Street Grid to Replace Old I-81 in Syracuse, NYS Decides

New York State has selected the "community grid alternative," illustrated on right, to replace the aging I-81 viaduct that goes through downtown Syracuse.
New York State has selected the "community grid alternative," illustrated on right, to replace the aging I-81 viaduct that goes through downtown Syracuse.

Interstate 81 in Syracuse — a 1960s-era elevated highway — will be replaced with a walkable street grid, helping sew the fabric of the city back together.

New York State has chosen the “community grid alternative” from a list of possibilities that included rebuilding the elevated freeway or even building a highway tunnel underground, reported Monday. The state’s selection of the “grid” is a major breakthrough for progressive state transportation planning.

The project will incorporate 25 acres of land in Syracuse and two adjoining suburbs and create a walkable, landscaped urban space in an area that was blighted by the highway.

“It’s not just about changing the traffic patterns, it’s also about promoting public transportation and other alternatives,” Peter Sarver, a volunteer leader with the Moving People Transportation pushed for the alternative. “It’s part of a larger reframing of our community in terms of where people live and how they get to school and work and everything else.”

The state’s naming of the grid as the preferred alternative is not the final word, but does make the $1.8-billion reconstruction very likely.

Sarver and other advocates have been working with different community leaders for the better part of a decade to advance a plan that would not call for another massive highway project. Recently a number of local power players, like Upstate Medical University, said they support the plan.

Much of the land around the viaduct right now is occupied by parking.

Here is how the state envisions the community grid plan could look and function. Notice that designs include a high quality protected bike lane.


Renderings: New York State DOT
Renderings: New York State DOT

“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,” said Sarver. “That did tremendous damage. … It forced our minority folks, African-Americans in particular, into areas of concentrated poverty.”

In choosing the community gird, the state rejected a $4.9 billion highway tunnel proposal because it would not “maintain or enhance the vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle connections in the local street network within the project limits in and near Downtown Syracuse to allow for connectivity,” the state Department of Transportation said.

New York State has been a leader in supporting highway teardown. Rochester has completed part of a highway teardown on its Inner Loop Freeway. And highway teardown are being advanced in Buffalo and Niagara Falls as well.

Syracuse’s I-81 was recently named on of the top 10 highways in the U.S. ripe for a teardown by the Congress for New Urbanism.

21 thoughts on Street Grid to Replace Old I-81 in Syracuse, NYS Decides

  1. Great development, but those renderings still show some enormous dead space devoted to cars, why such big intersections?

  2. Upstate NY is effectively bankrupt in the absence of money transfers from Downstate in general, and NYC in particular. Per capita income, adjusted for inflation, is lower Upstate than it was in 1969. And it is being propped up temporarily by those who retired with good pensions from the former industrial economic base, so another leg down is coming soon.

    I’m not sure how to turn that around, but doubling down on the past won’t get it done. Upstate has to try to provide what the next generation will want, and can afford.

    Among other things because of the high snow totals you shouldn’t live there unless everything you need, including your job, is within three miles of your residence. So you can walk if you have to. I’ll bet that’s the way it was in 1950.

  3. +1, and changing concrete viaducts to surface streets will help reduce the maintenance bills!

  4. A great development. But the renderings still look pretty bleak: It’s the same dull environment of straight overly-wide streets, boring rows of trees, and souless architecture that’s going up everywhere these days. Sure, this is just a rendering and not a design brief but it’s not encouraging.

  5. Indeed, the drawings suggest one of those overwide stroads.

    The words are good, but the design execution is inhumane

  6. In many parts of this country, it’s hard to find a couple contiguous blocks of quality, walkable urbanism. Despite the robert moses highway projects, upstate NY still has some good-sized pockets of high quality urbanism. It’s good to see that they are beginning to recognize that as a major regional asset.

    I can imagine in 20 years being able to do a trip from Syracuse to Toronto, via Rochester, Buffalo, with it being a continuous series of pretty good, urban environments, at least in the city cores.

  7. It’s Syracuse. Don’t expect miracles in terms of development of another rust belt city losing population. I can say this…I lived in Buffalo, the city that completely destroyed its street grid (modeled off of L’Enfant’s D.C. grid) and Olmsted’s park system and boulevards. Travesty.

