Syracuse Looks to Highway Removal to Revive Downtown Economy

All cities have physical barriers that divide neighborhoods and social classes. In Syracuse, one of the biggest is Interstate-81.

On the east side you have the area known as “The Hill.” There, Syracuse University and its affiliated hospitals and research centers have fostered growth and prosperity.

On the west side of the highway, things aren’t quite as rosy. The west side is where most of the city’s 1,600 vacant houses are located. It’s also, significantly, where the city’s downtown lies.

The city of Syracuse is considering removing this highway that divides downtown from the Syracuse University. Photo: Onondaga Citizens League

This highway, like so many of its type, was built as an urban renewal project in the 1950s. And many of the neighborhoods surrounding it have never quite recovered.

Now, Interstate 81 is itself showing signs of age. And many in the community say it’s time to remove it.

“To increase accessibility to [The Hill] we need a better transportation solution,” said Sandra Barrett of the Onondaga Citizens League, a local nonprofit civic group. “We need to remove the elevated highway that just depresses real estate values in the area.”

The Syracuse Metropolitan Planning Council says that the elevated portion of the highway, the part near downtown Syracuse, is the most in need of repair. The viaduct will reach the end of its useful life in 2017. There is already an arrangement in place with local contractors for 24-hour emergency repair.

Syracuse is in the early stages of discussing what should be done with I-81. SMPC and the New York State Department of Transportation have embarked on a public input process they are calling The I-81 Challenge, asking local residents to weigh in on the problem. Thus far, proposals have included a Big-Dig-esque tunnel, relocation, rebuilding, and, finally, teardown and replacement with a street-level boulevard.

Some influential community leaders are coming out early on behalf of the highway-to-boulevard proposal. The most prominent of them is Van Robinson, president of the Syracuse Common Council (the city government’s legislative branch). For years, Robinson has been beating the drum for a teardown.

Nearby “Selina Street was the city’s main drag and it’s empty today,” Robinson said. “At one time — and I hear it every single day — I remember when there were stores. You just went down the list of all these different stores. Now these very same buildings, you couldn’t sell a pair of shoestrings.”

This tree-lined boulevard, many Syracuse residents think, would help improve the local economy by breaking down barriers to business and residents. Image: Onondaga Citizens League

Mario Colone, a project planner with SMPC, said public input thus far spans a wide range of ideas. The agency is remaining entirely neutral on the project proposals until the first phase of public input comes to a close.

Meanwhile, Robinson and the Onondaga Citizen’s League are trying to build support for the teardown option. In a report released last year, the Citizen’s League said converting the viaduct to a boulevard would help retain the region’s young professionals and boost the local economy without increasing traffic or impairing emergency personnel.

The group has been doing public presentations to  explain to the community why a teardown could be the best option.

“People think that you take away a highway and you’re going to have more congestion; you’re going to have a harder time getting ambulances to the hospital,” said Barrett. “Actually the opposite is true in a lot of cases. You’re going to have improvements.”

Perhaps most importantly, the study showed removal would open up vast new areas of the central city to development, the type of development that might otherwise spill over from The Hill into the suburbs. More than 4 million square feet of development space is planned by Hill area institutions over the next two decades.

SMPC is hoping to wrap up the I-81 Challenge by the end of 2012. They hope to have the chosen proposal designed and under construction by 2017.

Meanwhile, public input from this period will be critical in determining what will replace the viaduct, and, in turn, how the city will evolve.

If the city is going to realize its potential, Robinson says, the answer is clear.

“Making it a boulevard, bringing in some economic development such as stores and retail, putting those back on the tax rolls… the city would benefit from it”

Hat tip to Emma Jacobs at Innovation Trail for alerting us to this story.

