Transforming a City by Reconsidering a Highway

A view of Syracuse's northside neighborhood from near Interstate 81.

A view of Syracuse's northside neighborhood from near Interstate 81. Debra Millet/Shutterstock

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Syracuse, New York could remove a section of Interstate 81 that runs through the city, with the goal of revitalizing communities that were displaced by its construction in the 1950s.

An elevated portion of Interstate 81 cuts through the center of Syracuse, New York, segmenting the impoverished neighborhoods in the south from the more affluent northern part of the city. When it was built over 50 years ago, the construction designated most of the land around the elevated viaduct for parking, and forced African Americans residents whose homes were torn down into neighborhoods that now contain some of the most concentrated poverty in the country.

That may change soon, though, if the city’s plan to tear down the 1.4 mile section of the highway and replace it with a “community grid” moves forward. What the community grid would look like isn’t set in stone, but one option put forward by the state Department of Transportation would transform the 18 acres of land into a landscaped urban area, with walking paths, bike lanes, and a tree-lined boulevard.

Leaving the highway alone is not an option, as it no longer conforms to federal highway standards and is plagued by a high accident rate. The DOT considered three options, two of which call for maintaining the highway by reconstructing the elevated viaduct or replacing it with a tunnel, and the last of which, the community grid, would reroute traffic to Interstate 481 around the eastern edge of the city. The grid was the cheapest of all options, at $1.9 billion, followed by reconstruction, which would cost $2.2 billion, and the tunnel, which would cost $4.9 billion.

Like many city officials, the state agency has named the grid its preferred alternative, but the decision is not final. A series of public hearings must be held before any plan can proceed.

“The Interstate 81 Viaduct Project provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance safety and mobility through the City of Syracuse, reconnecting neighborhoods, enhancing livability and supporting the economic vitality of the region,” said David Smith, the state DOT’s director for the Syracuse region, in a statement.

Joseph DiMento, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has written extensively about the history of transportation planning, said that as Syracuse residents and those from surrounding communities deliberate, the discussions “will be viewed intensively by politicians, planners, designers.”

DiMento said that Syracuse provides an interesting case study in the broader urban highway removal movement because its “new political leadership is more aware of the potential for major infrastructure decisions to affect social outcomes.” He credits the changing sentiment in the city about I-81 to the “rise of African American influence, and also new interests, such as downtown developers and Syracuse University, in making Syracuse a more attractive place.”

In the 1950s, when Syracuse’s freeway was built, many cities were aggressively restructuring their roads and razing full blocks to accommodate increasing numbers of cars. “Rather than fostering a sense of neighborhoods, city officials viewed distinctive city sections as expendable...these neighborhoods were rarely seen as part of a rich urban fabric,” DiMento wrote in a paper on the highway’s construction.

In his book, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways, DiMento wrote that Syracuse perfectly illustrates the case of city officials who went forward with “development planned heavily by nonlocal sources at a time when the uncritical image of the new urban infrastructure was dominant.”

Now, the city has been attentive to the concerns of those who will see the greatest changes in their lives if the portion of the highway is removed. At a news conference in April, Mayor Ben Walsh stressed the need to include citizens in planning for any changes. "Those living in the shadow of the viaduct, particularly those living in SHA (Syracuse Housing Authority)...who will be most directly impacted by this process, we must make sure that they are informed and that they are heard," he said.

In comparing the original, nonlocal process to the new one, DiMento called the change “dramatic, revolutionary when compared to the early 1950s.” At that time, when the construction of I-81 razed the 15th Ward, a historically black, close-knit community, citizen involvement in transportation planning meant the AAA, truckers associations, and chambers of commerce. But as “the impact of freeways became noted, and the environmental and civil rights movements exploded onto the scene, opportunities for citizen opposition became provided for in law through the National Environmental Policy Act, historical preservation laws, housing statutes, and other federal and state reforms,” he said.

Local community organizations have been more active in this round of discussions about the highway. One group, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, has been successful in uniting Southside faith organizations in support of the community grid option. “It’s not just about changing the traffic patterns…it’s part of a larger reframing of our community,” said Peter Sarver, the executive director of the group, in an interview with Streetsblog. “It’s about healing the wounds that the interstate imposed on the organic community that was at the center of the city 50 years ago.”

The city’s efforts to prioritize citizen participation have also allowed residents in and around Syracuse to express their displeasure with the grid plan. On the Northside of the city and in the surrounding suburbs, there exists a fear that rerouting traffic out of the city center will cost jobs and make transit into and through the city more difficult. The town of DeWitt, six miles west of the city, and the Onondaga County (which contains Syracuse) Supervisors and Mayors’ Association have voiced their support instead for either of the options that would maintain the current route of the highway.

Whether or not the community grid will be the option chosen is yet to be seen, but DiMento said that Syracuse can look to places like Madrid, Boston, Seoul, and Milwaukee for inspiration, all places that replaced their urban highways with green spaces. Syracuse has already been linked to them by a common theme: the final decision on how to use these spaces often took years, or sometimes decades, to arrive. Since Syracuse leaders and community members have been discussing proposals for I-81 since 2006, they’re already following in the footsteps of others who have successfully re-envisioned urban transportation in their cities.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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