How to move a city

Blog thread of the year: Sean Kirst’s Wednesday column and blog post on the “Tear Down 81” movement, which (as of this writing) has attracted over fifty responses. It’s good to see that the conversation has advanced somewhat beyond the “Tear it down!” “Aw, you’re crazy!” stage and that there are more shades of gray being brought to the table now. (If you crave hard background information about the history of I-81’s presence in downtown Syracuse, don’t miss this thesis by Aaron Knight.)

There are a lot of “You’re crazy!” responses in that comments thread, but that’s to be expected. (One could point out that the residents of the 15th Ward probably would have appreciated an online forum in which to have posted their dismay at the concept of 81 slicing through their neighborhood, but there was no Internet back in the Sixties, and certainly wouldn’t have been for “folks like them.”)

Resisting making any changes to 81’s route is one thing. But what’s a little troubling to me is how many people are openly wishing for an 81-like bypass to cut from Camillus through Syracuse’s western neighborhoods. This sort of talk makes me want to surreptitiously delete every post in which I ever mentioned the Phantom Bypass… I don’t want them to find out there were plans for that, and what’s worse, that the Offramp to Nowhere still physically exists. At the very least — even if 81 never gets moved — please God, let’s make sure we at least kill all talk of another neighborhood-destroying bypass in the greater Syracuse area, now and for all time.

The dissenters in the comment threads do make good points about this being fundamentally about the plans and strategies of the high and the mighty… which is what it was about back in the Sixties, too. Once again, I direct you to any Google map of the greater Syracuse area and invite you to look at the curiously intact expanse that is the Syracuse metro area’s southwest quadrant. The open range. No bypasses. Mostly unsliced (although there is a railroad in the way). Many of the current initiatives are already taking place in this sector.

The big dream is to take 81 down — or rather, move it — and unite the University hill with greater Syracuse. It makes sense. But can it happen? And if it doesn’t happen — if that gambit fails and 81 remains immovable in this generation — what happens next? Does the theater of this drama shift? Is there another, more geographically fortunate institution on that map that will have a chance to step up to the plate?

10 thoughts on “How to move a city

  1. Aaron

    Thanks for bothering to read my thesis :-)

    I’m not sure that a southwestern bypass isn’t still a philosophically bad idea – although clearly, the route would need to adapt. The primary problem people seem to have is that the 481 route around works for everything but that quadrant of the metro area – which is not unsubstantiated. Problem is it’s not exactly an easy problem to solve.

    Although, to be honest, what I’d much rather see before that is 5 finished as highway the rest of the way down to Auburn. That, unlike the bypass, is actually something holding Auburn back, I believe. It’s one thing to bisect cities with interstates… it’s quite another to neglect to connect them altogether.

  2. Ellen Post author

    There used to be a passenger trolley line running from Auburn, through Skaneateles and Marcellus (not Martisco Station) and straight into Syracuse into the general area where they wanted to later run a western bypass. I believe it came out somewhere around Onondaga Boulevard. I think it was called the Auburn and Syracuse Electric Railway. I am unclear on what route it took from Onondaga Boulevard to downtown Syracuse, however.

    The tracks are gone, but the grade is still there. Except some of it is now Route 175, I think. See here for a partial map.

    This line was killed by the automobile circa 1930, but now we’re back to thinking and talking about getting away from automobiles again (at least theoretically). In pondering what to do about modern transportation routes, it’s sometimes mistakenly assumed that there never WERE mass transit links through certain areas.

    Would today’s Skaneateles residents ride a train through Marcellus and Split Rock (northern Onondaga) into Syracuse to go to work? Because… and I’m going to be blunt, I’m going to be crass: Why don’t we stop worrying about how to make the middle-class suburban sprawlers in western Camillus and Van Buren and Baldwinsville happy? I say, show me the money. Tell me how to make the rich folks happy. The rich folks (on this side of town anyway) are in Skaneateles. Skaneateles beats Manlius and Cicero for old money any day of the week. Tell me how to bring them in directly and pleasantly to Syracuse’s west side and how to get them to take an interest in what’s going on (or not going on) in those neighborhoods, and get them to open their minds and more importantly, their wallets. I can’t think of a better way than a train ride, frankly. (As long as we’re dreaming.)

    I love the southwest metro region. We’ve got the rich, the middle class, the working class and the poor. I say we fix them up on a date somehow. You know, if the 81 thing doesn’t work out in this lifetime.

  3. Aaron

    I’m all for improving mass transit in the area.

    The problem you’re going to encounter is travelers. How do you get folks from south of Syracuse, for example, to the motocross park or whatever the heck it is they’re building in Van Buren? Or, say, the lifestyle center dealie they’re building in Camillus?

