with the rest of the neighborhood? The best way to find out is to just look at which different kinds of housing already are in which neighborhood. This is the only way to describe neighborhood character as it actually exists without resorting to personal opinion.

2-family houses in blue

Here’s a map of all 2-family houses in Syracuse. They’re spread across most of the City and are common in almost every residential neighborhood. The only exceptions are the City’s sparsest neighborhoods—like Sedgwick and the Valley—and it’s most built up areas—like lower James and Downtown.

3- and 4-family houses in red

Here’s a map of the City’s 3- and 4-family houses. 3- and 4-family homes are common in almost every residential neighborhood in the City, and they are absent from Sedgwick, the Valley, lower James, and Downtown.

Here are maps of the geographic areas where you can find these two groups of housing in Syracuse. On the combined map, the blue areas show where you can find 2-family houses, the red areas show where you can find 3- and 4-family houses, and the purple areas show where 2-, 3-, and 4-family houses are all mixed in together. Every single neighborhood that 2-family houses also has 3- and 4-family houses. Every neighborhood that has 3- and 4- family houses also has 2-family houses.

That makes good sense since so many 3-family homes are just modified 2-flats, and it’d be hard for someone to tell exactly how many apartments are in one of these buildings just by looking. They couldn’t have existed anywhere but those neighborhoods that already have 2-family homes, and they fit into those neighborhoods’ character just fine. 

1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-family homes are all part of the character of this Syracuse street

ReZone could (and probably should) make even finer distinctions among multifamily housing—buildings with between 5 and 15 apartments are also common across the City, often look like big houses, and are worth distinguishing from larger apartment complexes—but this is the big one. In any Syracuse neighborhoods where you can find a 2-family house, you can also find 3- and 4-family houses. No neighborhood whose character accepts 2-family houses can reject 3- and 4- family houses. When ReZone acknowledges this, it will make Syracuse more adaptable, more equitable, and more resilient, and it will actually protect and preserve Syracuse’s neighborhood’s character.

Get Rid of ReZone’s Apartment Bans

City Hall’s ReZone project is an opportunity to unmake the mistakes that have made Syracuse into a segregated city. That will require change, though, because the new zoning map is drawn in such a way that it will entrench inequality and exacerbate the disparities between the City’s neighborhoods.

To see how, look at Census Tract 45 on the Eastside. This tract includes most of Westcott—a neighborhood where people want to move, where new businesses are opening, where people are investing. But Westcott is also a neighborhood where there’s not enough housing to accommodate all the people who want to live there, so rents are going up, and more people are having to crowd into what little housing there is.

3,784 people live in 1,649 homes in tract 45. Just over half of those homes are in multifamily buildings (green on the map below). The remainder are 1-family houses (yellow on the map below). Both types of housing are mixed across the tract.

Housing in tract 45. Single family homes in yellow and multifamily homes in green.

ReZone allows single family housing everywhere in the City, but it bans multifamily housing from huge swaths of Syracuse, mostly in high opportunity neighborhoods like Westcott. The most recent draft of the new zoning map bans multifamily housing from most of tract 45. If it had been law when Westcott was originally laid out, less than half of the existing multifamily housing in the neighborhood could ever have been built.

Thankfully, all that existing multifamily housing will be grandfathered into ReZone as ‘noncomformities,’ but that label limits owners’ ability to invest in these homes—they won’t be able to make major renovations or additions—and the lot-by-lot ban on multifamily housing also will limit the opportunity to build enough new housing to relieve the neighborhood’s housing shortage. That will drive up rents even further, leaving Westcott unable to accommodate the people who want to live there and excluding people according to their income and wealth. The predictable result is increased residential segregation and the spread of gentrification to other parts of the City.

Westcott is a good neighborhood with access to jobs, businesses, schools and transportation. All of those things attract people looking to make a good life in Syracuse. But legal limits on multifamily housing exclude too many of those people who want to take advantage of all that Westcott and so many other neighborhoods have to offer. This exclusionary zoning is one root of Syracuse’s shameful history of economic and racial segregation, and ReZone is an opportunity to rip it out. The new ordinance must legalize multifamily housing across the entire City if neighborhoods of opportunity are going to be fully accessible to everyone who wants to live in them.

