Battle Lines Drawn Over Syracuse Highway Teardown

Syracuse's I-81 is crumbling. Will the city rebuild it, or tear it down?Photo: Onondaga Citizens League
Syracuse’s I-81 is crumbling. Will it be rebuilt and continue to divide downtown Syracuse, or will it be torn down? Photo: Onondaga Citizens League

To keep the aging relic blighting downtown, or tear it down?

That’s the question looming over many American cities with Eisenhower-era highways these days. And nowhere is that question more immediate than in Syracuse.

Syracuse’s Interstate 81 is one of the best candidates for a highway teardown in the country. The aging elevated freeway is widely considered a blight on the city and is nearing the end of its useful life. The state of New York is considering a plan to tear it down and replace it with an at-grade boulevard.

If Syracuse tears down I-81 — and there are a lot of compelling reasons to do that — it could set an important precedent for other American cities, helping to make intentional highway removal more common.

The removal of I-81 enjoys a great deal of grassroots and political support, but nothing worthwhile ever happens without a fight, and a new group has emerged to oppose the teardown. They call themselves Save 81.

Among Save 81’s public list of members are a number of suburban politicians and business owners who believe the highway is vital to their interests.

The issue has been heating up since last year, when state officials narrowed down the options for I-81 to two: tear it down or rebuild it. In doing so, the state acknowledged that burying the roadway is not financially feasible.

A concept rendering for the boulevard that could replace I-81. Image: Onondaga Citizen League
A concept rendering for the boulevard that could replace I-81. Image: Onondaga Citizens League

And between the two remaining options, the teardown looks like the much more sensible option, even if you only look at the politics of the situation. That’s because if the 1.4-mile section of the road in question were rebuilt according to today’s highway standards, it would have to be widened. And that would probably involve acquiring a lot of properties, probably by seizing them through eminent domain — a process that would likely be expensive, time consuming, and controversial.

Since rebuilding the highway like that looks like a non-starter, Congressman Dan Maffei, who represents the locus of opposition — suburban DeWitt — recently urged the state Department of Transportation to consider other options.

Supporters of the teardown, like Syracuse’s Common Council President Van Robinson, say there’s still plenty of time for the city to discuss its options and for everyone’s views to be heard. Robinson has been one of the strongest voices in favor of the teardown. He calls I-81 the city’s “Berlin Wall,” dividing Syracuse “between the haves and the have nots.”

He said he thinks widening the road that has caused so much disinvestment in the city would be a mistake.

“Rebuilding it and rebuilding it at the prescribed width would have a very severe negative impact on the city,” he told Streetsblog.

He also said he thinks suburban opposition to the teardown, grounded in the fear that it will hurt businesses, is unfounded. There haven’t even been any major traffic studies, he said, so those concerns are based entirely on speculation.

A few years ago the city did have to close down I-81 for a week, and Robinson said he was among those who protested. But after the first day, drivers had found different routes and everything proceeded essentially as normal.

“A teardown would impact 1.5 miles. You’re talking 35, 40 blocks,” he said. “I think it’s more a fear of change than anything else.”

John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, said having a public debate about the issue is a good thing. When he was mayor of Milwaukee, Norquist oversaw the teardown of the Park East Freeway.

“Replacing I-81 with a boulevard is difficult for people to embrace when they first hear about it,” he said. “Ultimately the community would be wise to remove it.”

“If they examine examples from the U.S., Canada and around the world they will start to realize the damage that freeways have done to Syracuse and the benefits of removal,” Norquist added. “Every place they’ve been removed has benefited economically and the traffic disaster that is usually predicted by opponents never happens.”

“Once I-81 is removed and replaced with a boulevard most people will wonder why they didn’t do it long ago.”

15 thoughts on Battle Lines Drawn Over Syracuse Highway Teardown

  1. Why replace it with a boulevard? It looks to me like they could fill the space with city blocks and streets.

  2. They should at least tear down the I-81 segment that divides Syracuse University and the medical centers from the central business district. It is an obsolete, anachronistic, and unnecessary highway, and it eventually will come down anyway – why not now? Demolishing the highway and replacing it with a boulevard would not just open up a connective corridor to downtown. It would also send a strong signal that Syracuse’s leaders and citizens alike have the will, energy, and vision to re-invent the physical infrastructure of their community in a way that leverages its core assets.

  3. Since I-81 and I-690 cut huge scars through downtown Syracuse, the City’s population has plummeted precipitously and the city is a shadow of its former self. To all the suburbanites on the Save-81 coalition: at first glance Syracuse’s loss appears to have been the their gain. And initially, maybe it was. But metro area population has also been stagnant for several decades. The Syracuse Metro Area was not really experiencing economic growth in those years, it was merely rearranging existing wealth and assets from a vibrant central city to suburban sprawl (what former Rochester Mayor Johnson so succinctly dubbed “the worst kind of sprawl — sprawl without growth”).

