The Future of Urban Freeways Is Playing Out Right Now in Syracuse

As I-81 nears the end of its functional life, a city struggles to decide the best way forward.

Image
Courtesy Onondaga Citizens League

SYRACUSE, N.Y.—When Van Robinson moved from New York to Syracuse in 1968, one of the first things he noticed was Interstate 81, which runs along a 1.4-mile viaduct straight through the city's downtown. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Who in the world would put an interstate through the middle of a city?'" says Robinson. "I-81 is 855 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the Canadian border. This is the only place where it goes through a city. It always bugged me."

Forty-six years later, Robinson now serves as president of Syracuse's Common Council and may finally be in a position to do something about the elevated highway that he has described as a "Berlin Wall" dividing the city's neighborhoods. The I-81 viaduct will reach the end of its functional life in 2017, and the New York State Department of Transportation has decided that it is not worth the cost of rehabilitation. One way or another, the viaduct is coming down.

City leaders like Robinson, along with downtown developers and advocates for smart growth, would like to see I-81 rerouted around Syracuse and replaced with a landscaped boulevard. But suburban business-owners and many of the 45,000 drivers who use the highway to commute fear that any change could hurt the local economy. It's a debate that goes beyond the immediate question of how Syracuse workers will get to work — to what kind of city Syracuse will be in the 21st century.

 

Similar discussions are happening across the United States, says John Norquist, president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, which publishes an occasional list of interstates ripe for demolition. Many urban freeways — a staple of mid-20th century car-centric development — are beginning to fall apart, and today cities from New Haven to Seattle (not to mention others around the world) are taking the dramatic step of tearing them down. A former Milwaukee mayor, Norquist oversaw the conversion of an elevated highway to a boulevard there in 2002, following a model pioneered by Portland in 1978 and San Francisco in 1991.

"It's starting to happen all over the place, and there's a reason for it," says Norquist. "Freeways don't add value to cities. They're all about one dimension, which is just moving traffic. It's a rural form, visited upon the city, that destroys property values, commerce and vitality."

•       •       •       •       •

Syracuse is a city of 145,000 that sits in a snow belt just south of Lake Ontario. The brutal winters that frequently land it among the top five snowiest cities in the United States are a perverse point of pride for many residents. People here are not afraid to walk to work, school, or shopping, even with temperatures in the single digits. Still, pedestrians are a rare sight beneath the I-81 viaduct at any time of year. With few traffic lights and uneven snow removal, the area is a no man's land of on-ramps, parking lots and concrete columns.

"It's loud and it's dark — it's very foreboding and disconcerting to be underneath it," says Jason Evans, a 2008 Syracuse University graduate who works as an architect downtown and writes an urban planning blog called [re]think Syracuse.

Evans, who grew up in the Syracuse suburbs and never expected to stay near home, is the sort of young professional that the city struggled to attract in the second half of the 20th century, when it was hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs like so many other Northeast cities. In recent years, however, Syracuse has rebuilt its downtown neighborhoods. Armory Square, once a derelict collection of crumbling 19th-century buildings, now boasts bars and restaurants with four-star Yelp reviews and condos selling for upwards of $300,000. A new Connective Corridor of bike lanes and bus routes links the area to University Hill, home to 21,000-student Syracuse University.

Walton Street is part of Armory Square, a revitalized district in downtown Syracuse, New York. Photo by Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock.com

City leaders are proud of the revitalization, but they acknowledge that it has yet to reach every corner of town. Parts of Southwest, a predominantly African-American neighborhood just south of downtown, are full of abandoned homes and empty storefronts that seem miles from Armory Square or University Hill — although both are within walking distance. Some in Syracuse, including Robinson and Mayor Stephanie Miner, hope that tearing down 1-81, which runs beside and through the neighborhood, will reintegrate this isolated, impoverished area while spurring economic development citywide.

"We have a big scar going through our city right now, which has done damage in all sorts of ways," says Miner. "It separates our biggest area of economic energy — University Hill — from our downtown, which is also an area of economic energy."

The 43-year-old Miner, who was elected in 2009 after eight years on the common council, has long been adamant that 1-81 is an impediment to the city's growth. The institutions on University Hill, including several hospitals and a medical school, have little room to expand, she explains, while the land around the viaduct sits fallow, given over to tall grass and parking lots.

"It's a dead zone," she says. "But if those institutions felt like they could safely move down the hill into that area, then you're going to get the requisite services that those employees would want." Restaurants, coffee shops and stores will follow, she believes. Then property values, tax revenues, and quality of life will increase for the city as a whole.

