The debate over I-81 on Syracuse.com has been pretty heated lately. It’s great to see so many people participating and so much interest in the future of our city. There are many examples of cities across the country that went through what Syracuse is going through. For me, as an architect and urban designer, I strongly feel that a boulevard will reunite the city, allow for multi-modal transportation options, promote density and improved property values and create economic growth on a scale that we have not seen since the highway was erected.
This point of view comes from experiences in cities across the country that have taken the initiative to focus more on people and less on traffic. Many cities have successfully removed bisecting highway in favor of walkable communities. Architects, urban planners, transportation officials spend their lives orienting the built environment to best suit the neighborhood and occupants that use the infrastructure and spaces. We attend trade shows, lectures and conferences to stay ahead of the rapidly changing urbanization of America’s cities. In fact, the Congress for New Urbanism, a leading organization dedicated to creating vibrant, healthy communities listed the I-81 Viaduct as one of its top 10 Freeways without a Future, citing that replacing the highway with a street level boulevard is the most cost effective and sustainable solution.
So what’s wrong with continuing a highway through Syracuse? In order to rebuild the highway, the lanes need to be widened significantly. Many properties along the corridor would need to be demolished to accommodate the construction and addition of new connection points and ramps. Syracuse would actually lose properties from the tax rolls, some of them with historic designations. The length of the highway would remain barren, as large pillars of concrete and dark bridges are not conducive to socialization or walkability. The city would remain divided, neighborhoods separated from each other and limited by the continued mistake of I-81.
And then there is the tunnel option. In theory it’s great. It would allow for high speeds and would move traffic past downtown. But there are many flaws for Syracuse. Tunnels are massive. Even when created for urban centers, tunnels require large leads into and out of them. These leads will devastate land values surrounding them, which should be some of our highest valued property in the heart of the city center. Also, how do you disperse from a tunnel? You are captive from point A to B with no opportunity to explore the city and nowhere to go if there is an accident. The delays will back up through the tunnel and affect connecting roads such as I-690. And then there is the outrageous cost, construction timeline and maintenance associated with digging a tunnel. These reasons and more have already lead the DOT to rule out a tunnel as an option.
A well designed boulevard would be walkable, incorporate properly timed lights and move traffic more adequately and efficiently throughout the city than a highway. A highway would serve people who live outside the region as opposed to those who travel in it. Re-routed traffic patterns would open opportunities for commerce along the boulevard characterized by stores, restaurants, sidewalks cafes and green space. And for those suburban entities that fear that the removal of a highway would hurt their business, quite the opposite is true. A stronger core, designed to attract people and business will add value to suburban properties, will encourage visitors and tourists to explore the region and will even provide a better connection to the suburbs. There is a lot of potential for our large and small businesses to promote each other, to buy from each other and to invest in their own community. A strong downtown core will create economic development, provide more revenues, support higher incomes, create better jobs, and distribute more money for the consumer who lives in your backyard, to spend in your establishments. Someone passing your store at 4o miles an hour on a street past your store is much more likely to stop than someone passing by at 80 miles an hour 30 feet in the air.
No doubt, there is a place for highways, as they are the backbone of American commerce and recreation and they tie together communities across regions. They provide transportation of goods and services, economically and efficiently, and when designed with the latest methods of highway design, they are wondrous technological achievements. However, highways are meant to allow for high speeds and long distance destination oriented travel. When considering an urban environment, it is not necessary to push high speed traffic through the heart of a city. Local commuters and suburbanites traveling into or out of downtown can use many alternative routes to get to their destination. Thru-traffic drivers will have options to travel around the city or explore the city at more reasonable speeds, which in turn would create many opportunities for business owners along boulevard routes. Economically, socially and environmentally speaking, a street level boulevard is the way to go.