    The extra travel distance might be just enough to deter business in those areas. I’m not going to say that a highway would solve that… but it’s not like you’re going to get travelers to go, park downtown, and take trains to everywhere else… as much as I’d like the idea :-)

    Some form of off-road mass transit (like trains) really needs to come to Syracuse. Well-planned, with good and reliable routes, it could mitigate most if not all of the problems that removing 81 through the city would cause.

    Done wrong – or not at all – it could cause a commuting nightmare. Which is fine with me – outer suburban sprawl is an eyesore unto itself, and an exceedingly poor idea in the first place – but shutting off over 50% of Downtown’s workforce from Downtown isn’t exactly a good way of saving Downtown (again).

  4. Ellen

    How do you get folks from south of Syracuse, for example, to the motocross park or whatever the heck it is they’re building in Van Buren? Or, say, the lifestyle center dealie they’re building in Camillus?

    Maybe the motocross park developer should have thought twice about building in Van Buren, then.

    Why do we keep subsidizing exurban growth and the attendant “urban renewal”? I guess my flip question of the day is: What is so great about exurban populations that we have to do stupid things to please them all the time? Take a closer look — a lot of these people don’t really have all that much money to spend — and are in hock up to their eyeballs. Not QUITE so powerful. As for their being necessary for the workforce… well, if you educate and train your city population, the exurbanites can be replaced. They’re replaceable! (And deep down, they know it! why do you think there is such an outcry against removing 81?)

    All I’m saying is, let’s re-think where the power (i.e., money) really lies locally, and how we can get the powerful to interact with the powerless in a way they find desirable and that uplifts the powerless. I do not see these exurbanites as wielding too much economic power in the days to come. On the contrary, they will have even less initiative and economic power than they do now. Why keep catering to them?

    I suppose it is part of the tragedy of I-81 that this class of overextended exurbanites has been created… tragic for them, too.

    I merely submit a whiff of an idle speculation, that a very rich fellow might be charmed by the idea of a scenic train into the west of Syracuse for his morning commute to the office… cars being so bourgeois these days. A train that others could ride.

  5. Robinia

    Great post, very interesting comments.

    This question: Why do we keep subsidizing exurban growth and the attendant “urban renewal”? Is key, really. I don’t think that it is necessarily well-answered by the idea that we are catering to exurbanites who want to live there. It is often, I think, a bit darker than that, having to do with cronyism and real estate speculation. An excellent case-in-point is the Saratoga proposed water district with no customers. Read about it in blog comments (with links) here:

  6. sean

    i drove out to auburn the other day, taking i-690 to 695 and then onto rt 5. i hope no one ever messes around with a new interstate or high-speed highway in that area.

    the drive to auburn remains pastoral enough to create a sense of separation between cities and suburbs – and i like very much how auburn maintains a distinct identity, its own small center of gravity. whatever happens with i-81, i hope we don’t build any more interstates or their arterial spawn. it seems that it’s pretty easy to get around syracuse as it is, without adding any new highway trauma.

    as for rail, i hope i live to see the day. and if gas prices keep going the way they’re going, i just might.


  7. Ellen

    I find some of Aaron’s arguments about Auburn and transportation to be compelling, although of course, there is precious little “growth” to spread around in this region anyway, so maybe it’s academic…

    I’m sure everyone will have a lot more to say about highways and institutional expansion plans in the future. It would be really great to keep this conversation going on a weekly or bi-weekly basis in the new year. I’ll try to do my part.

    And looking for the leavings of the old Auburn-Syracuse RR might be a fun field activity now that I’m kind of Erie Canal-ed out.

  8. capwasteh20

    To Ellen and others asking about the old trolley line that ran from the terminal (now the Post Standard building) eventually to Auburn. What is now NY Rte 175 is part of the old Right of Way (ROW) from just outside the Village of Marcellus to the Skancellus Drive-in. The line also went through Split Rock as well. There were a number of “high speed lines” (avg speed 60 mph) throughout NY prior to the 1940’s..but not one issue killed the trolley lines as some have expounded. It was a combination of issues such as the growth of the automobile industry, improvements in highway construction and design, expansion of existing suburbs into rural areas, “sprawl”, the reduction in the value of agricultural land, and the Great Depression, and that’s just for starters. Call it the “Perfect Storm” if you want, but nevertheless it happened.
    Syracuse and the rest of the Metro area does not have the ridership capacity to support a mass transit line at this time. Centro is a highly subsidized agency that does not turn a profit what soever. Depending on your “economic” belief system, one may see it as a “necessary evil”..others may want to see it abolished since it can not stand on its own, economically. Americans in general (not only NY’ers) complain about taxes..well, that one of the programs that are supported on some type of revenue system. Trying to provide Trolley service is a RIDICULOUS proposal… unless you WANT to pay even HIGHER taxes. There are NO free roads and no free lunch. Please come back to reality.

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