June 29, 2014

Meet Me at Viaduct Park

If someone were to ask me what I think about the many proposals on the table for the I-81 project, I'd say they were trying to do too much, and too little, at the same time.

There's lots of information out there on this project, including several recent articles by Teri Weaver (@TeriKWeaver) on Syracuse.com and the I-81 Opportunities page, where I've been learning what's going on. It looks like the primary focus, after having some 16 or so options initially, is now centered on a new viaduct or a street-level boulevard, with multiple iterations of each.

Here's a quick overview of the viaduct choices: It'll be taller, a lot wider, and most likely straighter, in order to fully meet federal standards.  It'll be a 55 MPH road for the most part, although the most Kardashianesque version would recommend only 50 MPH. All versions require some building demolition in addition to the viaduct demo and rebuild. All versions would cause a couple of dead President streets (Madison and Monroe) to dead end where today they don't. Costs are in the $1.4 billion range.

The boulevard options involve re-routing traffic to the east of Syracuse, by re-designating I-481 to I-81. In addition, we'll have one or more streets totaling two or three northbound and two or three southbound lanes, either on the existing Almond Street footprint, or using an existing road to handle southbound traffic, or building a companion road next to Almond St. There will be bike lane and parking lanes and street scaping and all that. All of these options are in the $1.05 billion range. Streets would have to close for this option as well.

Both the boulevard options and the viaduct options also include some changes to I-690 ramps, and a connection from I-690 East to I-81 North and from I-81 South to I-690 West, referred to as the missing link. 

I admit I have to check out the larger versions and videos and information; looking at the options in the online renditions is difficult, but at this point none of the options are speaking to me.

  • I don't see that tearing down more buildings to accommodate highways, in a city that has too many empty lots already (commercial and residential both), is a good thing. Especially given our history of tearing down buildings - and neighborhoods - to build the highway in the first place.
  • I also don't have a warm fuzzy about trying to cross a six or eight lane boulevard to get from downtown to the educational/medical complex on The Hill. 
  • And I'm not enamored at all about sending all of the 'tourists' outside of town via I-481 and not bringing them back.  

Tourists -- intentional or accidental -- bring people and their money into town.  They eat at restaurants if they can get to them.  They shop at stores in the neighborhood where they eat. I know this because when we travel we're frequent "jump off the interstate to find coffee and a bite to eat" people, and we'll park and walk around a bit, and shop, and take pictures and so on. And we always seem to find other people doing the exact same thing. It's possible we're in the minority, folks who would rather find something local than stop at a fast food joint, but is this how we want to stake our future?

What idea am I fond of?  The one that NYSDOT apparently never thought of (which in and of itself is almost unbelievable): use I-481 to I-690 to (existing) I-81 as the new traffic path, sending people back to (and through) the city. I know there would need to be some work getting the ramps and traffic patterns figured out but it seems that it would almost have to cost less than a billion and would likely call for even further reduced demolition. It appears now that NYSDOT will be looking into this one to see if there's any viability. If they accept it, we could generally keep Almond Street pretty much as is, with some cosmetic changes, and save the money for something big.

NYS DOT photo
How big? What I would love to see is DOT leaving up part of the current elevated I-81, and make our own joint Syracuse - Onondaga County Viaduct Park, similar to New York City's Highline.

The Highline is an inner city park built on the site of elevated train tracks on the west side of Manhattan.  What was once an abandoned rail line is now a beautiful park, open year round, and a model for similar projects here and in other countries.

For us to do it in Syracuse (roughly in the part of the viaduct in the red box, but the actual southern and northern borders would have to be determined by NYSDOT engineers)  it would take collaboration, creativity, and a desire to look past the obvious and coming up with a new way to make use of something whose current 'useful life' is about to end.

So, how could we get there?

  • Allow traffic to continue exiting downtown from existing I-81 north.  If the Harrison Street off-ramp can be saved, that makes it easier.  Traffic exists there, maybe with two exit lanes, and the southbound viaduct gets disconnected for all other traffic. Folks wanting to head south on I-81 from the city would use the existing on-ramp off Adams St.  (If the exit won't work at Harrison, it doesn't kill the idea, it just means the viaduct will be cut off north of there.
  • From the south, have two lanes exit 81 onto Almond Street, and the northbound viaduct gets cut off. Access to I-81N would happen in the new mix of ramps that are included in the Boulevard options.
  • Once the cuts are made and the highway is ended at the exits, the elevated portion of the highway between those two points becomes Viaduct Park. 
  • Add access points at each end and in the middle, using a combination of ramps, stairs, and pedestrian bridges.  At least one access on each side would need to be an elevator. 
  • Engage the folks from local colleges, most importantly SUNY-ESF and Cornell, because we'll need landscape designers, maybe even a contest, to come up with the best plan which would ideally include a combination of covered and uncovered places, seating areas,  a measured walking path, and native landscaping. Maybe a portion could be used as an educational space where master gardeners help community gardeners?
  • Engage the Save the Rain people to make sure we are incorporating re-use of rainwater and snow runoff, similar to how we're doing it at the War Memorial.
  • Engage local engineering firms to assist with the project, particularly those with green building and alternative energy experience, so we can figure out two things: (1) how to make it brighter underneath the park, one of the big concerns with the existing viaduct (and in part why the new viaduct options include making it so much higher) and how to use solar energy to light the park itself. 
  • The primary mode of transportation in the Park would be feet, but if necessary incorporate a couple of spots so that folks on bikes won't be forced across the busy Boulevard, but could go up and over it to get to the other side.

Seriously -- if we're going to spend  over a billion dollars, let's get something out of it that will bring people to Syracuse, rather than having them just fly on by. Why don't we think about engaging people rather than only on getting them from A to B as fast as possible?

Think it's crazy? Well, in addition to the Highline, check out the Bridge of Flowers in Shelbourne MA, built on an abandoned trolley line.  Or, check out  the Walkway Over the Hudson, a state park build on an abandoned railroad bridge over the Hudson River. Those two are very different realizations of similar ideas: rather than tearing something down, make use of it, and more importantly, create a tourist attraction where there was none.   

What could Viaduct Park become? 
  • A place to hold our city festivals that doesn't require shutting downtown streets for multiple weekends each year, causing nightmares for businesses, pedestrians, and motorists. Or, if we were bold, a way to have multiple festivals downtown at the same time, with Centro shuttles running between them...  
  • An elevated place from which we could watch fireworks over downtown...
  • A place that people would come to, on purpose, and then branch out into the city for food and other entertainment, spending much needed dollars at our local businesses...  
  • A compliment to the downtown historic district and to the renewed Inner Harbor, connected via marked walking trail to the Creekwalk...
  • The possibilities are only limited by our creativity and vision. 

What do you think, want to meet me at Viaduct Park?