A Divided Syracuse: The Future of an Urban Highway

In the 1950s and 1960s, the 15th Ward of Syracuse, New York was destroyed. At first, this neighborhood adjacent to downtown was extensively gutted as part of the city’s slum clearance program. Then, the state decided to run an elevated highway, Interstate 81, through the heart of the city. More buildings were destroyed, and more residents were displaced. This cut the neighborhood in half despite opposition from the city’s government and residents.

The 15th Ward was a place that the poor and minorities were segregated to within Syracuse. While this neighborhood was a symbol of a racist system in which minorities were effectively not allowed to live in other parts of the city, it was also a close-knit community. It consisted of people of a wide variety of origins and ethnicities. It was dense, and teeming with small businesses. These businesses were shut down, and the residents became refugees, fleeing to substandard housing and nearby neighborhoods that didn’t want them.

Today, little is left of this once-bustling neighborhood. Parking lots, parking garages, and medical facilities that turn their backs on the street are everywhere. The western side of the neighborhood is now the eastern end of downtown, with scattered office buildings and several public housing projects. The eastern side of the 15th Ward is now the Near Eastside, where I live. This damaged but resilient neighborhood has a mix of offices, hotels, apartments, student housing, and centers of worship for multiple faiths. On East Genesee Street, you’ll find an American bistro, comedy nights at the local Italian restaurant, pizza, multiple coffee shops, university spaces, a theater, an imported foods grocer with an attached gyro shop, community-focused art galleries, convenience stores, tacos, and more.

The Near Eastside has much potential. It’s sandwiched between Syracuse University and downtown, each of which is less than a twenty-minute walk away. Even with all of the diversity of this place and the businesses here, it has a long way to go. Behind East Genessee Street, many blocks are vacant. Residents here must walk underneath I-81 to go to downtown. This highway is a troubling monument to the destruction of a neighborhood. Around the highway is a dead zone, where no one wants to be, and where parking lots and underutilized spaces line the streets.

The Near Eastside, east of I-81 and downtown, and north of the university, is cut off from the downtown. At the same time, public housing in the Southside, west of the university and I-81, and south of downtown, is cut off from the vibrant university community. This neighborhood is also a victim of the highway that acts as a segregating wall.

A Rare Opportunity to Fix the Structure of Syracuse

This can all change. I-81 is an aging highway, and the state of New York will decide the viaduct’s fate early this year. Three options are on the table:

  • For $1.7 billion, the highway can be rebuilt and widened, requiring the demolition of 25 buildings around the city, several of which are historic buildings in good condition.

  • For $1.3 billion, the highway can be replaced with a street-level boulevard, a planted median, and traffic lights at new connections with the city’s street grid.

  • For $3.6 billion, the highway can be rebuilt as a tunnel, with a street grid above.

A reconstructed and widened elevated highway would further tear down city neighborhoods. It would keep the Near Eastside disconnected from downtown, effectively redlining the district with a harsh dividing line for the next 70 years and stunting the growth of Syracuse’s other urban neighborhoods, like the Southside, until the highway needs to be replaced again. The tunnel option would cost too much money, would take nine years to build, and would not connect well to the city’s street grid.

The “community grid option”, which reconnects the city’s grid with a boulevard, is the most financially and socially sustainable option. Downtown Syracuse is growing and needs to be connected well to the surrounding neighborhoods in order to continue furthering its recent successes. If the community grid option is chosen, eastern downtown and the Near Eastside can fill in once again as dense, vibrant urban neighborhoods. This includes the 18.6 acres of land that will open up for development if this option is chosen. This will establish a more walkable link between the university and the city center while retaining and growing this area as a unique community in its own right.

Many local politicians within the city of Syracuse, such as Mayor Ben Walsh, citizens of the city, and local groups such as Community for the Grid and the Downtown Committee of Syracuse have come out in support of replacing the highway with a street grid. They say that this divided and segregated city needs to be physically reconnected to heal and grow its urban communities. Design-focused organizations such as the Congress for New Urbanism and the American Institute of Architects of Central New York are also in support of the community grid option.

County politicians such as Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, 19 town supervisors, and mostly suburban community groups such as Save I-81 and businesses such as the Destiny USA Mall are against the street-level boulevard option. These groups and politicians are split between the choice of rebuilding the highway as it is or rebuilding it as a tunnel. They cite concerns of longer commutes and decreased investment in the city of Syracuse.

The state, including politicians such as governor Andrew Cuomo, has not made a formal decision yet. However, the New York State DOT wrote a now-obsolete “preliminary draft environmental impact statement” in 2016 that showed a preference toward the community grid option at that time.

Community for the Grid has launched a petition effort to demonstrate public support for removing I-81 and restoring the street grid.

Within early 2019, the state will release a report about the three options for the future of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York. Afterward, the public will have 45 days to comment before a final decision is made. Ultimately, it is important for the state to give this city the chance to heal the wounds of misguided urban renewal and transportation infrastructure, by stitching itself back together.


About the Author

Baxter Hankin is a fourth-year undergraduate architecture student at Syracuse University, and works in downtown Syracuse at Acropolis Development. He lives between these two areas, in the Near Eastside. He has also lived in the cities of Stamford CT, Florence Italy, and New York City, each of which have created vastly different perspectives that have influenced his ideas about urbanism. His particular interest within the field of architecture is in creating context-driven and pedestrian-oriented places with quality fine-grain urbanism.