Reasons To Remove I81 in City

Letter to Dick Case's Post-Standard column.

June 18, 2009

Dear Mr. Case:

A response to your letter writers concern over taking down I81: To Tony Mangano's concerns for the city, it seems unlikely that anyone visiting a city with no highway cutting through it would think, "Gee, how unfriendly". Also, most (if not all) cities do not look attractive from an elevated highway; one doesn't see people or get a feel of life on the streets; one sees mostly rooftops and blighted areas (created by the highway).

As to Mangano's hotel business, consider that travelers from east and west will still reach you via I90, and travelers from the north via I81. The only slight change is for travelers from the south. They will drive a couple of miles through the city and get a peek at the area before they check-in. Seems quite natural and should heighten their interest in the city.

Taking down I81 (and even I690) through the city, would lead to a huge amount of new development, renovations, downtown revitalization, and increased cultural vitality, all of which could easily draw 20,000-30,000 more residents and more visitors back to Syracuse. We used to have 220,000 residents before I81; now we have 145,000.

As to remembering why I81 was built, it was built by the federal government to connect cities. It was not a project for Syracuse; it was not designed to solve a Syracuse traffic issue; and Syracuse is the only city I81 cuts through. All there is to remember is that the urban renewal and economic development policies of the 50's and 60's were terribly wrong-headed, and have proven to be so in Syracuse and many other cities across the country.

As to Bryce Hand's concern with traffic or convenience, consider that cities that have taken down highways did so precisely to improve the economic and cultural vitality of their community. There are many examples of cities taking down their highways. They were all successful; the areas were revitalized and traffic actually improved by dispersing it over the broader city grid.

The taking down of a highway is never a half-baked project enacted by some badly informed do-gooders. A whole lot of experts, government officials and committees, and the broad public have to weigh-in and approve before action is taken. As it stands, the professionals are saying that taking down I81 is perfectly doable; through-traffic (1/2 of traffic) will be diverted via I481, and the rest will be absorbed easily by the street grid, which has plenty of excess capacity. The southside stands to gain an economic development boost along 2-3 north-south streets due to the extra street traffic.

It is also a great time to take I81 down, since it will cost less to take it down than to do the scheduled rebuild and restructuring. It won't cost the city an extra dime, but will create a huge economic and cultural development opportunity for Syracuse.

We tend to look at changes individually and statically. But one change (especially a big one) effects multiple other changes plus their effects. So it's important to view change more broadly and dynamically.

Consider that if I81 (and I690, ideally) are taken down and converted to streets, Harrison St. and Adams St. downtown could be made two-way again; Adams St, especially, could be shrunk to a normal width, creating new potential for mixed use development and a walkable street. Similarly, West St. Could be returned to a normal width two-way street, with reconnection of the cross streets so as to reconnect downtown with the near westside. Suddenly, "downtown" becomes an urban area that can grow and spread naturally in all directions without barriers. If developers or potential residents "see" barriers, then we have barriers.

Mixed-use urban areas of sufficient size that offer the goods and services needed by their residents are highly desirable, something easily evidenced by the typically much higher residential real estate prices in mixed-use urban communities versus the suburbs. People seek community. Syracuse (and suburbs) will benefit hugely from a strong urban core. An attractive, desirable, livable urban core with lots of street life and cultural vitality is the key.

Carlo Moneti