ReZone and Syracuse’s Housing Shortage

There aren’t enough places to live in many Syracuse neighborhoods, and the City’s new zoning ordinance needs to help do something about it. Between 2000 and 2016, in 18 census tracts containing ⅓ of the City’s population, the number of people looking for a place to live increased faster than did the total number of apartments and houses. In those neighborhoods, the housing shortage caused depopulation, high rents, and gentrification. ReZone can alleviate some of that stress by allowing more housing construction in those neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods where growth in the number of households outpaced growth in housing supply from 2000 to 2016

These are the neighborhoods where the housing shortage has gotten worse since 2000. They are all places where, relative to the rest of Syracuse, more families are moving in, but there are fewer apartments and houses for those new families to move in to.

Even though new people moved into all of these neighborhoods, population actually decreased in some of them (red in the map on the left). That’s because the average size of the families living in many of these neighborhoods decreased (yellow in the map on the right).

The housing shortage is pushing up rents (orange in the map on the left) in Downtown, Franklin Square, Westcott, Eastwood, Salt Springs, the Northside and the Valley. Housing costs are becoming unaffordable (brown in the map on the right) for more people living in most of these neighborhoods, and even in some other neighborhoods where rents are going down like parts of the Northside, Tipp Hill, Eastwood, the Valley, and the West End.

The two neighborhoods with housing shortages where rents are going up but people are more able to afford them are Franklin Square and Downtown. This is gentrification, and more housing is the only way to give more people access to all of the benefits that come from living in these two increasingly wealthy neighborhoods.

In Westcott, the Northside, and parts of the Valley, rents are going up, people are less able to afford them, and households are growing. These are neighborhoods where people want to be, but high housing costs are forcing them to find more roommates to share resources and split the rent. Something similar is happening in Hawley-Green as well. More, smaller, cheaper apartments could relieve pressure on the people living in those neighborhoods and better match the types of housing available to what people need.

In Tipp Hill, the West End, and Eastwood south of James, rents are falling but people are still increasingly unable to afford them, and the population overall is falling because households are shrinking. These are also places where more, smaller, cheaper apartments would give people living options better suited to their changing financial and living situations.

In parts of the Southside, Near Westside, Nob Hill, and Skunk City, rents are falling and becoming more affordable for the people who live in those neighborhoods, but overall population is falling because households are getting smaller. In these places, it should be legal to subdivide existing houses into smaller apartments in order to make more room for people who want to take advantage of the increasingly affordable housing.


New housing of different kinds would be so helpful in all of these neighborhoods, ReZone’s new zoning map will determine whether or not it’s legal to build new housing in any of them.

City Hall has released four drafts of that map in the last three years. The current December 2019 draft, on the right, addresses the housing shortage in some neighborhoods, but not others. It will allow new apartments across Downtown, Franklin Square, lower James Street, Nob Hill, and the Southside.

The map also allows 1-family houses to be converted to 2-(or more)-family houses in all of Tipp Hill, Skunk City, the Near Westside, Hawley-Green, and the Northside. But the most recent draft is worse than City Hall’s first map from February 2017 (above on the left). That earlier map allowed more housing with looser parking and setback restrictions in the MX (blue) zoning districts in these neighborhoods, but each successive draft has reduced MX zoning in all of them.

The new map also preserves the ban on multi-family housing, a ban that can only make the housing shortage worse, in most of Westcott, the West End, the Valley, and Eastwood. In those neighborhoods, big 1-family houses are either filling up with young people squeezing in to save on rent, or they’re emptying out as smaller families struggle to afford apartments too big for their needs.

The housing shortage in Syracuse is pushing up rents, emptying out some neighborhoods, and making it too difficult to move into others. It’s causing depopulation and gentrification. It’s bad, and one part of fixing it is removing City Hall’s purely administrative ban on new housing. ReZone is a chance to do that.

ReZone’s Final Draft

Last week City Hall released the final draft of its new zoning ordinance and zoning map. This new draft includes some big changes on parking, transit oriented development, and housing opportunity.


City Hall should eliminate parking minimums entirely. They’re regressive, expensive, polluting regulations that subsidize car ownership at the expense of the poorest people living in Syracuse.

ReZone’s final draft doesn’t go that far, but it does reduce parking requirements significantly, particularly for residential properties. In the March 2018 draft, almost all types of residential building were required to provide one parking space for each housing unit. The final draft eliminates that requirement for 1-family houses, accessory dwelling units, and boarding houses, and it reduces that requirement to .5 spaces per unit on properties that can house three or more families. (Strangely, the one space per unit rule still applies to 2-family houses, but only if they’re built on a lot of more than 5,000 square feet).

