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Hundreds of Syracuse public housing residents could be affected when I-81 construction begins

Tom Magnarelli
Bill Simmons speaking about I-81 at the Thursday Morning Roundtable sponsored by University College of Syracuse University.

As the Interstate-81 viaduct that runs through downtown Syracuse reaches the end of its useful life, three options are being studied to replace it. Regardless of which option is selected, hundreds of families living in public housing living near the interstate are going to be directly affected.

There are about 300 units of public housing in Toomey Abbott Towers and 600 units at Pioneer Homes that sit on either side of I-81. When demolition or reconstruction of the highway begins, the surrounding neighborhood is going to go through a big change.

Bill Simmons the executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority said construction might not begin for another three years, but the concern is how disruptive the dust and noise will be to people’s lives.

“A plan has to be in place before the first wrecking ball come through,” Simmons said.

Some public housing residents may have to be moved, at least temporarily. The hope is that the construction is done in phases. That way if residents are given housing vouchers, not everyone is trying to relocate all at once.

But the residents of Toomey Abbott are seniors, the disabled and some have mental illnesses so they may not be able to relocate. Simmons said items such as new sound proof windows and central air conditioning in the towers could mitigate some of the disruptive factors. 

 “How do you redevelop the area and be sensitive to all those needs and concerns and try to minimize the amount of time that people have to move and where they move to?" Simmons asked. "Not an easy discussion.”

Simmons said he hopes the new construction will bring new opportunities to the surrounding area.

“It’s a great neighborhood for low-income families from the standpoint that jobs are there, transportation is there with the hub, a lot of health services are there, people have been there for 30-40 years and their support systems are there,” Simmons said. “We have a high level and concentration of poverty in the neighborhood. Can we come up with a plan that de-densifies the poverty but create a new world-class neighborhood where the vast majority of residents take advantage of the development? That’s the challenge.” 

Simmons said he has been in contact with the president of Upstate University Hospital which is interested in doing respiratory testing of residents prior to construction to get a baseline record of residents' health. If some residents are negatively impacted by construction, Simmons said the state Department of Transportation may have to deal with the cost of those health conditions. 

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.