Building Momentum

After a decade-long fight over I-81, Syracuse inches toward a decision

East News Transportation Urbanism
The I-81 viaduct cuts through Syracuse’s urban core. Left: The city's density in 1955 before the highway's construction. Right: The city's density today. (Courtesy Rethink81)
The I-81 viaduct cuts through Syracuse’s urban core. Left: The city's density in 1955 before the highway's construction. Right: The city's density today. (Courtesy Rethink81)

A small sliver of urban infrastructure has been both the bane and blessing of one city in Central New York for 60 years. Interstate 81, an 855-mile-long highway stretching from Tennessee to the U.S.–Canadian border, sliced through downtown Syracuse upon its completion, sparking generations of socioeconomic segregation.

Today, the viaduct that hovers over Syracuse’s urban core has reached the end of its functional life, spurring residents and the state’s department of transportation (NYSDOT) to consider next steps for the consequential corridor and how reimagining the site might transform the city in dramatic ways. This isn’t a new transportation tale, but the decisions made in Syracuse could have a major impact on the health and wealth of its locals.

For nearly a decade, conversations have centered around three options for the deteriorating viaduct: replace it with a new overpass, build an underground tunnel, or design a street grid that slows traffic through downtown Syracuse and thereby spurs development and a more walkable city.

One grassroots group calling for the street grid is Rethink81. They’ve created a digital narrative that paints a clear picture of the city’s wrought history with the highway and what its future could look like. Renderings of the street grid site show new buildings, a green street, and a bike path that extends south on Almond Street in between downtown and University Hill.

The street grid seems like the eco-friendliest and fiscally responsible option at $1.3 billion, but many are against it. The DOT estimates that a new elevated highway will cost $1.7 billion but take nearly ten years to complete. Some upstate members of the state legislature even favor the tunnel despite its hefty price tag of $3.6 billion, according to consulting firm WSP Global.

The latest discussions—from Albany to Syracuse—center around whether the tunnel idea is still truly on the table. “It’s the million dollar question,” said Jason Evans, associate principal at Ashley McGraw Architects and member of ReThink81. “The tunnel seems like an excessive investment to make for what would essentially be a duplicate route for traffic to bypass downtown.”

Before and after renderings of the proposed street grid for I-81 reveal a tree-lined, walkable street for downtown Syracuse. Shown here: Harrison Street looking north.
Before and after renderings of the proposed street grid for I-81 reveal a tree-lined, walkable street for downtown Syracuse. Shown here: Harrison Street looking north

Before and after renderings of the proposed street grid for I-81 reveal a tree-lined, walkable street for downtown Syracuse. Shown here: Harrison Street looking north. (Courtesy Rethink81)

Both the tunnel and rebuilt viaduct would allow cars to zip through the city at the same rapid pace as they do today. But that’s just the problem, says Syracuse University architecture professor Lawrence Davis. The city’s biggest issues stem from the fact that hardly anyone lives, works, or plays in downtown. The mass exodus of white residents to the suburbs after World War II caused investment to be drawn away from downtown. To this day, the suburbs remain Syracuse’s wealthiest districts.

“This is a vitally important thing to study because a lot of American cities are going through a similar thing and are taking a cost-benefit analysis of their infrastructure,” said Davis. “I’m arguing that the city of the future isn’t so much a concentric city but a multicentric city that’s built in the interest of everybody and provides a variety of neighborhood types.”

When the viaduct was built, it cut off Syracuse’s lowest-income residents, members of the largely African American 15th Ward, from the new developments that have risen over the last several decades. This has contributed majorly to the city’s rising poverty rates. Ranked the 13th poorest city in the nation in 2016, it’s also one of the worst places for black Americans to live, according to data from 24/7 Wall Street last year. These stark realities date back to the decision made to build the highway in 1957.

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, Central New York chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), helps educate the local community and university students on the multilayered segregation that’s resulted, and how this modern moment in Syracuse’s history could help end the physical and financial isolation so many people feel there.

“A highway isn’t naturally discriminating against everybody, but it creates a number of issues,” he said. “The car has literally split the city and made parts of it less desirable for development. If you look at these constituencies and their effective income, they are living this way because nothing’s been done to provide equitable opportunities for housing choice, economic mobility, or inclusion. It’s caused generational poverty.”

Abdul-Qadir and the NYCLU are putting together an expert team of lawyers, urban planners, and project councilors that will continue to fight on behalf of Syracuse’s underrepresented populations as the I-81 debate moves forward.

“This isn’t just an urban movement or a policy movement,” he said. “It’s a human rights movement and we’re trying to build momentum.”

As of July, the NYSDOT was working on a new environmental impact statement that details how the three options will affect the city. A draft is expected to be complete by early 2019, at which time the public will be able to weigh in with commentary.

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