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Southside Residents, Local, State and Federal Leaders Rally to Reaffirm Support for the Community Grid

“I live here and I’m sick of people personally, that don’t live here, that are making decisions about where I live, and how I live.” Tara Harris, a long time SHA resident & Blueprint 15, Board Member

On November 22nd 2022 supporters of the Community Grid held a media event in response to legal actions taken by the group, Renew 81 For All.  At most events held for the media, there are speakers; usually elected leadership or persons holding highly visible positions within the Syracuse community. This media event was held in support of the Community Grid and the removal of the Viaduct that has cut through the city of Syracuse for over 5 decades. While there was an extensive list of political leaders in attendance, community-based speakers took centerstage.

A group called, Renew 81 for All has filed a lawsuit in an effort to stop the Interstate 81 project. Members include, President Frank L. Fowler, Charles Garland; Garland Brothers Funeral Home, Sheldon S. Williams, Donna Curtin, Nathan Gunn, Ann Marie Taliercio, Town of DeWitt, Town of Salina, and Town of Tully. Renew 81 for All was formed in an effort to halt the project as they’re getting ready to award various contracts.

New York State Supreme Court Judge Gerard Neri, on November 11th granted a Temporary Restraining Order, effectively stopping any work on this multi-billion-dollar project.

The project went through a vigorous vetting process as New York State Department of Transportation, Syracuse Housing Authority and the newly formed Blueprint 15 presented their plans for a Community Grid. For those that claim they weren’t aware, what to do with Interstate 81, has been a topic of multiple meetings that solicited participation of the entire community, not just those living in the shadow of the viaduct.

The New York State Department of Transportation released a list of Stakeholders and Public Meetings, identified as “Appendix M-1 Stakeholder and Public Meetings_July 2021“. This report is over 50 pages long, documenting the period May 1st, 2013 through May, 26th 2021.  The New York State Department of Transportation planned and held meetings with the immediate neighborhood and the entire region which is to be impacted by the Interstate 81 project.

This project transforms the Central New York Region, it’s about more than a one mile section moving through Syracuse.   Click Here for Virtual Tour /Artists renderings of project 

Syracuse Housing Authority had already begun planning for radical change to take place in their properties. Long before plans were presented regarding Interstate 81 and the viaduct, Syracuse Housing Authority had embarked on a plan to alter public housing as we know it. Dozens of acres of property to be redeveloped as funding for traditional Public Housing no longer exists.

The New York State Department of Transportation released their DEIS report regarding the plan. Immediately there was an outcry regarding a roundabout in front of Dr. Martin Luther King School. Changes were then made to the finalized Interstate 81 project. In July 2022 Mayor Ben Walsh issued a statement in part read, “The DEIS confirms the Community Grid is the best alternative to replace the Interstate 81 Viaduct and generate positive transformation. The comprehensive evaluation resolves many of the concerns raised about the Community Grid.”

Harriet Tubman Memorial Freedom Bridge

There have always been those that did not want any changes made to the viaduct as it traverses the core of downtown Syracuse. The viaduct option was debated and lost. Even after the continuation of the viaduct was rejected. A last-minute proposal was presented in August of 2022, called the ‘Harriet Tubman Memorial Freedom Bridge’ which would be 60 ft. high to meet federal highway construction standards and have decorative lighting as proponents have said, “leading to the North Star”.  The proposal came as a last minute “hail Mary” in an attempt to alter the route of the project, presented in August of 2022.  According to those familiar with the Sky Bridge alternative said, “it was still reviewed, a late submission, even as the period of comments was about to close.”

Proponents of the Interstate 81/Community Grid project were stunned, as many had participated in multiple sessions scheduled for direct community involvement with the plan. Those signed on to support the Community Grid include the following;

Community Grid supporters rally

Residents of Syracuse Housing Authority properties, Southside neighbors, Syracuse Common Council President Helen Hudson, Members of Syracuse Common Council, Members of Syracuse City School District Board, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, County Legislature Minority Leader Chris Ryan, County Legislator Linda Ervin, County Legislator Mary Kuhn, State Senator Rachel May, State Senator John Mannion, Assemblymember Pam Hunter, Assemblymember Al Stirpe, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, Dewitt Town Councilor Kerin Rigney, NYCLU Attorney Lanessa Chaplin, Jubilee Homes Executive Director Walt Dixie, and Syracuse Build Executive Director Chris Montgomery. Most of those listed appeared at the event, however they remained in the background while community members spoke for themselves.

The action by Judge Gerard Neri and those wanting the viaduct to continue, forced supporters of the Community Grid to hold a press conference. Speakers were there to lend their public support to the project.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Interstate 81 Viaduct Project was published on April 15, 2022, a major milestone that keeps this transformative project on track to break ground in the fall of 2022. Final Environmental Impact Statement for I-81 Project Is Now Available.

