A conversation on the future of I-81 on the Campbell Conversations

Mar 23, 2019

The decision about the future of Interstate 81 in downtown Syracuse still looms over the region. Called the most important decsion for the city in a generation, the public is largely split on what should replace the elevated portion of highway that runs through the city. Many in the city favor a community grid, which would route trhough traffic around the city via Interstate 481, while many outside the city prefer to see the highway stay where it is. 

This week, Grant Reeher begins the first of a two part discussion exploring the different views of the future of 81, with two advocates in favor of the community grid option, State Assemblywoman Pam Hunter (D-Syracuse) and urban developer Bob Doucette. 

Note: A program with two advocates against the community grid aired in early April and can be found here.

Interview highlights

Reeher: Assemblywoman, let me start with you, and I have just the most basic of questions. … Even though I think most of our listeners probably know what the grid option is, let’s just start with that. So, can you give me just a brief, thumbnail sketch? What is the grid option?

Hunter: The grid option is the future. That’s what I’m telling everyone that I’m speaking with. It’s a new way for our future to be able to move around more easily and have less of a carbon footprint to be able to connect neighborhoods and communities in the county in ways that we’ve never been able to do before.

Reeher: And so, Bob, to follow up on that, what specifically, though, in terms of the nuts and bolts, is the grid option?

Doucette: It’s really quite simple. The highway, the overhead, the viaduct will come down, and the street grid, which was there before and operated extremely well, will be reconstituted. And as Assemblyman Hunter suggested, this will enable us to reconnect neighborhoods that were cut off. It will give us different options for getting from one place to the other and, in the end, will make everything a lot more efficient in terms of traffic. And it will provide a much more livable environment for the people who live near that monstrosity that is existing right there now.

Reeher: On the ground then, … the boulevard or whatever it is that we’re going to call this that’s going to essentially replace the elevated highway, what is that going to look like? Give me some comparison to something else where I can say, “It’s going to be like this avenue.”

Doucette: For those familiar with Syracuse, you can just go one street over and look at State Street, and that’s pretty much what you’re going to get. … It’s two roads divided by a median, and that’s basically it. I’ve heard it being compared by some of the opponents of this as an Erie Boulevard, which could not be further from the truth. It’s not anything like Erie Boulevard. It’s an urban street that handles, in terms of traffic counts, relatively few cars every day. We have more cars on Salina Street than will probably be in this road, or just as many, practically. The DOT [Department of Transportation] has studied this, and they’re the ones who’ve concluded that the streets have their underutilized capacity and can easily handle the traffic that’s going to be on these streets.

Reeher: Let’s just think about, in terms of creating the finished product, whether it’s the grid, whether it’s rebuilding the elevated highway or whether it’s some kind of hybrid tunnel option, which one of those in terms of making it do you think would be most disruptive to the status quo? … Which is the easiest one in the sense of the disruption that’s going to go on during those four, five or maybe longer years that this is going to go on?

Hunter: It’s interesting that you ask that question because there will be no easiest, and I think that that’s why so many opponents of the community grid are so fearful. It’s almost like being paralyzed with fear of change. But the amount of time that it’s going to take to get to whatever the final product is going to be will be disruptive for so many people for so many years [that] they’ll be happy with the final product. So, you’re not going to take down the bridge tomorrow and say, “Now we start.” There has to be so much work in advance of getting to the final product. I think that’s where we’re losing focus in the conversation, I think, because we’re not having conversations now with the folks who are absolutely opposed to the community grid. And I have talked to those people. I have talked to the municipal leaders for three years. I have weighed and I have listened and I have waited and I’ve attended meetings. … And so, it was not a hasty decision getting to “I support the community grid”; it is “I will get all of the facts and listen to the community.” But most of it, the fear that folks have, is based on the unknown, based on wanting things to be the way our community was before, and it’s not that way now. … OK, maybe we disagree, but one thing we have to agree on is the fact that, regardless of what change is going to happen, traffic’s going around 481. Traffic is going to have to be diverted. What are we going to do about Centro? What are we going to do about 481? We need to be having all of those conversations about what is going to get to our final solution, which, hopefully, will be the community grid. But we still need to have those conversations, and people are unwilling to even budge and having collaborative conversations about things that absolutely are going to have to take place before we even get to any of the final solutions.

