“Voices” Open Letter to Syracuse and Onondaga County NY Residents, Taxpayers and Officials Re: The I-81 Elevated Park Option Revisited

Open Letter to Syracuse and Onondaga County NY Residents, Taxpayers and Officials by Jacob Alan Roberts. Photo: Providence Bridge Project

It’s been nearly four years since my commentary was published in the Syracuse Post Standard regarding the pending I-81 question. In the opening statement I promptly suggested that it was “one of the most important planning decisions to be made in the City’s modern history.” Today, it still is.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his recent State of the State address, the massive endeavor will break ground in 2022, going on the record as saying that the elevated viaduct, which rips right through the heart of many of our downtown neighborhoods, is “obsolete and poorly designed.” With the State leaning toward the “Community Grid” option and proposing to remove a 1.4-mile section of aging elevated highway that’s been determined to have outlived its useful life while rerouting highway traffic onto I-481, which loops around the edge of the city, and increasing the volume of surface-level streets and intersections, they hope to transform it into a “modern transportation corridor”. A concept, and promise, many locals struggle to envision.

After recent meetings with new head of the Department of Transportation, “Mayor” Pete Buttigieg, our own Mayor Ben Walsh was confident that the I-81 plan could become an example of how other, similar, highway projects can solve modern transportation problems, and also work to rebuild city neighborhoods, help the local citizenry, businesses and residential communities situated along this dated infrastructure, which is often home to a large percent of minority, poor and working class urban populations, recently saying: “They see I-81 as a prime candidate for a demonstration on how to do federal transportation projects the right way.”

In her public response to the proposed Grid solution, Lanessa Chaplin, Assistant Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Education Policy Center, offers a stark reminder, however, that the annals of history don’t necessarily reflect that much honesty, trust, stewardship, compassion or goodwill ever was, or is, at play when considering public works projects of this magnitude and with such potential for big time spending, civic enhancement and employment gains, stating that “The largely Black and brown residents living in the shadow of the viaduct will bear the burden of this redevelopment. And if what the Department of Transportation has proposed goes through unchanged, the residents in this community will be forced to live through five to seven years of construction with few protections. Children’s education will be disrupted and many residents may ultimately be displaced from their homes;” while highlighting other plan shortcomings.

Albany Skyway

Titled “Recycle I-81, that ‘epic eyesore,’ into an elevated park” back in 2017, I made the argument that the unsightly, eroding steel and concrete isn’t the problem, per se, it’s in how we decide to use it, or not. Should the viaduct have been built in the first place? No. Is it done carrying extremely heavy cars and trucks through town overhead? Yes. Does it need to be dismantled and thrown away? Not really. Rather than tearing it down and banishing its already industrialized materials and components to someone else’s backyard, and inviting nearly a decade of demolition and upheaval, as Ms. Chaplin kindly reminds us, I’ll re-suggest that this infrastructure instead be decommissioned as a vehicular roadway and technically re-dedicated as a pedestrian bridge under a lesser weight load classification, lightly reinforced and refurbished by local citizens and local labor.

Unbelievable? In 2018, less than a year after my OpEd was published, final designs for the “Albany Skyway” were unveiled. The project will convert a I-787 northbound exit ramp into an elevated park that connects the Corning Preserve with downtown Albany NY, serving as a catalyst for further property development while providing a unique venue for cultural programs. Plans to host a 5K race route, accommodate sunset strollers, host various forms of entertainment, and provide market and vending opportunities for musicians and artists, allow local officials and project proponents to provide an “iconic gateway” that serves as an attraction, a public space and better connects the whole city. Funded in part by the Environmental Protection Fund from the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, with a goal that the linear park will provide vibrant space for social gatherings, festivals, and other community affairs, while encouraging more walking and biking and to create a unique and desirable mixed-use ambiance that revitalizes their local economy.

Providence Bridge Project

Another highway “flip” that’s taken place over the past few years just unfolded a bit further to the east. Today, where a major highway once crossed a river in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, there’s now a pedestrian bridge that doubles as a stunning public park. Reusing the old, aging infrastructure wasn’t some big poetic idea fueled by beauty and grace, however, it boiled down to when the city learned how much money, and time, it would actually cost to remove the structure, they decided to leave it in place and build a pedestrian bridge instead. The project physically connects “College Hill”, home to Brown University’s main campus, to the “Innovation & Design District” downtown and with new waterfront parks and mixed-use developments; sound familiar? And like the “Seoullo 7017” highway conversion in Korea that I previously reported on, the Rhode Island design features terraced gardens on upper and lower decks, with plenty of benches for sitting and room for people to work, shop, host small events, or soak up the 360 degree views from above the horizon.

According to local officials, the structure has emerged as a symbol of the “New Providence”, quickly gaining popularity. For us here in Syracuse, it’s worth noting that, beyond cost savings, the decision also came about after leaders realized that tearing down the expiring bridge, which separated communities along racial and income lines for decades, was best served, instead, as a new public amenity and acting as a signal of unity. Rerouting noisey and polluting automobiles to another highway exchange a half-mile south of downtown and repurposing the old highway structure is “Upcycling” and “Adaptive Reuse” at their finest. By utilizing golden design principles often employed to turn old, deteriorating factories into fancy lofts or new office buildings, and applying them to another form of out-dated infrastructure, like roads, railways and highways, we endeavor to preserve our history while embracing growth and creating new opportunities; not simply erasing it.

