"Of course not. You lack vision. But I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on, all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see! My God, it will be beautiful."
- Judge Doom, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
In August of 2013, Save81, a coalition of Onondaga County Legislatures, Destiny USA representatives, and local businesses, was launched. The group is dedicated to keeping the I-81 highway through Syracuse in some capacity (be it underground, depressed, or via a new highway) and is vehemently opposed to a boulevard concept; one of several options being considered by the New York State Department of Transportation.
Since the group's inception, Save81 has managed to gather signatures and add membership from local residents, businesses, and politicians. However, in the process they've managed to ignore recent facts and trends, have shown flaws in their arguments, and have been unable to demonstrate with any sustenance as to why they do not support the excluded boulevard option. This post is not written just because I disagree with their stance. It's written because the group cannot formulate a legitimate argument and is therefore detrimental to an intelligent discussion of I-81. The following are 10 reasons why I do not like Save81.
#1: They are represented by Destiny USA.
And yes, this it the #1 reason. It goes without saying that Syracuse and Destiny have rarely seen eye-to-eye on things, but this company specifically built their mall as far away from the center of the city as possible (literally at the city limits), on incredibly cheap, open, and polluted land, and blatantly took advantage the city in tax deals during the process and well into years thereafter. With so much at risk for Syracuse, Destiny has reciprocated little in return. Sometimes Destiny even goes out of its way to ignore the city completely. For lack of a better description, it's like being divorced and still living in the same house together.
#2: They are represented by the Onondaga County Legislature.
This group could not have a worse track record in terms of city planning. It's the same organization that wanted to build a baseball stadium in the middle of nowhere, wanted to build a sewage treatment plant next to the city's most successful district, and gave a huge supply of tax breaks to Carousel Center / Destiny USA. This organization does not seem to be the best in determining the fate of the city and they certainly have the history to back up their list of epically ill-fated decisions.
Most recently, these specific group of legislators preemptively voted to keep the highway from turning into a boulevard prior to the public being given a chance to see recommendations by the SMTC, months before NYSDOT finished any of their studies, and years before NYSDOT will come to any sort of conclusion. It's a shot from the hip, as the Syracuse Post-Standard editorial board so eloquently put.
#3: They have little representation within the City of Syracuse.
While they've managed to garner 2,500 signatures online (60% of whom live in the suburbs) you will not find the Syracuse Common Council, the mayor, the Downtown Committee, The Post-Standard, the Syracuse Convention & Visitors Bureau, CenterState CEO, Syracuse University, OCC, SUNY Upstate, SUNY ESF, LeMoyne College, the Connective Corridor, Centro, or any bicyclist organizations listed as some of their group members. However you will find Dunk and Bright, Dominick Falcone Insurance, Tim Hortons, Southern Wine and Spirits, and May's Auto among others; encompassing a round-up of hotels, liquor stores, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire salons, and automobile dealerships. The full list can be found here.
#4: They faux represent Downtown Syracuse.
Keeping in mind reasons #1, #2, and #3, this is probably the most irritating from a Downtown Syracuse resident's perspective. Yes, they have a chocolate shop and a few other Downtown businesses in their membership directory. Wonderful. But having these select few businesses should not give the group sudden legitimacy in terms of speaking on Downtown's behalf.
I saw a commercial recently that aired on TV for Save81 maybe two or three weeks ago. The commercial is filmed like many of those interview-style infomercials where somebody sticks a mic into an unassuming person face and asks them their opinion on their favorite blanket or fabric softener or whatever. Discounting the possibly that Save81 probably staged the interviews themselves, what bothered me most was that it was filmed in Armory Square. Instead of filming it under or near the elevated portions of highway (where the majority of this entire discussion takes place), it was filmed at the city's most successful district; basically implying that (a) Armory Square needs the highway in order to be Armory Square (b) Downtown businesses need the highway or else they wouldn't be located in Downtown Syracuse and (c) if Armory Square is so successful then the boulevard option must be bad. These are not valid points to imply. Downtown businesses can still operate without an elevated highway - just like they do in other cities and just as they do here on the off chance that 81 is jammed with traffic, during SU basketball home games, when the entire region shuts down because of a massive snow storm, and even when the President of the United States happens to visit.
By playing this angle, Save81 introduced fear mongering into their platform and it comes off more as a tactic to generate an opposition than one designed to educate or inform the public.
#5: They've eliminated dialogue.
Save81 was launched seemingly without opposition and were immediately on the offensive from the get-go; eliminating one of two (or one of several depending on what you believe) options from the table: the boulevard. What this did was showcase that Save81 has its focus on keeping the interstate in some capacity and how they refuse to listen to any option that might rhyme with Kierkegaard, or bodyguard, or... avante-garde... By doing so, and especially by doing so and not backing it up with constructive criticism, evidence, statistics, trends, or analysis, they've written-off a large portion of the discussion through an agenda based off of fear, hyperbole, and opinion.