20 thoughts on Syracuse Looks to Highway Removal to Revive Downtown Economy

  1. absolutely NO BIG DIG part 2.  as nice as these things are.  they cost waaaay too much money.. billions if not trillion.  and the timeframe is > 15 years to complete.

    seriously, is there a problem w/ i-81?  last time i checked, syracuse was such a small city , does it really justify spending federal dollars to remove an interstate?

    syracuse is another example of a former grand city that is in decay not b/c of urban sprawl, which is a fallacy of its own, but declining manufacturing and jobs.

    before you tear down a highway, and build a tunnel to nowhere, lets bring the jobs to that city first.

  2. I’m all for highway deconstruction where possible but it’s not like I-81 ends in Downtown Syracuse.  Is the proposal to destroy all of the mid-section and have 481 connect 81?  That’s essentially creating a circle right around Syracuse.  I love the renderings and the ideas but we need to think about how this would work.

  3. How long is I-81?  Removing the viaduct will obviously break a continguous highway into two segments.  The question is how many miles will need to be done on local streets between the two segments?  If the time impact on through traffic is significant, then you might need to replace the viaduct with a tunnel.  If I-81 is a relatively short route, perhaps you can do away with it altogether.

    All that said, I really think highways through cities should all be underground.  I wish we would put the LIE and GCP underground.  The cost of doing so can easily be recouped by selling the land above the tunnel to developers.  And you gain back connectively between neighborhoods which was lost when the highway was built. 

  4. The elevated highway through downtown is nearing the end of its lifespan.  The only choices are to rebuild the elevated section, to rebuild the highway at grade, or to turn the highway into something like a boulevard that is integrated with the local street grid.  A correctly-built tunnel or below-grade segment would be far too expensive.

    It would be an enormous mistake to just rebuild the elevated highway in its place.  It is clearly a urban planning failure.  Furthermore, the long-term maintenance costs for an elevated roadway are orders of magnitude higher than the available revenue that we have from gas taxes and other sources.
    Rebuilding the highway at grade would be even worse, as it would completely separate the two sides of the city, and cut off downtown from the University Hill district.

    Therefore, the only real option here is to boulevardize this section of I-81 and create something that is more compatible with the street grid.  A good street grid is far more efficient at moving traffic than any highway, in addition to being much safer.

    Syracuse is not known for traffic congestion, but minor rush hour delays into downtown would be created if you just removed the highway and didn’t make any other improvements.  But these potentially negative side effects can be easily mitigated via other simultaneous improvements, such as 1) improvements to the multiple redundant street networks surrounding the new boulevard, including Salina (Main) Street, 2) ensuring that the new boulevard has enough capacity to handle traffic even more efficiently than I-81 currently does, 3) rerouting some truck traffic around the city via I-481, and 4) improving access points to downtown from I-690, which already functions as an alternate route to Downtown Syracuse for most of the commuters who currently use I-81 to access downtown (and is more likely to remain more viable in the long term because most of it is already built at grade and passes through an industrial area).  

    As a side benefit, boulevardizing the highway would create acres of new land area for development.  Syracuse functioned far better before the elevated section of I-81 was constructed, and it will function better once it is removed.  

  5. Keeping the highway costs more than getting rid of it, especially when you consider the revenues that could be brought in by actually putting productive buildings (apartments and local businesses) on a boulevard.

  6. Syracuse and the other upstate cities need to be bold, and tearing out an elevated monstrosity that ruins the old center city is bold. Just doing more of the same-o, same-o they have been doing for 30 or 50 years will not change the downward course.

  7. Best idea ever!  That said, I think ditching 81 the whole length of 481 would be amazing.  I think what’s more likely is that 81 would only be removed to 690 and left in place from 690 north.  This removes direct highway access to Syracuse from south of the city, but won’t have much effect if trucks are routed onto 481.  There is an old rail line along the ROW of 81 as well.  Redeveloping as street grid and bringing back some kind of rail service (possibly from a Park n Ride at 481 where 81 would divert) would be awesome.  I wonder what sort of Federal input there is for something like this based on 81 being part of Eisenhower.