However, with the restraining order in effect, all timetables for the project are on pause. Training programs, contracts awards, have come to a screeching halt.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke about the Interstate 81 plan and efforts to derail the largest project ever undertaken by New York State DOT.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand, “I was deeply disappointed and frustrated to hear of the legal hold placed on the 81-community grid project. This is an ill-conceived lawsuit that would needlessly cost taxpayers 10s of millions of dollars. It will stall progress on more than $2 billion of investment into this community and our local economy and it will delay training, jobs and opportunities for our local residents. Especially in our black and brown communities that have been deeply impacted by I-81 while the highway itself continued to literally fall apart. We cannot allow this monumental endeavor to be held hostage by a lawsuit, that failed to recognize the extraordinary value that this project will bring to this community. I was proud to be the first federal official to come out in support of the community grid alternative in 2018 because I knew then that it was the right thing to do to create a more equitable and prosperous Syracuse. I knew that then, because by 2018 the project had already been under discussion for a decade. The New York State DOT considered multiple alternatives when developing this plan, the community grid was chosen because it was really the best option for this city and this community. With huge investments coming to the region like Micron technologies commitment to building a computer chip plant. It’s more imperative now than ever that this project stay on track. Today we stand united with this community, because we and they are fighting to keep this project on track and we will do whatever it takes to get it across the finish line, thank you so much.”

Residents also took to the microphone to denounce attempts to keep the viaduct running through their neighborhood.

Tara Harris, a long time SHA resident, and Blueprint 15 board member, spoke to those gathered.

Tara Harris speaks at Interstate 81 event

Harris, “I’m a 34-year resident of Syracuse Housing Authority and before that I was born in Central Village. So, all my life I’ve been living in Syracuse Housing. I’m gonna start off by saying I am in favor of the community grid, I live here and I’m sick of people personally, that don’t live here, that are making decisions about where I live, and how I live. We are ready to move forward with the community grid. I’m tired of all the stalling it’s tiresome.

My work is letting the community know what’s going on. So, I tell them we’re on track for one thing, then the project is halted.  Now, I have to answer more questions from the community about what’s going on. The bridge is not safe we all know that, I walk under it every day. It’s falling apart literally, when it’s raining the flood it’s up to here. It’s not safe, we need more connectivity. It’s like we are on this side, we have everybody else on the other side. I’m tired of that, I would like to put ‘neighbor’ back in neighborhood once and for all.

Robert Mike, President of Syracuse Housing Tenants expressed the frustration felt by those living in the immediate area of the viaduct.

Mike, “I would just go ahead and say this, ‘enough is enough’ we’ve been dealing with this for years now. It’s not something that just happened last week, this happened over years ago. We’ve been discussing the tear down of this bridge, of this highway that’s behind us, that’s falling down. Matter of fact when you leave here today, drive up under it and ask yourself, ‘would you want to drive up under there every day?” Ask yourself, ‘would you want your child to walk up under there every day?’. There are kids around here that have to walk from this side to that side. So, when they leave from this side to go to that side, something falls on them, then what we’re going to do, we’re going to say? ‘Hey, they should have done something along time ago’.

This bridge is outdated, in fact it’s older than me, and I am pretty old. So, it’s time for that bridge to come down, it has to come down. We stalled too long, matter of fact while we’re stalling, this is just a tactic that, I ain’t going to say the political party that uses it. They’re just stall tactics, that’s all they’re doing, they’re stalling and stalling and stalling. While they’re stalling, it costs us money, while it’s costing us money, we can’t do what we need to do. So just tear down the bridge let’s get it over with.”

In a published report Syracuse’s Interstate 81 stands out as one of the 15 worst urban highways in America. Click on following link to read the report. Interstate 81 is one of the 15 worst urban highways in American cities, according to new Freeways Without Futures Report

McKinney Manor- phase 1 of SHA

It was clear from the broad array of support for the project, that detractors, such as Renew 81 for All have not made a connection with those people who live in the area adjacent to the viaduct.  A mixture of frustration and anger was expressed at the media event, directed at the group assembled to fight the Community Grid.  It’s become clear, the collective leadership of SHA residents, elected officials and community members are supporting the Community Grid. To be fair there are those who’ve remained silent that want the viaduct to remain in its current location. However, the vast majority of those opposed to the project reside far away from the viaduct.

Despite their claim of being advocates for all, it was clear from the depth and breadth of voices emanating from the immediate viaduct area, the group, Renew 81 for All is speaking for a small number of people weighted heavily in favor of those who don’t live anywhere near the viaduct. While funding for this legal action is said to be shared by litigants; there still isn’t a breakdown of who’s paying what, how much does it cost to finance this lawsuit? Organizers of the media event are hopeful that the project will be allowed to continue after the Interstate 81 Temporary Restraining Order is adjudicated.

 

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