It would be one thing if it was a citizen writing a response to the editor in a local newspaper. But it's another when it's a supposedly organized group of politicians and business people. It ends up coming off more as a shallow business attempt than an intelligent view-point. Just when the city and Downtown are on the brink of starting to grasp the advantages of smart growth, better transit, and mixed use development, this group has put-up a proverbial wall into the discussion for no justifiable reason other than it reinforces their business practices, emphasizes a commuting lifestyle into the city, and instills the happy-motoring status-quo.
#6: They emphasize cars over people.
While a highway's priority is moving automobiles and trucks, there are other facets that cannot be ignored within this specific discussion at that one expense. I-81 also runs through the middle of a medium-sized city. It's going to effect peoples' lives; and I'm talking about their lives outside of the confines of their cars from everything to public space, interaction, breathing, noise, air quality, and pedestrian safety. Currently, the elevated portions go directly through Pioneer Homes, sits next to Nettleton Commons, Smith's Restaurant Supply, St John's The Evangelist Church, and passes by plenty of other businesses and apartment buildings along Pearl St, N. Warren St, and Almond St just to name a few. Lost in Save81's discussion is how any of the possible options will benefit or be a detriment to city life, resident life, and pedestrian walkability or safety. For what it's worth, you will not find these terms listed on the group's website: "walkability", "street-life", "local", "mixed-use", "connect", "district", or "neighborhood". Yet you will find these car-centric terms: "20-minute city", "commuter", "rural areas", "shoppers" and "gas usage".
#7: They do not back up their position with facts or statistics.
Their website, while extensive with links and information, does not provide any actual facts or statistics for their position and instead uses fear and hyperbole as argumentative devices; emphasizing such words and phrases as: "disastrous", "clogging", "nightmare", "could lead to layoffs", "national financial crisis", "endanger public safety", and "loss of jobs". If we're ever going to reach the point of intelligent discussion (and I hope we do), it would be most beneficial to all parties involved that coherent and fact-driven dialogue be brought to the table as oppose to vague arguments that have no merit or backing.
Their website also champions that I-81 "spurs growth". Personally, I'm tired of this argument - particularly because it's never given with any substantial facts or concrete examples. If you can't prove it, don't cite it. Is I-81 moving the city's economy forward as much as Downtown Syracuse is or is it further reinforcing suburban sprawl away from the city? Is I-81 moving the economy of the region forward as much as the development of the University and Hospitals are or does I-81 make it that much easier to live outside of the city where you don't have to pay city taxes, you can avoid the school systems, and avoid the crime? They're questions that get into more philosophical view points, but still relevant to discussion because I-81's ability to make it easy to travel is at the forefront of other city vs. suburban discussions.
I also find it somewhat ironic that the group is so concerned with public safety and cites the word so many times on their website. It's something the state DOT will be most concerned with as well as accident rates are at 300% higher than the state average at the 81/690 interchange (translation: the current system does not work). But I digress...
Lost in Save81's discussion is the elephant in the room: how much money will be spent on a new interstate through I-81. While construction of a new elevated highway will most certainly cost more money than a boulevard (and that doesn't even take into account the possible fiasco of demolishing Downtown buildings in the event of a wider I-81), you can be certain that a new highway will cost more than a boulevard over the next 5 decades due to just maintenance and repairs alone. If Save81 is so certain that a boulevard is an inferior option, then it should be prepared to give cost projections and the possible financial burden onto future generations.
#8: They bring the towns of Senett, Moravia, and Fleming into the discussion.
... and DeWitt, Geddes, Owasco, and Skaneateles. Look. All or most of these towns have recently passed memorandums on keeping the highway through Syracuse in some capacity and voicing their disproval with a boulevard option. No disrespect to a town like Fleming here, but does it even deserve a legitimate voice in this discussion? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. For what it's worth, I had to look on a map where it was. Are we ready to toss it into the discussion and say that it's on par with the magnitude of Syracuse? (You know, the city where the actual highway has existed for the past several decades?). I mean, just in terms of population, the neighborhood of Downtown alone outnumbers the entire town of Fleming. And Syracuse has 26 official neighborhoods. Why is Fleming being juxtaposed into the discussion more seriously here than University Hill or the Near Northeast neighborhood? Both of these two neighborhoods have population sizes 3 times the size of certain towns that Save81 is championing.
It begs the point: where do the majority of of the elevated highway's needs come down to and are these needs able to be compromised in order to improve the city and region. If Save81 is bringing in these small, outskirt towns into the discussion because they have a legitimate stance, then fine. State how they feel. But it's extremely detrimental to the discussion if these towns are being posturized to make the group look more glamorous than it actually is. These towns should not be cast into the discussion if the sole purpose of which is to make it seem like Save81 has more political weight than it deserves (i.e. relevancy).