  8. Joe, there already is an interstate bypass around Syracuse: I-481. People coming  from the south and continuing east on I-90 use that bypass. And if you continue north on I-81 or go west on I-90 it adds a couple minutes compared to going through downtown. So the through traffic is not going to be the issue. How much capacity you need for those going to Syracuse itself I don’t know.

  9. “Syracuse is in the early stages of discussing what should be done with I-81.”

    How about renaming I-481 to I-81?

  10. I’m glad that Syracuse is not only removing an elevated highway, but also replacing it with a boulevard rather than with an expensive, development-hobbling tunnel. (It’s impossible to develop above the Big Dig; such an option was considered, but removed amidst cost escalations).

    Next stop: removing 690.

  11. A boulevard would clearly be much more attractive.  It might make pedestrian conditions worse, though, if people have to wait for long signal lights necessitated by heavy through traffic volumes.

    I would like to understand a little better the potential for esthetic upgrades for a rebuilt elevated roadway, which keeps the traffic away from the pedestrians, as well as a clearer sense of how much a boulevard would actually impact the pedestrians.
    This might be a case where the tradeoffs need to be considered carefully.

  12. I used to live in upstate NY and the stretch of I-81 going through Syracuse is unnecessary and harms the city. Traffic going through the city can easily be re-routed through I-481 or I-90. Syracuse seriously needs a to revive it’s downtown (which pretty much doesn’t exist) and destroying the freeways that cut through the center of the city is the first start.

    Here’s Syracuse on a map:,+NY&hl=en&ll=43.067885,-76.141434&spn=0.194129,0.445976&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=53.300127,114.169922&z=12

  13. I thing it is a great idea, I live in San Francisco, if anyone has any doubts use SF for example, the city took down the Embarcadero and Parts of the Central Freeway and as a result the areas that used to suffer from urban decay went through an urban renaissance, today the areas are very attractive, even though it met opposition, but when you revitalize areas that used to be divided by the freeway things happen

  14.  Of course it should be torn down.  So should the east-west highway bisecting Syracuse (which, incidentally, removed the downtown Syracuse passenger railroad station and tracks). The Beltway route is plenty for express travel.

  15. But Syracuse has shown a tendency to not get its act together except when being bribed by a major developer.  So I’m not going to expect anything.

  16. It won’t make pedestrian conditions worse; what’s not obvious if you haven’t visited is that there are acres of concrete roads UNDER the elevated freeways which are ALREADY dangerous and slow to cross.  The Adams/Harrison exit area is particularly awful, with essentially a frontage road running directly underneath the elevated expressway.   In other words, it’s worse than you think now.

  17. Why not counter-sink the I-81 into the ground?  Here in SoCal through Santa Ana, CA, the Garden Grove Freeway and I-5 run through the city below ground level (but it’s not a tunnel, it’s open-air with landscaped ramparts on adjacent parallel sides) and the perpendicular boulevards, streets and pedestrian bridges suspend over them at flat ground level, so you are not even aware that you are crossing over a freeway until you see it under you.  As a result there is no elevated optical obstruction and it’s the same effect of say crossing a river on a flat bridge. Also, pedestrians and the expressway high speed traffic never meet, resulting in higher safety.  The physical division caused by the sunken expressway appears to have no adverse affect on the economies or development on either adjacent areas of the divide; the south side of the Garden Grove Freeway is just as fashionable and lovely as the north side along the Main Street corridor.  The problem with removing the highway for high speed traffic is not just slower commute time problems and increased congestion due to block by block traffic lights along the boulevard, but also the heavy trucking traffic will increase on the surface streets and congest the city thoroughfare or boulevard.  Trucking traffic in particular is not like local city traffic with local destinations; instead, most trucks are just passing through to another city destination and time/speed is of the essence for their deliveries; a boulevard with traffic lights will make this process sluggish and frustrating for the trucking industry, meaning higher prices of commodities that are ultimately delivered.


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