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May 2017

An Open Letter To: Andrew Cuomo, Governor of the State of New York; Matthew Driscoll, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation; Stephanie Miner, Mayor of the City of Syracuse; Joanie Mahoney, County Executive of Onondaga County; Members of The Urban Jobs Task Force; Members of the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council; Members of ReThink81; Local Designers and Planners; Sustainability Experts; my fellow Citizens; and the Media.

Concerning the vision, direction and promise of Syracuse’s future, the yet to be resolved “I-81 Question” is by far one of the most important planning decisions to be made and instituted in the City’s recent history. We have not played host to such a “mega” public works project since the controversial construction of this vast vehicular viaduct began in the early 1950’s, thanks to the vigorous federal highway-building programs laying miles and miles of new pavement at the time. In all actuality, considering the scope and impact of this massive multi-billion dollar initiative whether it is an elevated re-build, a boulevard / grid, or an underground tunnel - we could go even deeper into history books to a day in 1936 we lost our nickname as "the city with the trains in the streets” when the last of about sixty trains made its final run along Washington Street, ending 97 years of service…or even to the time the historic aquatic expressway we fondly call the “Erie Canal” was filled in and converted into Erie Boulevard in 1925, nearly a century ago! 
 That said, no where is the evolution of American transportation infrastructure more evident than right here in Syracuse, NY, where hand-dug, inland canals remain intact, side by side with foot and bike paths, dirty farm roads, 20th century heavy rail, antique downtown passenger train stations, old trolly lines, early automobile era boulevards and, yes, modern, elevated highways. Contradictory to the evocative memories of our “cruising” past, however, the reality is that I-81, specially the 1.4-mile elevated section slicing through neighborhoods and downtown, is a stark reminder of the horrible mistakes made in an effort to quickly “modernize” America after WWII. It’s emblematic of the great (subsidized) land rush which became de facto public policy and led to the disinvestment of many of our nation’s historic urban cores. It’s an unsightly daily reminder of how the suburban American Dream left our once great metropolitan centers to erode and die. Ironically, many of the people who made these detrimental decisions grew up in the 1930’s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, when our Nation’s downtowns were still vibrant; where their parents worked; families went shopping at the fancy department stores; the sidewalks and small shops were jammed with people; where there was an all night buzz and festivals and parades were held. Sadly, for many reasons, that compact, urban lifestyle fell out flavor and we must now re-build it. Which brings me back to the massive I-81 Q? According to NYSDOT, the outcomes of this fairly contentious transportation project will serve the city and region for the next 50+ years with an aim of it contributing to a “sustainable future that supports economic prosperity, improves quality of life, and promotes a healthy environment”. The chance, therefore, to re-envision an innovative alternative to the 70 year old viaduct is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Large portions of the highway are deteriorating and much of the elevated infrastructure does not meet current standards - so we know the time for action is now. What we don’t know is: What is the final concept that will replace what we’ve become accustomed to? Which option best serves the long-term sustainability of Syracuse, enhancing its economic growth, look and civic vitality? A good place to start is with the “visioning” process, not unlike what’s been achieved by several consultants and the folks at ReThink81. Notwithstanding, at the launch of any creative journey, especially one that touches upon a wound as deep as the uncompromising history of I-81 and the range of negative effects it has had, requires that all stakeholders share the same intention. Therefore, in my opinion, in pursuing this one-of-a-kind occasion to influence the next iteration of our “great wall” without having a clear, mutual intention of healing the city as a priority, to help revitalize its socio-economic depression, it won’t result in anything cathartic or even remarkable.

