Onondaga County Legislator, Charles Garland has become part of a group filing a lawsuit against the construction of the State and Federal Government approved Interstate 81 Project. Petitioners call themselves, Renew 81 for All. 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.
On November 10, 2022, New York State Supreme Court Judge Gerard Neri issued a Temporary Restraining Order, effectively halting on any work scheduled to be performed on the multi-billion-dollar Interstate 81 project. Meaning no action regarding Interstate 81 is to move forward, which includes construction on the project and the award of design or build contracts.
In the complaint they’re saying, “The Project would result in traffic delays and backups (making the Community Grid into Community Gridlock), force trucks to divert an extra 8 to 22 miles around the City of Syracuse (the “City”), or through local streets, and cause numerous unmitigated but avoidable negative environmental impacts.”
It continues “Petitioners seek to annul the Approvals because, inter alia, the environmental review process (the “SEQRA Review”) for the Project failed to comply with the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), Environmental Conservation Law (“ECL”) Article 8 (including the SEQRA regulations set forth at 6 N.Y.C.R.R. Part 617, and NYSDOT Procedures for Implementation of SEQRA at 17 NYCRR Part 15), and was therefore unlawful, arbitrary, capricious, and unconstitutional.”
As the region held meetings over an extended period of time. Many of these arguments were presented early in the process. However, there are some proposals such as the Sky Bridge Alternative that came in at the very last minute. Previous proposals to retain the viaduct were rejected by those participating in multiple sessions designed to obtain resident participation.
A statement, issued by Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh on the State Supreme Court’s Preliminary Injunction on the Interstate 81 Viaduct Project;
“The preliminary injunction is another unnecessary delay to progress on the Interstate 81 project. It risks a setback to local people who need the jobs and opportunity that the $2 billion-plus infrastructure investment will create. The project has undergone a rigorous multi-year state review and is authorized by a federal Record of Decision. It should continue to move ahead, and I look forward to the State’s response to the judge’s ruling. The City is focused on working with the New York State Department of Transportation and local stakeholders to achieve the full benefits of the Community Grid alternative. We’ve also worked shoulder to shoulder with local, state and federal partners to make sure local residents get the training and preparation they need to build careers.”
The Renew 81 for All proposal included continuation of the viaduct, altered to become an iconic bridge passage. This case claims the following: Respondents failed to take a “hard look” at a reasonable range of alternatives to the Project, which would have mitigated its significant environmental, economic and social impacts, including the Harriet Tubman Memorial Freedom Bridge alternative (the “Bridge Alternative”), and irrationally rejected the “Viaduct Alternative,” which would have replaced the function of the Viaduct at a greater height…… Crucially, the Project did not adequately evaluate the significant local and regional traffic and associated environmental impacts that would be caused by putting a large share of the 96,000 vehicles per day on local streets in the same minority neighborhoods the Project is allegedly designed to enhance and protect, and failed to demonstrate how the Project would serve environmental justice.
Urbancny.com interviewed Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland about the Lawsuit and why are these actions being taken by Renew 81 for All. Who’s financing this lawsuit? Garland’s response was, “Me and others on the committee are paying for this.” There are no breakdowns of cost distribution or documentation of other litigants. However, additional complainants may be added, as there has been increased interest in those attempting the change the trajectory of the Interstate 81 project.
Why the lawsuit, can you explain to people why this lawsuit is necessary?
Garland: Well, the lawsuit is necessary because the overall impact of this project. First of all, a lot of people forget when the I-81 project was first evolved and this was around 2006, 2007 as a result of a rethink I-81 plan. What this plan did, it came about because some of us remember, with a lot of the crime that was happening especially in the university area and some of the areas they own. They control or they own Madison towers, Harrison towers some of those buildings. some of that crime, they felt it was coming out of the public housing area.
So, what they did, pioneer homes has five entrances. At that time this was in 2005, they decided to put mechanical arms blocking people off, corralling us in there. We fought that, they wound up taking that down. After that, that’s when they established this group that came up and had this study. Now, what’s interesting is, a part of that group; it was Ben Walsh and Sharon Owens at that time, and several other people. But that was then, now of course; Ben is the mayor and Sharon Owens is Deputy Mayor.
So, what you have is these people who have this plan and that’s what it is, it was all about taking down I-81 and the viaduct and reconnecting the SUNY/ Hill with downtown. There’s nothing in this plan, anything altruistic about saving African Americans or anything.
So originally, when this plan first came out, they got a lot of social outrage from the northern areas, Clay, Salina, DeWitt. All these areas built up economically upon 81. There was only when they faced that social backlash, (and please if there’s any journalists out there or you can do it yourself) look at the timeline. That’s when they racialized it. That’s when they decided, “OK, now we’re going to say that we’re doing this project with this altruistic notion of saving African Americans and other people living in the shadow of I-81. We’re going to save them from the overhead traffic, the toxins, pollutants, everything involved with that. But what they didn’t say or tell anyone was they planned on redirecting all of that overhead traffic, toxins, carcinogens, right back into the South side area. Of the most densely populated Black American census tracts. While at the same time redeveloping two of the most affluent census tracts bordering the viaduct that connect the hill and also downtown.