South Korea highway conversion

Looking at the track record now established in Seoul Korea, which has been open to the public for three years, we clearly notice the range of positive effects the “Skygarden” project has had on the local citizenry, surrounding businesses and the economy as it has taken global tourism by storm, being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 must visit places in the world. Fifteen years ago, the old overpass was deemed unsafe and set to be demolished. After much consultation with residents and experts, the city instead came up with a plan to regenerate the overpass into a new pedestrian walkway and public space, they launched an international design competition, and chose a Dutch studio named MVRDV as winner. Now open 24 hours a day, the award winning park project re-uses an old existing structure, like the NYC High Line, in the form of an aging concrete flyover that was no longer deemed safe for its original purpose.

Providing stunning views, day and night, the conversion is a prime example of modern recycling and how we ought to view mega-engineering initiatives of this magnitude. It also aims to underscore a rapidly emerging set of fresh ideas about how we evolve a cold, grey, ugly urban blight, which was built without much consideration for public use and pedestrian movement, and give it the qualities of walkability, neighborliness, human scale and the enjoyment of its presence. Embracing an ethos and mantra of “revitalization” before “reconstruction”, we can make the city more pedestrian-friendly and livable by adapting the existing fabric to work in our favor, rather than removing it over a fondness for a clean-slate and new, ground up developments.

Now acting as a car-free zone, the old highway is further brought to life by a “library” of 24,000 indigenous trees and plants that are potted and arranged according to species, functioning as an urban “nursery” that earns steady revenue growing, selling and replacing its living inventory. So, instead of being wasteful, they have managed to turn something that was deemed worthless into an amazing public place not only for their local citizens but also growing numbers of visitors, going far beyond the context of a property or tax deal, and acting as a symbol and instrument for a major shift of their own behavior patterns; from car to bike and foot, from fossil fuel to human and electric power, and from greyscapes to greenscapes.

In 2016, the Georges Pompidou highway along the Seine River in Paris was filled up with traffic. Now, it’s permanently car-free, a new park covers the road with playgrounds and grass, while cafes and bike shops dot the cool site. Led by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has called automobile ownership “archaic”, the French capital is pushing policies that are based on the urgency of the looming climate crisis, going so far as banning diesel cars and trucks from city streets by 2025. Likewise in Toronto Canada, the “Green Ribbon” project proposes building a living roof over the existing elevated Gardiner Expressway, keeping the highway intact and providing Toronto with acres of new recreational parkland for pedestrians and cyclists, reducing the heat island effect, creating a sustainable civic environment, and generating clean energy through the use of photovoltaics.

I strongly feel that it’s going to be radical forms of design intervention, like these, that will help us make our city unique from all others. While some might have similar attributes, we have a prime opportunity to showcase something so stunning that can only be found in Syracuse, NY, like an elevated one mile park, a “sight to see” that everyone will want to visit at least once in a lifetime! Does the “Community Grid” achieve this target? Can we innovate and craft something that goes beyond incrementalism? Can we offer a long-term solution that won’t immediately become a dated and obsolete framework? The emergence of green tech and green living has spurred a huge shift in the construction industry regarding upcycled architecture, so why not lead the way?

According to leading officials, the plan is for us to be THE example. Yet, for one moment, imagine the litany of highway and railway overpasses that were built over fifty years ago across North America and are also nearing the end of their useful life, encapsulating millions of tons of material – rusting steel, crumbling concrete, much filled with asbestos and other toxins, petrol-based asphalt, engine chemicals and heavy duty highway paint, etc. If the tearing down and dismantling of the I-81 overpass is scheduled to be the shining example of what they should all do, too, where does all of that inherent “waste” go? Clearly, it’s much more affordable, sustainable and “green” to recycle the structure than to destroy it and build up new structures from scratch. In an effort to help keep unnecessary, harmful particulates out of our air, solid waste out of landfills and to limit unnecessary energy use from dismantling old, but durable and usable materials, we can instead invite new award-winning designs that build upon, underneath and right up to the edge of the old concrete decking, using it as a sturdy structural spine.

In nature, we know that trash does not exist. Organisms regenerate themselves and use dead organic materials as nutrition and building blocks for future growth. Imagine if our city’s urban environment had the capacity to metabolize in the same way! In this scenario, the reuse of existing stock will further enhance the identity, social and historical continuity of our community and its ongoing story. We have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive into an exciting exploration of urban upcycling which allows us the chance to reimagine and reconfigure ill-conceived, poorly designed and harmful structural interventions, like the I-81 aqueduct, into helpful tools in the process of achieving social change.

To underscore this issue, if the elevated segment is to be torn down, very few local, or regional, construction companies will be qualified to manage the scale and complexity of such a colossal endeavor, something akin to the infamous “Big Dig” in Boston, but inverted. As Ms. Chaplin and others, such as the Urban Jobs Task Force, who are fighting for fair contracting practices on publicly and privately funded projects like this one, have noted, there are few hiring provisions or protections built into the bidding process. Instead of a mega-project that mushrooms beyond our reach, therefore, I propose we shut down the highway overpass and work to transform its hulking remains into an asset, slowly phased out over years, reducing anticipated negative impacts and enabling us to react to unforeseeable changes in the near future, further integrating residents of the area, and hiring them, instead of displacing them.

I know that this pending project and this community-wide conversation evokes strong emotions, brings up bad memories and even has people deepening their divide, highlighting where they are at odds. But let’s also remember that our physical scars can speak for us. They say that we are strong, and that we’ve survived something that might have destroyed others. With the I-81 overpass, let’s allow it to demonstrate how resilient we’ve been, and how well we’ve mastered the lessons that our past suffering has made available. Let’s give this massive, unavoidable scar permission to be wildly expressive about the transformations we’ve been so fearless in achieving together. Let us allow our past wounds to heal us.