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Imagining Syracuse Without Its Elevated Highway

Imagining Syracuse Without Its Elevated Highway
He Shi/Connective Corridor

A 1.4-mile long portion of Interstate 81 that runs through Syracuse, New York, could finally come down in 2017, when it reaches the end of its functional life. The deteriorating elevated roadway has long been eyed for demolition, frequently pointed to as one of the worst offenders in a class of 1960s era urban highway projects that are accused of effectively creating a dividing wall within cities.

A design studio and real estate seminar last semester at Syracuse University had students explore funding mechanisms, ownership structures, and the overall redevelopment potential of design alternatives for I-81, known locally as the Viaduct. Their solutions are now on display at Alt-81, an exhibit showcasing the future of the Viaduct as seen by SU students. 

Life in the former Ward 15 before urban renewal. It is currently part of census tract 0032. Images courtesy Syracuse University.

Urban renwal proposals for downtown Syracuse in the 1960s. Graphic via Syracuse University.

Construction of the Viaduct in the late 1950s and '60s led to the demolition of some 1,800 structures in the name of slum clearance, and cut through one of the state's first public housing projects, Pioneer Homes. City council president Van Robinson referred to it in a 2012 interview with NPR as the city's Berlin Wall. The I-81 barrier separates Syracuse's struggling downtown from the University Hill area, a part of the city seen as its economic lifeblood thanks to a high concentration of academic and medical research facilities.

The city's population has shrunk so much since the construction of I-81 that census tract (00)32 now includes all of downtown, skewing the population shifts in the neighborhood. Image: UPSTATE: © 2013

Last fall, a wide range of local politicians wrote a group letter to the New York State Department of Transportation commissioner, calling the Viaduct's approaching expiration as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to re-think and re-plan for a major piece of infrastructure.” While the commissioner says it would be great if it came down, money may be an issue. Merely repairing the current road, the cheapest option, would cost $500 million. The state estimates any alternative option would cost as much as $1.9 billion.

As a high speed roadway, the Viaduct doesn't meet current federal standards. Thanks to its urban location, the physical constraints of the site forced engineers to design it with tight curves, narrow lanes and narrow shoulders. According to the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council, the northbound section of the Viaduct has an accident rate more than three times the New York State average.


How the I-81 currently splits through the city of Syracuse View Larger Map

Maligned as the I-81 may be within city limits, the highway still plays an important role in the region's economy, serving as a truck route between Canada and Pennsylvania and providing an efficient way in and out of the city for commuters. But studies now suggest that diverting I-81 users onto alternative roads would have little impact on traffic volumes or operations for the route.

New York State is currently soliciting bids from engineering firms interested in coming up with solutions, including proposals for either tearing down the Viaduct or replacing it. That has some suburban business owners concerned that a political pro-downtown bias will make for an I-81 that won't generate enough traffic — aka customers — for them. The state DOT and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council will show new traffic studies and its solicited proposals to an open house downtown tonight, a day after Alt-81 debuted. 

Alt-81 will be on display for passersby along the first floor of the university's Warehouse, a building that has helped add new life to a previously underinvested part of the city. There's still hope that the state will play an even bigger role in repairing the city's urban fabric by solving the Viaduct problem. Below, a look at some of the concepts on display at the university's exhibit:

A reuse concept that would involve converting the existing infrastructure into pedestrian space above and at street level (Cortez-Li-Liu © 2013):

This concept would include reconstructing the Viaduct and designing it in a way that would include an adjacent market and public square (Jee-Tory- Dong© 2013):

Another concept would involve constructing new buildings on the land which is currently in use by the Viaduct (Tortorella, Fortuno, OHara © 2013):

Alt-81 is on view at the Warehouse at Syracuse University until June 28

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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