Mid-twentieth century Syracuse was confronted with something new and modern: a plan for an elevated interstate running through the heart of the city. Now, the 'Cuse is trying to imagine what life might be like without it.
"The Viaduct," as the elevated portion of Interstate-81 is known, was completed in the late '60s. It's now nearing its expiration date.
"Not a particularly friendly environment"
Bill Egloff, project manager with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), stands in a parking lot underneath the interstate.
"Obviously it's not pretty, and at night it's dark and probably foreboding. People might not like to walk under it or bicycle under it," Egloff acknowledges. "No, it's not a particularly friendly environment."
Egloff points out signs of the highway's age: cracked cement and poor drainage. When the highway was built, it wasn't expected to last forever.
Its shelf life: "About 50 years," says Egloff. "So we're about there now."
"No such thing as a bad transportation project"
Karl Horn joined the State Transportation Department in Rochester during the '60s, as interstates were being completed throughout the country. The federal highways connected cities and also brought residents from growing suburbs straight into downtown for work.
"The thinking at the time was, 'Well, if we make it elevated … then people will just be able to go underneath. And it won't hurt anything,'" Horn recalls.
"When I started, there was no such thing as a bad transportation project. They were all needed and served a good purpose."
Horn says some downtown businesses in Rochester lobbied for the interstate to come downtown, to bring people right to their door.
And so, along with other urban renewal projects, the interstates went right through downtowns across the country. Freeways went through the inner cities of Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, Rochester and many more.
Frequently, they went through neighborhoods like Syracuse's 15th ward, which at the time was home to 90 percent of the city's African-Americans.
Tear it down?
"The highway is our Berlin Wall, and you saw what happened when [that] came down," says Van Robinson.
Robinson is the founder of the Syracuse chapter of the NAACP and head of the Syracuse Common Council. He has stacks of giant street maps leaning against the walls of his City Hall office.
Robinson has an encyclopedic knowledge of which streets go where in the city. He's an expert on I-81 in particular.
"The question today is not if it comes down but when it comes down," says Robinson. "If we do nothing, it means simply that the bridge is going to fall down on its own."
Robinson is actually not entirely correct on this point. The Viaduct could keep standing, but only with what NYSDOT's Bill Egloff calls a lot of "duct tape and bubble gum."
But the decline of the local throughway has opened conversation about what the city should do with the Viaduct. About 700 people showed up to public hearings in May to talk about what could happen next.
By planning meeting standards, that's a lot.
Robinson subscribes to an idea popular with a lot of urban advocates tackling aging freeways across the nation. The idea is that downtown expressways should be torn down.
Along with some citizens groups and Mayor Stephanie Miner, Robinson says he'd like to see an urban boulevard at street level.
He envisions something that makes you interact with the city, rather than zipping right through it - and that also allows the city's big institutions on the East Side, like Syracuse University, to also expand westward.
Some argue that re-intersecting all the cross streets below the interstate could bring back the congestion and long commutes that downtown expressways were originally built to address.
NYSDOT's Bill Egloff, who will see the next version of I-81 through to completion, says it's still too early to know.
Fewer people commute downtown than in the past. The highways could be raised, or sunk underground - a la Boston's Big Dig.
Given all these possibilities, Egloff thinks citizens should take the time to weigh in.
"As you see, this has been there for 50 years. Whatever we do next could be here a lot longer."
NYSDOT is taking public comments through the end of July. Egloff hopes to come back with a slate of possibilities around year's end.
- Facts and figures on I-81 from the Post-Standard.
- A look at a new study on freeways and traffic congestion from Infrastructurist.
- Lessons from freeway tear-downs across the country from Dan Bobkoff of Changing Gears.