More than 60 years ago, a decision was made to build an elevated highway through the center of Syracuse. This was in line with similar projects across the country that made the speedy flow of traffic through our urban centers a priority over the integrity of the cities themselves. Before I-81 was built, downtown Syracuse was a vibrant place with department stores and shops lining Salina Street.
In the decades since, we’ve witnessed the disastrous consequences of that decision, including population loss, the division of our city and the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods.
Consider the population loss alone. In 1950, more than 220,000 people lived in Syracuse. According to the latest census, the city’s population now stands at about 145,000. Some may argue that this is part of a regional trend. But, over the same time, Onondaga County saw population increase from 341,000 in 1950 to 465,000 today – although, much of that growth happened before 1970. After that, most of the population change was from the city to the suburbs.
This sort of population reshuffling was a predictable result of I-81’s construction. The preference for ease of movement led to an emptying out of the very city that serves as the economic engine for the region. When we discuss the lack of prosperity in Central New York, the problem of sprawl without growth and the financial challenges facing Syracuse, we need to look no further than this six-decade-old decision.
But we are finally going to right this wrong and set our community on a new path toward prosperity now that the state Department of Transportation has selected the community grid option in its draft environmental impact statement. I fully support this choice and I am not alone.
Community leaders, business groups, economic development experts, city planners and citizens across the region are all speaking up in favor of the community grid. They are doing so because of what the grid will mean for our city and our entire region.
A community grid will mean a renewed city center. It will mean more land put back on the tax rolls and into productive use. It will mean a more walkable, bikeable and, yes, drivable city. And it will mean reconnecting impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods with the prosperity around them. I’ve supported the community grid for some time because I know it is the most affordable and least disruptive option, and it offers the most promise to spur growth in our city and in our entire region.
I also want to address one of the common reasons why opponents of the community grid favor other options: public safety. Opponents have claimed a grid will hamper emergency response, even though most first-responders already avoid the highways to cut down on the chance of unexpected delays. Imagine for a moment that you are an ambulance driver who has come upon some unexpected traffic with a patient on board. Would you rather be driving on a well-designed city street grid or in a tunnel? That, among other reasons, is why the region’s biggest hospitals, St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center and SUNY Upstate Medical University, have come out in favor of the grid.
Since I-81 was built, the transportation world has changed around us. And it’s time for us to change with it and restore our vibrant city. Now it’s time for us to come together and do the work necessary to make this transformative project a reality. Simply put, it’s time to make Central New York a 21st-century community.