The final draft also does make it easier for all types of properties (residential, commercial, and mixed) to get around these baseline parking requirements. It includes a 30% reduction for properties within 1000 feet of a bus stop (you can read more about earlier versions of this exemption here and here) and a new 15% reduction for properties that provide space to park 1 bike for every 4 cars.  Crucially, it allows individual properties to combine multiple reductions (the March 2018 draft had capped the total cumulative reduction at 75%), and it rounds the required number of parking spaces down to the nearest whole number (so a 3-family house—which would need 1.5 spaces—only has to provide 1 space, not 2).

The only bad change in this draft’s parking regulations is a new requirement that any property making use of these exemptions must apply for a special use permit or site plan. That means that there will be a public hearing where NIMBYs might show up to demand that the City look out for the interests of car-owners instead of everybody else. Here’s hoping the Planning Commission has the spine to tell them ‘no.’


Transit Oriented Development

Centro doesn’t currently run any kind of rapid transit, but they’re working on it. The SMTC proposed two BRT lines in 2017, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team proposed a third when he took office. When that new service starts running, as many people as possible need to be able to live and work near those lines.

Proposed BRT lines

This new draft will make that more possible. The Eastside BRT line will probably run in the Erie Boulevard Median—a route that will take it past miles and miles of parking lots. This draft changed many of those lots—at least on the south side of the street—from Commercial to either MX-2 or MX-3. That incentivizes mixed-use infill, it will bring any new development to the property line, and it will limit the amount of off-street car parking on those lots.

The northern end of the proposed SU-RTC line has similar problems—there’s a lot of empty space around the RTC and not a lot of housing. The March 2018 draft would have banned anybody from living there, but this new draft allows multi-family housing to be built on all of the empty space north of Park Street and Hiawatha Boulevard.

And finally, this draft changed a bunch of properties around the intersection of South Ave and Valley Drive—a proposed stop on the Eastwood-OCC line—from MX-2 to MX-3. That change allows for taller buildings which means more people will be able to live and work right at a BRT stop.


Housing Opportunity

City Hall’s Land Use & Development Plan—the document that was supposed to guide the ReZone project—called for letting more multi-family housing in more neighborhoods. That would have allowed Syracuse to accommodate a greater variety of people, and it would have made the City’s neighborhoods more resilient in the face of demographic and economic change.

So it’s bad that each new draft of the ReZone map has banned multi-family housing from more of the City. That will lead to either depopulation or displacement, and it’s a totally unnecessary response to neighborhood demands to keep commercial development out of residential areas.

This new draft continues that unfortunate trend. It switched dozens of properties along Teall and Euclid Avenues from MX-1—a zoning classification that allows multifamily housing—to R-2—a zoning classification that bans multi-family housing. This change will make these areas less walkable, less affordable, and less able to support quality bus service.

On the other hand, this draft restricted commercial development in neighborhoods like University Hill and Westcott without restricting housing opportunity. It did this by changing parts of those neighborhoods from mixed use zoning to R-4 or R-5—purely residential classifications that still allow multi-family housing.

There are other changes—clarification on rowhouses, tweaks to the height restrictions—but these are the big ones. They will determine who can live where, how people will get around, what neighborhoods become. Those are high stakes—Syracuse has to get this right.

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.

Housing Instability and Rent

Since 2015, City Hall’s Innovation Team has worked out new solutions for old municipal problems like aging infrastructure and snow covered sidewalks. Since February of 2018, the I-Team has set its sights on housing instability—both a major cause and effect of poverty in the City.

In a recent series of blog posts, the I-Team described its recommendations (also summarized on this 1-page handout). They include things like more active code enforcement, better provision of social services to renters on the brink of eviction, and organizing renters into a tenants union.

These initiatives are a helpful mix of quick-fixes (like tenant and landlord education) and long-term structural changes (like a tenants union). They include scalable pilots (like anti-eviction case management for SHA tenants) and city-wide initiatives (like the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication). By approaching the problem from so many angles, at so many scales, and on so many different timelines, the I-Team has developed a raft of policies that should improve the lives of people living in Syracuse even if one initiative or another ultimately fails.