As we have learned, it can take generations to rebound from poor planning, near-sighted public works projects, shady developer deals, or the repeat failures of revitalization efforts, while new, fresh leadership becomes hampered by a worn down, “we tried that already,” civic mindset. And just like with other potential investments in the inner city, such as a regional farmers market, a baseball stadium, amphitheater, bus station, or other “main street” revitalization efforts, the I-81 project will, too, attract skeptics who’ll never see the point of bringing back a long-forsaken area. Already, many suburban residents who happily use the highway as their transit lifeblood, taking it unimpeded to and from job centers, recreational areas, entertainment destinations and basic services, such as schools and hospitals, are loudly complaining that if it’s turned into a streetlevel grid, then the extra drive time on I-481 will be “unmanageable.” Many also maintain that they haven’t been downtown in 20 years and a new “grid” would give them little reason to do so. Well, against all odds, our historic downtown has become increasingly vibrant over the past twenty years with more residents moving in, more students staying behind, more office complexes in-migrating, more public art and more small businesses opening. We can clearly see the motivation to repair, restore, and rebuild is alive and well; our hope is to find cohesion. For urban planners today, it’s clear that cities with vibrant downtowns, those which address: fun, clean, green, safe and walkable, have a better shot of recruiting or retaining the “creative class”. That often means more residents and more jobs, and more out-of-town and suburban visitors bringing outside money into the area - all great news to our boot-strapped public sector as it will begin to see fiscal benefits as a result, most of which will come from increased tax revenue. With quality lifestyle destinations like Austin, Madison, Boston, and Seattle beckoning our youth, entrepreneurs and future leaders, it’s fair to state that pursuing a purely suburban, cardominated metropolitan area will keep us at a competitive disadvantage for population growth. To date, numerous comprehensive, well conceived designs for the I-81 Viaduct Project have been presented to the public, and yet non of them fully address these current circumstances. The “do nothing” solution; the wider, larger, faster elevated highway solution; the boulevard / “community grid” solution; and even the tunnel solution perpetuate a automobile-dominated planning paradigm where the priorities of the driver far outweigh the priorities of the pedestrian.
 In an effort to help get this project “outside the box”, the citizen advocacy group ReThink81 has provided various case studies and lessons from other cities that have faced similar decisions and in so doing has contributed excellence to the planning and design process. Accordingly, they “support forward looking solutions that better utilize the existing street network to reduce traffic congestion and improve efficiency, while also accommodating pedestrians, cyclists and businesses on our city streets by enhancing the prospect for property development.” ie. their research team supports the demolition of the viaduct in favor of an at-grade “Community Grid”. 
 As a basis for their argument, the group contends that the Community Grid would cost almost half a billion less, would avoid the demolition of 20 downtown buildings. would require fewer years for construction. and would free up land in the center of the city for new development. After much consideration, I only partially agree with this hypothesis and don’t share in the vision.

To differentiate my stance, I will highlight an effort promoted by former Mayor of Syracuse and current Commissioner of the NYSDOT, Matthew Driscoll. During his administration, the city launched a new marketing campaign to spread the news of Syracuse's environmental efforts, playing off the city's existing assets such as the watershed, various municipal "go green" efforts, and the amount of environmental engineering firms, colleges and universities in the area. At the time, he proclaimed: ”We are a leader on the energy and environmental front…so why shouldn't Syracuse position itself as 'the Emerald City of New York State?’" Ultimately, he hoped the campaign would attract an even greater environmental focus to Syracuse; sounds phenomenal! Since we were children, we’ve learned about how the 3R’s (reducing, reusing, and recycling) can help our community and the environment by saving money, energy, and natural resources, so why not apply the same teachings to the I-81 viaduct? If you lived in a post-industrial city, like Syracuse, odds are good that it has its share of abandoned, blighted transit infrastructure; some cities demolish it, some let it fester, and others are repurposing it with true 3R thinking. What if, instead of demolition, we “recycle” that monstrosity of an elevated eyesore and confront it as a daily reminder of our long-standing traumas surrounding it’s construction, our displeasure with its appearance, it’s regular accidents and fatalities, and it being the greatest physical divide that our community’s been living with since Rosa Parks and the Eisenhower Administration? 
 We stand at this critical juncture today because I-81 does not meet current design standards as transportation infrastructure capable of safely managing cars, trucks and loaded-up 18-wheelers traveling at 55 mph, so it can no longer be used as a automotive highway in this condition. But why let it be demolished? Why not convert the elevated infrastructure into a raised, linear park, with space to enjoy the outdoors while viewing Syracuse’’s historic and fast developing skyline?

If this spectacular project is all about sustainability, connectivity, health, fun, and improving the overall environmental and social conditions of the city, I believe that it behooves the community, and all other decision makers, to seriously consider how a “retired”, fully repurposed, elevated viaduct transformed for pedestrian use provides glamorous new accessibility into downtown and forms a key connector for the area’s growing network of walk, roll, hike and bike trails. In the same spirit as New York City’s famous High Line “rail to trail” project, it would provide an unmatched, theatrical stage for amazing community gatherings; it would save tens of millions of our tax dollars on the proposed demolition or retrofit options; it would save many great buildings from the wrecking ball; and it would also ensure that the ogre becomes a prince, an unlikely ally. This would be no easy task, no doubt - but, so are the other options on the table. Converting the High Line from an out-of-use railroad trestle into a public landscape entailed not only years of planning, community input, and work by some of the city's most inventive designers, each segment took more than two years of construction. Yet, just like the grand wishes of early “Emerald City” advocates, the High Line provides NYC with a distinct, bold “green” structure by repurposing a piece of aging, ugly industrial infrastructure into a wildly successful public space. Additionally, just like the famed train conversion, the elevated I-81 landscape would function as as recreational jogging path, an outdoor art gallery, a botanical education center and a living roof featuring porous pathways so that water can drain and feed adjacent planting beds, cutting down on the amount of storm-water that runs off the site into the city’s sewer system, while also providing an elevated forest canopy eager to absorb emitted CO2 from the cars ad trucks below.