#9: The group is being run like a political campaign.
For all of the reasons listed above and more. Using hyperbole as an argumentative device, providing insufficient facts for their opinions, their skewed television ad, their back-peddling, their failure to grasp other stances, their preemptive movements, and their staged press conference. Politics in a nutshell, amirite?
#10: They show an unwillingness to get with the times.
This is probably the easiest argument to make because Save81's stances are so incredibly out-of-touch with the trends of other cities, the demands of younger demographics, and the needs of Syracuse.
In regards to other cities, the following have removed, are currently removing, or planning to remove elevated and depressed highways in the name of boulevards: Rochester's Inner Loop, New York's (Bronx) Sheridan Expressway, San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, its Central Freeway, and its 280 Freeway (and incorporating high-speed rail to the city's core), Trenton's Route 29, Akron's Innerbelt, New Haven's Route 34, New Orleans' Claiboure Overpass, St. Louis' I-70, DC's Whitehurst Freeway, New York's West Side Highway, Milwaukee's Park East Freeway, Portland's Harbor Drive Freeway, Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, Cleveland's Memorial Shoreway, Montreal's Bonaventure Expressway, Seoul's Cheonggyecheon Expressway, Nashville's Downtown Loop, Baltimore's Jones Falls Expressway, and Buffalo's Skyway.
In all or most of these examples that have finished construction, the results have been met with rising real estate values, more adequate transportation needs, and an overall improvement in quality of life. You'll be hard-pressed to find an example of a city that has removed a highway without any economic success. And you'll be more hard-pressed to find an example of a city removing an elevated highway for the sake of a newer one that takes up more space, runs through its region's epicenter, and separates its two major neighborhoods with positive results. If Save81 is so convinced that maintaining an interstate through the city of Syracuse is economically beneficial to the region, it should be able to provide easy examples of (a) how that success has trickled down over the past 50 years - particularly in regards to the surrounding streets like E. Washington, E. Water, and E. Fayette and (b) if that system has worked in other cities.
The Post-WWII, easy-motoring lifestyle that is reinforced by highways like I-81 is counterintuitive to trends happening around the country right now; particularly among the younger demographic. Young people are choosing to live in cities rather than suburbs, their driving habits are changing, they have a broad view on transit options, they prefer to live in walkable communities, and they'd rather live in neighborhoods that emphasizes mixed-use development. This isn't possible for the area between Downtown and University Hill since it's currently comprised mostly of concrete, pavement, and on and off ramps. The areas become economically, socially, and culturally detrimental (as it has been for quite some time now).
There are two reasons why the younger generation is so critical to the discussion here. (1) The 18-35 demographic is theoretically going to be using the highway or boulevard much longer than say the 45-65 demographic. And (2) the current highway is so close in proximity to Downtown and Syracuse University; both of which are engines for younger activity like restaurants, nightlife, sporting events, local music, etc...
It's incredibly important that the two neighborhoods be separated as little as possible if the city wants to become relevant again, or "hip", or diverse, or a social destination of any kind. This isn't possible right now (and hasn't been possible in the past) when the city is sacrificing so much of its space towards cars, surface parking, elevated concrete towers, and dead land. From the city's standpoint none of these things are generating revenue or paying the city any tax money (the surface lots are state-owned and there's very limited on-street parking nearby).
Needless to say, Syracuse has had roughly half a century to work with an elevated highway system and the results are poor. The city suffered drastic declines in population, there was a massive rise in costly suburban sprawl, an entire ward and demographic of people were removed in the name of gentrification, there has been little (if any) economic development immediately adjacent to the highway, and it has created a visual, physical, social, and psychological barrier between the city's two most economically successful neighborhoods as of late: Downtown and University Hill.
After decades of sad decline, Downtown is finally growing again - both in residential population and economic development - and all that is standing in the way of continuing that progress to connect it to the city's two major economic money generators (SU and the medical centers) is an out-dated elevated highway that no longer serves the needs of the city or its potential future.
Save81 has clearly shown that they have their interests outside of the city and that's fine. By all means they are entitled to. But what is disheartening is the lack of intelligent discussion coming from the anti-boulevarders. Trust me. I'm not completely sold on a boulevard being the best option. I'm still waiting to see better design concepts from the several contractors that NYSDOT has in mind after their studies. But I am sold on it being a far better option for the city and region rather than rebuilding another, larger elevated highway in its place.
Save81's inability to provide analysis, fact-finding, thought-evoking ideas, questions, or concerns serves to prove that they are detrimental to the intelligent discussion of an elevated highway through Syracuse.