  8. The one thing that has hurt Syracuse by far the worst has been the loss of good paying factory jobs.

    The city lost Allied Chemical, lost its salt business, lost Carrier, the GM-Fisher Guide and Chrysler plants, as well as General Electric, a regional grocery chain, the Miller Brewery, Porter Cable, Penfield, North American Rockwell, Brennan Engine, Lockheed Martin, and New Process Gear, Libbey Glass, and among other factory employers.

    Just between 2000 and 2003 the city lost over 10,000 middle-class factory jobs against a population of 145,000, after lots more factory job losses in the 1990s. No wonder retail stores there are struggling. Sears just closed another of its stores in Syracuse after previously closing K-Mart too.

    That housing project was built in 1941, 25 years before I-81 started construction. Just between 1950 and 1970 Syracuse lost over 23,000 residents. That wasn’t the freeway’s doing, it was the loss of some older industries as well as industrial modernization that cut the number of workers needed.

    Between 1970 and 1980 the city lost another 27,000 residents and between 1990 and 2000 another 17,000 as factory after factory either shut-down or moved offshore once free trade started. Surprisingly the amount of population loss hasn’t been nearly as bad as in some other cites Southern Great Lakes cities that have lost most of their industrial employment.

    It is obvious that a 4-lane elevated freeway that anyone could walk right under did not do tremendous damage to the city, the worst damage by-far has been at-least 30,000 lost middle-class industrial jobs plus the spinoff. Today far too many local residents are barely earning enough to get by on.

    Several news items have said that a lot of employers are not hiring full-time workers so that they don’t have to pay for healthcare. If you make $10/hour in Syracuse these days you are doing better than a lot of people there.

    How will the city revitalize itself when the median household income there is only half of the US median?

    At-least tearing down I-81 and making the traffic go around will greatly reduce the amount of traffic in the city though I am not entirely certain that is a good thing, as there are plenty of towns that were successful before the freeway bypassed them too.

    All I can say is the same think that the blackjack dealer at the casino says just after shuffling the deck. “Good Luck”, as Syracuse is going to need it.

  9. I am hoping with the highway passing through the city that folks will take the time to stop and get a bite to eat gas up their vehicles or charge them while eating if electric and maybe even shop at local stores before heading on… all possible when the highway passes through not around the town or city.

  10. Blah blah. This discussion and planning effort is much adieu about NOTHING —other than Downstate domination, Upstate political chicanery and the manipulation of the long time resident and salt-of-earth people in Syracuse. These people have doubled down too many times on political hopes. Does everyone remember Hillary and Cuomo coming up to shave you of your hard-earned money?
    Did that go to Haiti (LMAO) or into their blood-lined wardrobes?

    Changing the traffic pattern to brighten up the blight or altering the street-level vantage points wont change the fact that the city is in a downward spiral toward a black hole of poverty, loss of heritage to avalanche immigration, goofy municipal libtards, and ridiculous taxes.

    I am so glad I got the hell out of there.

  11. NYC turned their elevated railway into the “Hi-line”, a very popular public walkway complete with trees, gardens, shops, entertainment, plenty of modular seating, a public success. Incredibly popular and one of the flowers of NYC! If you’ve never seen it it is well worth the visit.
    If it’s not too late, why not save the elevated highway and turn it into a public park walkway? If you have never seen it it is well worth the visit.If you have never seen it it is well worth the visit

  12. I’m going against the grain of most of these comments it seems, but I strongly favor keeping I-81 as presently configured. I don’t support the arguments for tearing-down the road because 1. The elevated roadway does NOT cut-off the city, as there are numerous underpasses allowing travel between both sides. 2. The run-down south-side neighborhoods were in that condition long before I-81. 3. Why isolate the Syracuse center-city from it’s surrounding neigborhoods and suburbs? When I lived in Baldwinsville, I drove I-690 and 81 regularly. It was great, especially in not-so-good weather. Removing I-81 from Syracuse will force drivers to use streets, and maybe the Thruway for some travel. 4. I think the city looks fairly impressive from the I-81. Removing I-81 for some type of utopian “garden” to me is nonsense.

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