    Those suburban leaders have to ask themselves: in an era where people are increasingly choosing urban living, who wants to move to a metro area with a hollowed out central city? The really sad thing about the Syracuse Metro Area is that in the days since those highways brutalized the central city,Syracuse traded a bustling and vibrant downtown and central city (with some amazing architecture) for a dozen or so malls and countless strip malls and subsequently saw many of those shopping centers decline into seediness and oblivion in less than a generation. (There is nothing more depressing than the dead malls and seedy strip malls in the Syracuse suburbs. There is something very melancholy about Fayetteville Mall, Camillus Mall, Great Northern Mall, etc. Actually, there is something more depressing: the vacant lots that line I-690 from just north of Clinton Square to its intersection with I-81. A quick Internet search will show that until the 50s, those blocks were fully built out with wonderful 19th century brick buildings.)

    Also, it is no coincidence that the nicest, most vibrant part of Downtown Syracuse, Armory Square, is the part of downtown that is furthest from where I-81 and I-690 bulldoze their way through downtown.

    Given the sprawl and the central city disinvestment, it’s no coincidence that the Syracuse Metro Area is a net exporter of college-educated young people.

  4. None of these plans are aggressive enough. Further, the conversation is 100% in the favor of the very suburbanites. No one is even mentioning the fact that Syracuse has a ring road, I-481 that is already built and goes around town easily. It also has next to no traffic on it. Google Maps tells me from the south side of town to the north side, taking 481 adds only 3 minutes to my trip. That means 81 could be taken down from the 481 interchange all the way to the 690 interchange with next to no impact on traffic whatsoever. Further, the street grid should just be restored in these neighborhoods. No crazy new boulevard, which is also code for a traffic sewer. Why should we continue to subject the city’s poorest neighborhoods to all of the pollution (air, noise, etc.) of car traffic to the benefit of suburbanites who want to save a few minutes on their trip downtown? How is this helping Syracuse? Some of the suburbanites will surely take their ball and go home to play, but other people will move into the newly invigorated city. And that ignores the developmental benefits accrued to the people no longer raised in the shadow of a useless interstate.

  5. Syracuse doesn’t have the population to support much transit. The city population is down to 144k. It is a fairly compact town, with some re-engineering of the streets it could be a very bike friendly place. As for the suburbs, the population of the whole county has remained static for the last 50+ years. The only real hope for the suburbs of Syracuse is a stronger Syracuse which means tearing down I-81 and I-690.

  6. That’s plenty to support transit at Syracuse’s density (~5000+/sq-mi?), with the caveat that the city attempt to grow economic and cultural opportunities for its residents.

  7. How about transforming the current structure into a semi-building?

    1. In between those pillars there is a perfect “open plan” ground floor for shops, cafes, offices, covered food market, pop up hostels etc.

    2. The top can be upgraded into another “High Line” park;

    Transform this elevated highway into a PLACE:
    – a shade against the sun, a shelter during rain, a mile long covered walkway with benches, plants and activity
    – a true connector of community

    Test it first with “pop-up activity”.
    You can still tear it down later.

  8. outdoor cinemas and theatres, standup events, mary-go-arrounds, interesting lighting efects during the evening, outdoor pool etc.

    You know, like Summer streets in NYC or other places…

  9. The situation in Syracuse & Onondaga County is much more dynamic than portrayed in this piece. Since the beginning of the year, two new groups have emerged to broaden the discussion. Moving People Transportation Coalition was convened by ACTS, an interfaith urban/suburban social justice network. It includes groups such as AARP Local Chapter, Disabled in Action, Green Party, Urban Jobs Task force, Interfaith Works of CNY, et al. ReThink81 is a proactive group of urban planners and architects who want to reconnect the city. In addition to being members of the NYS DOT sponsored “stakeholders advisory groups” we have been hosting monthly community forums on topics such as questions for highway design, bus rapid transit and economic development. We are told that it will be 12 months or more before the DOT lays out the best possible “rebuild” alternative to the elevated portion of I-81 that cuts through the center of our city. The old viaduct will come down but we just don’t know which of some 16 proposed replacement options will win out in our community’s process.

  10. I will join any organization which helps advocate to tear down this section of I-81. Whenever I drive from Ithaca through Syracuse (every month or two), I already avoid it and take the city streets. There’s no reason to have it here, and the cost of replacing it would be enormous and unnecessary.

    What local organization is taking the lead on fighting to tear this down?

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