However, this set of policies skirts a central cause of housing instability in Syracuse: the gap between the rents that landlords charge and what tenants can afford to pay. A strong and militant tenants union could eventually push rents down (although the I-Team seems to see such a union focusing instead on fighting evictions and educating renters), but expanded rental registry and more proactive code enforcement will likely push rents up. In a city where 56% of tenants can’t afford their rent, that’s not enough.

It’s within City Hall’s power to address this. First, City Hall can put affordability at the center of its Blueprint 15 plans by ensuring that the project does not reduce the total number of affordable homes in Syracuse. This will mean increasing the size of the project and potentially expanding its footprint to include state-owned land on Downtown’s eastern edge.

Second, City Hall needs to enforce its own 2016 ban on source-of-income discrimination in Syracuse’s rental market. A year and a half after City Hall enacted that ban, landlords still advertise in plain language that they will not rent to tenants who receive public assistance. Without proper enforcement, the ban has no effect and rent-burdened tenants are denied housing choice. (This year’s State budget included a state-wide ban on source-of-income discrimination—maybe it will have more effect).

Third, City Hall can restructure the City’s private housing market to reduce rents in the long term by amending its zoning ordinance. That ordinance puts an artificial limit on the number of homes in the City, it prevents land lords from modifying their properties to better serve a changing population, it makes it hard to build new homes where they’re needed most, and it pushes high-priced development into low-income neighborhoods where the rent-burden is greatest. The ReZone project is an opportunity to remove all of these artificial generators of housing instability, and that’s an opportunity City Hall can’t afford to waste.

So much of what drives up rents and causes housing instability—financial markets, construction costs, HUD policies—is completely beyond local control. These are national problems faced by every city in the country, and some of the most effective solutions will have to come from the national level. But City Hall isn’t powerless to improve the situation for people living in Syracuse now. The I-Team’s proposals will do a lot of good. They’ll do even more when coupled with additional policies that tackle rent head-on.

Accounting For Parking’s Costs

Too much parking is a bad thing. It spreads people and buildings farther apart so that it’s difficult to deliver municipal services, it undermines public transportation by artificially reducing the cost of driving, and it reduces housing opportunity in good neighborhoods by wasting land on car storage. Those costs are spread out over the entire community, though, while the benefits of excessive parking space—always having a place to store your car, attracting tenants or customers who prefer to drive—mostly go to specific people. The problem is that those people who benefit most from parking—property owners—are the ones in a position to build it, and they rarely account for the wider community costs of building too much of it. This is a classic externality problem, and it’s the kind of thing that government should step in to fix.

Unfortunately, Syracuse’s City Hall doesn’t account for the negative effects of excessive parking either. Its zoning ordinance treats parking like a public good that needs to be preserved through regulation. That ordinance requires houses to have such-and-so-many parking spaces per family, and it requires restaurants to have a different number of spaces per square foot. Every potential use has a required minimum number of parking spaces, and that’s what’s most likely to influence property owners’ decisions to build parking on their land. The result is too much parking with too little attention paid to its external costs.

The simplest thing that City Hall can do to fix this is to eliminate parking requirements entirely. Families who don’t own any cars at all are forced to pay for the privilege of being able to store one at their home, and businesses that could hire bus riders end up having to locate where there’s enough space for a huge parking lot, even if that’s nowhere near a bus stop. These homeowners and employers are the kinds of people who might choose to build less parking all on their own, if only they were allowed to do so.

City Hall can also take a more active role to direct the costs of parking to the people who actually want it. Take big apartment buildings. If a developer figures that an apartment with a parking space will be easier to rent than one without, then they might build a new building with just as many parking spaces as apartments. That’s the proposed plan for a building on Genesee Street, despite the fact that those apartments are within easy walking and biking distance of both Downtown and University Hill. Tenants in this building will wind up paying for a parking space through their rent even if they chose it specifically because they don’t own cars and wanted a central location. Their rent will subsidize other tenants’ car-driving habit.

City Hall could fix this problem by forcing landlord to unbundle the cost of parking from the cost of renting. Seattle’s done it, so landlords out there can’t hide the cost of parking in the rent. Tenants only pay for parking if they want it, and that pressures developers to build only as much parking as is actually useful.