Seem farfetched? In 2005, Seoul Korea uncovered a former stream the government had paved over with an elevated highway in the 1950s and have since re-opened it as a popular, beautifully restored waterfront pedestrian zone. Moreover, Seoul has also decided to renovate a 3,000foot-long stretch of highway overpass that cuts directly through a dense part of the city, right next to the city’s Central Station. The elevated viaduct was built in the 1970s, but sank into disrepair over the years and due to the concerns about its structural integrity, it was to be razed. But around the same time, a new 3R idea was emerging in a number of other cities dealing with a blighted infrastructure problem, so when local planners decided that the overpass was no longer safe for heavy traffic and began studying all of the options on the table, just like I-81, they decided to take a different path: The highway will be turned into a tree-covered pedestrian path. “By converting the infrastructure into a pedestrian zone, Seoul is trying to reclaim the pedestrian quality of the city,” says Winy Maas, director and principal architect for MVRDV, the Dutch architecture firm that won a competition for the park’s new design. Called the “SkyGarden", the project will turn the forlorn highway into a lush public park with over 24,000 native plants and serve as an everyday transportation infrastructure. “Where the NYC High Line perhaps acts more like a leisurely park, the SkyGarden is located in the very center of Seoul,” says Maas. Visitors will be able to access the 55-foot-high park at specific points, which will feature 254 species of local trees, shrubs, and flowers, including maple trees and cherry blossoms arranged in alphabetical order so visitors can easily identify and learn about each one. Eventually, the vision is that the space will also serve as a nursery to grow plants for other parks in the city. A series of customizable activators such as tea cafés, flower shops, street markets, libraries and greenhouses will provide a catalogue of elements which will enliven the SkyGarden experience. On top of that, colorful lights will make the park glow like a massive sculpture in the evening.

The project is part of Seoul’s larger vision to make car ownership unnecessary by 2030, thanks to improved public transit and better pedestrian and bike networks throughout the city. That said, the SkyGarden will provide a new pedestrian shortcut to the city’s central train station, while new staircases and elevators will give people access along the length of the former highway, sparking new pedestrian planning in the adjacent neighborhoods. “It reorganizes the fragmented urban contexts into a green and friendly pedestrian network,” Maas says. One of the greatest lessons is that if the highway had simply been torn down, as originally planned, all of the existing infrastructure would have been wasted—and, the architects say, the city would have lost an important symbol. “This keeps the history and collective memory of the site,” says Maas. “For the Korean economy, the overpass is a symbol of Korean modernization. It was one of the first lifted highways in Korea. For Korean democracy, it was a venue for the democratization movement of the 1980s. And last but not least, for many citizens who had immigrated to Seoul from the country side, it was first experience of Seoul.”

To help the skeptic understand that this effort is also possible in the US, the “Pierce” elevated highway in downtown Houston, Texas is undergoing an economic feasibility study to see if it, too, could prevent the planned demolition of its infrastructure and transform it into the “Pierce Sky Park”, saving tons of money and industrial waste, while also raising tax revenue for the City. 
 According to their plans, it's not just the top of the freeway that would be transformed, either. As with the project in Seoul, they have put a premium on the vast amounts of covered space underneath. Without the traffic above, it could become a pedestrian and bike-friendly landscape of apartments, shops, offices, restaurants and other attractions; a truly pleasant place to be. 

Since the Texas Department of Transportation's proposal to re-route I-45 would make the Pierce Elevated Freeway unnecessary, urban dreamers in the Lone Star State are proactively asking, what could Houston do with a two-mile-long stretch of freeway-in-the-sky? I, too, believe that our State and local leadership should consider an outrageous solution to the I-81 quandary.

When the NYC High Line opened, against much opposition and snickering, they had predicted that the park could attract about 400,000 people a year - the actual number is closer to 6 million. Similarly, they'd predicted that the park would increase the value of nearby property in west Manhattan, boosting the city's tax revenue by $250 million over 20 years. Recently, New York City estimated that impact to be closer to $900 million. That’s right, a civilian-led project that cost $260 million to design and build is now spurring nearly $2 billion in nearby development.

The construction of Interstate 81 came with the forced displacement of nearly 1,300 residents from the city's 15th Ward. It devastated a historic black community, severing the social fabric of the community and razing swaths of buildings, and with them, affordable housing options. Neighborhood deterioration, a glut of surface parking lots, and citywide population loss followed. In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold, since the flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty; accepting the fact that your wounds are a big part of who you are. At a time when we have a chance to rip down I-81, it may seem counterintuitive to let it stand and refurbish it, but it doesn’t mean we can’t think the impossible. 
 The “Syracuse Skyway” or the “Peacemakers Pathway” concept is clearly a long shot, but some long shots pay off big. Hopefully, in the name a clean and green future, one full of innovation and sustainable, outside-the-box thinking, other cities around the world will follow suit when the urban planning faux pas of the past come due for demolition. For anyone who lives near these hulking, old, crumbling highways, like those of us here, such efforts can’t happen soon enough.

Respectfully Yours,
 Jacob Alan Roberts 
 Owner. Crystal City Creative Spaces Syracuse University Alum (VPA ’97)

I 81  

"A RADICAL NEW MODEL": An Open Letter to I-81 Stakeholders in Syracuse, NY.

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