Reeher: On that point, Bob, I think if you haven’t really looked at the issue very deeply, …  it does at least sound like it would be, in a sense, less disruptive to just rebuild the elevated highway rather than create some whole new thing. So, can you speak to that piece about the disruption in that regard?

Doucette: Without question, the most disruptive of the options is the tunnel because the study that was done especially to study the tunnel said it could take anywhere from six to 10 years to complete that project. That, far and away, will take the longest. I would have to defer to someone on the DOT on this, but I think that the replacing of the viaduct and rebuilding of it and creating the grid is right around the same time frame, which they estimate to be like three to four years. So, I think that those two are about the same, but the tunnel, that’s going to be nuts.

Reeher: Breaking down the reasons for the grid, I think there’s two categories that kind of come to my mind. The first one is what problems that have been historically introduced by the elevated highway will the grid address? So, there’s that issue, sort of a looking backwards in some ways, as well as forwards. And then the other piece is what other additional benefits, other than the ones that were introduced by the elevated highway, can the grid provide? And so, Assemblywoman Hunter, let’s start with this first one: the problems that were introduced by that elevated highway – what it did to those neighborhoods. How do you see that? And how do you see how the grid might address that and alleviate whatever those problems were?

Hunter: Simply, it has divided a community just with that monstrosity. … For me, I have not lived in Syracuse for 50 years, so I don’t know the Syracuse before the elevated highway, but I know I’ve talked a lot to folks who did live here and know that what was being sold was urban renewal and we’re making a change and this is going to be great. It was purposeful. It was a purposeful decision to put the structure in there, and what was even more purposeful is [it] allowed concentrated poverty to happen. And we have an opportunity now, we have a duty now, to say, “We will take this bridge down. We are going to open this up because it’s not necessary.” But we have to be purposeful in saying, “We’re not going to allow the urban renewal of the past to be the new normal for the next generation.” We’re making decisions not for ourselves, and I think that’s where people are getting hung up. … We’re making this decision for the next generation and for generations going forward. It’s not for me. It’s not for my convenience for getting to x, y, z quicker, and I think people need to stop thinking singularly and thinking about “What do we want our community to look forward to in the future?” And I would say that the district I represent that has a high concentration of poverty that I would like the district to not look like poverty in the future.

Reeher: Bob, I wanted to pick up on something that the assemblywoman said before about how the elevated highway was one of the instruments that led to the concentration of poverty in that area of the city. And the assemblywoman was referring to the network of housing projects that are there underneath and on either side. Is it the case, then, that addressing that means that what develops in terms of mixed-income housing and other kinds of ideas we’re starting to hear now with Blueprint 15, for example, … that that’s kind of part of the grid option, in a sense, that these two things are kind of intertwined in a way that can’t be separated?

Doucette: Yes because the grid option allows the opportunity for that to happen because it opens up much more land that can be used for development, and it takes down that barrier, which has isolated people for the last 50 years. It provides that opportunity for them to do that.

Reeher: But it also, then, is incumbent on local leaders, business people, developers like yourself, but also public officials, to make sure that what comes in the wake of that, reflects the kind of goals, assemblywoman, that you were talking about, which was not to be an area of hyper-concentrated poverty, which is what it is now.

Hunter: It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we get this right for the future. And it can’t just be take it down and we’ll build it and we’ll promise to do something better. We owe it to the community to do better, to consciously make decisions to make this better because rhetoric is high, the community is divided, and, quite frankly, because of the indecision and the lack of transparency and the lack of information, the divisiveness that has been created is everywhere in our community relative to “you’re either for or against.” And that’s where we are right now; it’s “either you’re with me or you’re against me.” … There’s no room for even a negotiation, and that’s what I had said in the beginning. But we are all in this together. … We move nowhere forward together if we’re unwilling to have conversations.

Reeher: Let’s shift to the other piece of this, then. What are some of the other benefits, trying to address the harms that were done by the elevated highway, what are some of the other benefits that might come out of a grid option? Bob, are there other things out there that could blossom because of this?