The Seattle model sets a price for parking in a single building only after it’s constructed and occupied. At that point, it’s difficult for the property owner to respond to that price by either adding more parking or more apartments.

Syracuse can get developers to account for the cost of parking before they build with a city-wide cap-and-trade system. City Hall could change the current minimum parking requirements that apply to each property based into a maximum parking requirement. Property owners who build less than the maximum number of parking spaces would receive credits for the difference. They could then sell those credits to other property owners who want to exceed the parking maximums on their land. This would allow property owners to build as much parking as they think is necessary, but it would force them to internalize the costs of providing excessive parking. It would also give property owners an incentive to build fewer parking spaces. The result should be concentrations of parking in certain parts of Syracuse where cars are most necessary, and much less parking in the neighborhoods where cars are least necessary.

Parking imposes costs on Syracuse. Too often, those costs don’t enter into any one property owner’s decision about whether or not to build parking on their land. That’s a shame. City Hall can fix that problem by eliminating minimum parking requirements which distort decisions about how much parking is necessary, by passing laws that concentrate the costs of parking on the people who choose to use it by unbundling rent and parking fees, and by creating a cap-and-trade scheme to match the amount of parking to its demand across properties and neighborhoods. All of these policy interventions will balance the City’s transportation networks, and they will all give people in Syracuse more freedom to create the kind of City they want to live in.

Bus Rapid Transit for the Eastside

ReZone—City Hall’s complete rewrite of its zoning ordinance—assumes that Centro will run some kind of Bus Rapid Transit service in the future. The current draft ordinance includes special zoning around public “transportation terminals,” and the project’s guiding document refers to a “TOD overlay” within .25 miles of BRT stations. SMTC and Centro have planned two potential BRT lines already—and ReZone needs to account for those plans—but Centro needs to get a move on and finish planning the rest of its BRT network before City Hall adopts ReZone as law. Otherwise, Syracuse runs the risk that its new high quality bus service serves neighborhoods where restrictive zoning will limit its success.

The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified four other potential BRT corridors, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team identified half of one of those (Downtown to Dewitt) as a priority for his administration.

transition team

BRT service running on Erie Boulevard out to Shoppingtown Mall would pass within walking distance of all the new housing along Genesee Street on the Near Eastside, it would run through other older Eastside neighborhoods, and it would connect those residential areas to major employment centers Downtown and along Erie Boulevard.

This map shows the potential BRT route in red, and it shows Jobs and Persons Per Square Mile—a measure that indicates how many people might use public transportation in an area—in shades of blue. Areas that are not shaded do not have enough people and jobs to support BRT service.

Lots of people already ride the existing 168 bus along Erie Boulevard, so that’s a good route to upgrade with shorter headways and faster runtimes. The Mayor’s transition team probably also chose to single out that route because a new BRT service could run in fully separated bus lanes in Erie Boulevard’s wide median.

But there are problems running BRT service on Erie Boulevard. There is no housing on any of the enormous parcels that line the street from Beech Street all the way out to DeWitt. All that land is zoned for commercial use only—no housing is allowed. Erie Boulevard runs down the middle of a deep valley, so anybody living in the housing that is nearby has to walk up a steep hill just to get home from the bus stop. Shoppingtown Mall—the line’s eastern anchor—is dying, and there are no concrete plans to turn it around. It might not even be possible to put bus lanes in the Erie Boulevard Median because of the State’s plans to use that space for the Canalway Trail.

Given all that, the City’s Eastside might be better off if that BRT service ran on Fayette Street instead. That would bring better bus service to neighborhoods where a lot of people don’t own cars. It would also connect LeMoyne College to the rest of Centro’s BRT network. Ending the line at LeMoyne instead of at Shoppingtown would also shorten the route by 35%, allowing Centro to run more buses more frequently for less money.


Centro could also split the difference between these two options by running the line along Fayette to LeMoyne and then continuing it out to DeWitt along Erie Boulevard, say, or by turning onto Erie at Seeley or Columbus Avenue (like the existing 168 bus does). Those are decisions for actual transportation planners to make in consultation with Centro, the City, and the public, but let’s get them made.

Choose where the bus will go and where it will stop. Then, the ReZone team can make the changes it needs to—like lifting the ban on housing along Erie, or allowing more mixed-use development in Salt Springs—if that BRT service is going to succeed. The clock on ReZone is ticking, and Syracuse needs better bus service now.