What would you like to happen as a result of taking this legal action?
Garland: I’d like, what I’ve always wanted. And that’s to have an honest discussion, laying out the facts laying out the problems involved. In terms of social, economic, health, environmental problems, all the facts are there. The testing wasn’t done, there were certain studies, there were polls that were taken.
We need to sit down, we need to actually look at what they want done, which is OK. I’ve always said, progress is good, if we have an opportunity to make Syracuse this artistic, cultural, technological hub, and that’s a beautiful thing. But I also feel that progress should benefit everyone, not just a select few.
So, what we want, is we want to have this opportunity where we can come, and we can sit down. They want a Grid, that’s fine. No one has me on record ever saying I do not want that Grid. What I’ve always said, and others, is it should be supplemented. Sure, parts of 81 have outlived its structural life. The viaduct represents an ill and a historic wrong.
My family, we had a Funeral Home was on the east side. When they put in 690 and 81, we lost our Funeral Home and our property. That’s what this represents right now. But functionally (81) it still has a use, and that’s conveying traffic out of the area. So, get rid of what we have right now, that represents this ill. There’s no reason it could not be replaced with something and have a compromise. Have the Grid in some way of you know, moving this (traffic) out.
A wonderful thing happened, the Harriet Tubman family, they came on board. We had this idea for the Harriet Tubman Freedom Memorial Bridge. It was going to be a wonderful bridge, conveying this traffic, lit up, pointing right up to the North Star. This family was villainized, I was villainized, anyone that came up with this plan was villainized. We had a party for the family matriarch Miss Pauline Johnson, right in Wilson Park. It was a wonderful thing, she stood up she was interviewed she said it was her idea. It was a wonderful thing. At the end of the day, a newspaper reporter had the nerve to call her a liar. That’s something that was wrong, and it never should have happened.
Have you spoken with members of the Syracuse Common Council regarding these actions and if not, why ?
Garland: Well, as far as the legal suit, no. No one on the City Council has reached out to me, and of course because it is a legal suit, legal action there’s only so much that I can talk about. Certain things are already public knowledge, yes. But once again, we all know each other, they’re my friends, I respect all of them, I’d like to think likewise. On my account, if they ever want to reach out then I’m always here.
But then you have to look at the past, the history of it. Who has been really vocal in this fight? And that’s one of the issues. We’d like to see more politicians, other people that are active. Especially, that have the experience of the past history of this, speaking out. But let’s be realistic, once again these are friends of ours, we know them, we love them. I can’t begrudge someone who is looking after their livelihood, when their paycheck is being written by the city or the state or the county and they feel that there might be some retribution if they speak out.
I know you mentioned something about gentrification and what’s about to happen, could you elaborate?
Garland: Well, this has always been a gentrification project. If anyone would ever like to contact me, once again it starts from the rethinking I-81 plan. 2007 that’s when the plan was once again, to move 4 to 5,000 people out of Pioneer Homes, Central Village all of that area. With no plan of housing or anything. They just wanna give them vouchers.
Then they have this plan; Blueprint 15, Syracuse Surge, we’ve already seen this massive explosion downtown. Everywhere you look, it’s apartments and housing and it’s a wonderful thing. I just had a meeting with Marty Skahen, and some other people downtown. Marty is in the Onondaga County Economic (Development) Office. So, we met there, I was already worried that they had apartments downtown where the rents were $3,000. He pointed out some apartments down there where they’re $5,000. Now, we already have that. Then you have blueprint 15. Basically, they’re talking about mixed-use market rents and things like that. That’s gonna be gentrification. So, my thing has always been, why does urban renewal always mean black removal?
Now, SU and this has been under the radar not a lot of people know about it. Last month, they began this program. They have a map; it goes from Adam Street down to Brighton. I think it stretches over almost over to South Ave., but right along Onondaga Creek. What they’re doing is, they are encouraging their professors’ and staff to come on the South Side. Which any of us that live here on the South Side, knows that they have always discouraged them from doing anything on the South Side. But right now, and once again, it hasn’t been publicized. This was announced in September 2022, Syracuse University Expands Local Housing Purchase Plan for Employees.
They want them to come on the South side, where we live, right next door to me and everyone else over here. Buy houses, buy land, buy property and they will finance their mortgages 100% and this is what we’re doing right now, that is gentrification.
That’s gonna drive up the property rate. Some of the homeowners here, once they were made aware of it, they’re calling me. Especially older people on fixed incomes. What’s going to happen to me?
But this is what happens, SU sees this economic boom downtown, they see what’s going to happen, merging those two census tracts right by the viaduct. Moving everybody out of pioneer homes and all the housing, that property values, those are going to skyrocket. They’re just looking ahead, as they’ve always done. They’re going to come over here, and that’s what it is.
They’re going to gentrify, these property taxes, they’re going to raise. The property value, that’s gonna raise. Once the property values raise, that’s gonna make it harder to come on the South side or anyplace else and build affordable low-income housing. And that’s what people seem to forget; the judge looks at the totality of everything. And this is why it is called gentrification. And those of us that have lived through this, we understand that.