•       •       •       •       •

Not everyone in greater Syracuse supports tearing down I-81. The sprawling car-oriented development that changed the character of American cities in the post-interstate era had winners as well as losers. Today, many of those winners fear a reversal of fortune.

Mark Nicotra is the town supervisor of Salina, a suburb of about 34,000 people northwest of the city. At his office, in a two-story brick building surrounded by mid-century tract homes, Nicotra has an aerial photo from the 1950s hanging on a wall. It shows the newly built interchange of I-81 and I-90 — the New York State Thruway — surrounded by farmland. Once those interstates were built, says Nicotra, that farmland was soon developed into a dozen hotels, along with restaurants, gas stations, and other establishments that cater to travelers. Rerouting traffic east of Syracuse, which would have to happen if the downtown viaduct were removed, would destroy those businesses, he worries.

"I-81 is like our Main Street," he says. "If you take that away, you're going to see a deterioration of our tax base."

The Interstate 81 Viaduct in Syracuse. (Courtesy Onondaga Citizens League)

To prevent that scenario, Nicotra and local hotel owners formed a group called Save 81, which is dedicated to preserving I-81's current route. They've been joined by elected officials and business owners from other suburban communities, as well as some businesses in the city proper, including Destiny USA, a mega-mall surrounded by a vast sea of parking lots that draws shoppers from as far away as Pennsylvania and Ontario. Save 81 has attracted some surprising allies, including local union leaders.

"It's about quickly getting to work, saving on gas, and getting home," says Ann Marie Taliercio, president of the Central New York Area Labor Federation/AFL-CIO and Unite Here Local 150, which represents area hotel employees. Like many of the workers she represents, Taliercio lives in the suburbs and commutes into the city. "Our economic life," she says, "has been built around the infrastructure we have now."

Some African American leaders have also joined Save 81. Reverend James Thompson, a pastor at Fountain of Life Church on the west side of town, says many people are still upset that a black neighborhood was razed for the original construction of I-81. "There was a lot of uprooting of homes; the land had to be taken and people were placed in substandard housing," says Thompson. While city leaders believe taking down the viaduct would only remove a psychological barrier that has isolated low-income areas, Thompson worries about what could happen if a boulevard—and the accompanying development—takes its place.

"This is the same old gentrification situation all over again," he says. "If a boulevard comes in, the people that live there today, they're going to be priced out."

•       •       •       •       •

A consensus might be a long time coming, but there's still plenty of time for the various sides to make their cases. Right now, the state DOT is studying four options as part of a lengthy, federally mandated environmental review. They include rebuilding the elevated highway with wider shoulders and straighter curves to comply with modern safety standards; rebuilding I-81 as a depressed roadway, like parts of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York; hiding the freeway in a tunnel, in the style of Boston's Big Dig; or rerouting through-traffic around downtown Syracuse and replacing the viaduct with a boulevard that would be tied into the city's grid.

These options are laid out in a series of posters at a former Carnegie Library downtown, and state officials are presenting the choices at public meetings. Soliciting public opinion is a required part of the environmental review, but DOT says that while it's received at least 250 comments, most of them are vague on which option is preferred. Many simply urge the department to make the right decision.

Residents may be hesitant to choose one of the options because several unknowns remain. While the department has found that the I-81 viaduct carries about 80,000 vehicles every day, of which only about 10 percent is through-traffic, there's still no solid information on how each of the alternatives would change driving times. (At present, census data shows the average commute in the region is about 17 minutes, compared to 25 minutes nationwide.) There are also no firm cost estimates provided for any of the current options, although most observers believe the tunnel would be prohibitively expensive. And while a new viaduct would have to be wider than the current interstate, it's unclear how much private land DOT would seize to build it.

New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald says more information will be available soon. And while the decision will ultimately be made in Albany, she says, Syracuse residents should realize that their opinions "count for a lot."

"In the past, projects such as these only looked at transportation. This will look at community impact first," says McDonald. "Back when this portion of the highway was built, what I've heard from people is that the federal government asked for their input and then didn't use it. That is not going to happen this time."

Should that promise hold, Syracuse residents will have the chance to help shape their city for next 50 or 100 years, a charge that people on both sides of the debate take very seriously. Jason Evans, the architect, says the younger generation is paying special attention. "If the highway just gets rebuilt as is, it will send the message that we're going in the wrong direction," he says. "It's a small piece in the puzzle of rejuvenating the city. But it's an important one."

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.