Doucette: Yes. Let me try to tick them off if I can. One, it’s way less expensive. This is the least expensive option, and this is what’s going to require the least of tax-payer moneys. That’s number one. It takes down the fewest number of buildings so that are historic fabric center in the city will remain and also remain on the tax rolls. This option, the community grid, gives us the largest swath of land, which can be developed, and thereby putting more buildings back on the tax rolls and providing the kinds of income that, frankly, this city and this county need. It will reconnect downtown, the south side, with the Syracuse University hill and the hospital system, which has been divided for all of these years. It will allow us, in the transportation system, to have more exits and entrances off of 81, and what people are not understanding, I don’t think, is that it will create a more efficient system of traffic and allow people to get places quicker. What I think that’s so frustrating for me sometimes in talking to people – and I understand they really haven’t delved deeply into the issue, but you have to understand that 80 percent of the traffic using that viaduct is local traffic. It’s people coming in and out of Syracuse for their work or play, whatever. Only … 13 percent of the traffic is bypass traffic. That’s only thru traffic. That’s a very small amount of traffic that can be handled by 481. And that detour, by the way, according to the Department of Transportation [for the] state of New York, takes approximately six minutes. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s the amount of time that it takes to travel around the city as opposed to going through it. … And the other thing, Grant, that I think people don’t understand is you have to get in and out of a tunnel. So, in order to get in and out of a tunnel, you have to have slopping roads that go down and then come up. Those roads cut off streets, so again, that will disrupt our traffic pattern. We won’t have as many streets to go east and west, and therefore, it’s going to be harder for you to get around.

Reeher: Assemblywoman Hunter, is there anything to what Bob said that you want to add in terms of additional arguments in favor?

Hunter: Yeah, I do. I think that we’ve seen a resurgence in terms of the past 10 years of development downtown, and I think that we need to make sure that we’re concentrating on spreading it. Obviously, there’s only so much land down there, so this will provide more opportunity for growth, which obviously shows the necessity for that. We see a lot more people moving into the city of Syracuse even though we keep hearing reports of people fleeing New York and fleeing, we do see we have 98 percent occupancy rate downtown, so that obviously means that people are living there. And I think that that’s very important. New buildings that are built obviously create property tax on the tax rolls, which I think is very important. Especially as we’re talking about my level at a 2 percent property tax cap and municipalities being constricted and the city itself having limited funds, this is something that we need to think about as well. But again, we’re talking about the future. We’re talking about how do we want the future to be, and quite frankly, we need to be talking about the evolution of traffic and transit. And that doesn’t necessarily mean more cars. It means a place that has less of a carbon footprint and more walkability.

Reeher: Bob, [I’ll] come back to you with this. Paraphrasing John Stewart Mill, if you only know your side of the argument, you don’t the argument. So, I want to ask you as succinctly as you can, maybe even one sentence if you want to make that succinct, what do you think is the most powerful and most legitimate argument against the grid?

Doucette: Man, that’s a tough question. What I’ve heard is that the city requires a high-speed thruway through the city, and that’s number one, and number two, that somehow if we don’t have a tunnel or whatever, it’s going to be “carmagedon” on the street. So, those are the two arguments I’ve heard against it. I’ve got answers to both of those, but you asked me for what I thought the arguments for the other side were, and that’s what I’ve been hearing.

Reeher: Let’s also imagine, what if the decision is to rebuild the elevated viaduct? It’s possible that it could happen. What if it does? … What is the one most important thing, if that were to happen, that you think needs to be paid attention to to do and to make sure happens?

Doucette: I hope that there would be a heavy emphasis on design to see whether we can find some way to mitigate the barrier-like effect that that kind of overhead structure has on the city. That would be my only hope. I would be terribly disappointed if that were the decision, but that’s the only thing I can come up with.

Reeher: Assemblywoman Hunter, it looked like you were going to scream when I asked this, but let me ask you the same question. Let’s say it is the viaduct. What is the most important thing you’re going to want to be making sure gets done or doesn’t happen?

Hunter: That community, regardless of the community, isn’t put into a position going forward where they are going to be having generational poverty for another generation. It could happen, and we have to be purposeful about that. And my concern, too, is if we replace what is currently up there now, we’re not going to be in any different decision in 50 more years when that bridge needs to come down because, then, we’re going to have to make another decision as well.