Tear Down 81?

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York)

October 21, 2008 Tuesday




BYLINE: By Greg Munno Civic engagement editor


LENGTH: 1020 words

When a mid-sized American city started talking about fixing an aging highway that cut through its center, a few people said they’d rather see the road torn down.

The most common response: It can’t be done.

Traffic will clog local streets, the skeptics said. No one will come downtown anymore. It will cost too much.

But developers started talking about how desirable the land beneath the highway could be. Then the price tag for fixing the elevated highway came in at a whopping $100 million.

So the highway came down — at a cost of about $25 million — and was replaced with a ground-level road that fit neatly into the city traffic grid — for about $20 million more.

A Fortune 500 company moved its headquarters into the newly created landscape, sparking $450 million in development. The value of land adjacent to the highway increased 180 percent in five years. The acute traffic congestion created at the old highway’s off-ramps disappeared. It actually became easier to get around.

Welcome to Milwaukee, Wis., one of several cities that has done what Syracuse is just starting to seriously consider: removing a major elevated highway in favor of a more local road.

The Onondaga Citizens League is in the midst of a yearlong study looking at what should become of Interstate 81, which, despite opposition from Mayor Anthony Henninger, The Post-Standard and other prominent people and institutions, plowed through the center of Syracuse in the mid-1960s.

The Citizens League is specifically looking at the portion of elevated roadway that runs through downtown Syracuse.

“It is important to remember that something has to be done. The elevated portions of 81 are nearing the end of their useful life,” said Sandra Barrett, the Citizen League’s executive vice president, at a presentation last week on the findings of the study so far. “The investment to replace it or to take it down is going to have to be made.”

Bill Egloff, of the state Department of Transportation, echoed that sentiment. “The last thing you want to do is continue with emergency repairs that extend the life of the structure without permanently fixing it. That’s not a good use of your taxpayer dollars.”

In that context, the Citizens League is studying four options:

Replacing I-81 with another elevated highway.

Replacing it with a street-level boulevard like the one in Milwaukee.

Replacing it with a tunnel.

Replacing it with a “depressed” highway that would be below street level but wouldn’t be as difficult or as expensive as a tunnel.

Barrett, along with fellow Citizen League presenters Doug Sutherland and Rebecca Livengood, emphasized that the Citizens League has a lot of study left to do before making a recommendation, which it expects to unveil in February.

“It is really important to get all the ideas out there and study each independently and completely,” Barrett said. “Otherwise, you get to the point where you make a recommendation, and someone says, ‘What about a tunnel?’ and you can’t give them an answer that has been thoroughly investigated.”

Livengood pointed out that nearly 40 percent of the 100,000 vehicles that travel on I-81 through Syracuse daily aren’t making any local stops and could just as easily bypass the city on Interstate 481. She also pointed out that most local traffic into Syracuse is coming from the more populated suburbs north, east and west of the city — commuters who would not be affected by tearing down the portion of I-81 the Citizens League is studying.

Sutherland, a developer who played a major role in the creation of Franklin Square, presented several other examples of cities that have ripped down interstates in addition to Milwaukee.

San Francisco has done it twice. That city tore down the Central Freeway and, in the process, transformed a blighted neighborhood into a swank mixed-use district. It also knocked down the Embarcadero, a freeway that cut San Francisco off from its famous waterfront district, which is now ringed with parks.

City residents shot down early attempts to remove those highways in referendums, again fearing that it would make getting around the city too difficult. Earthquakes then badly damaged both highways, making the decision to take them down a bit more obvious. According to Sutherland and news accounts, most San Francisco residents now see the demolition of those roads as an unqualified success.

“Syracuse is not San Francisco, and even Milwaukee is not an apples-to-apples comparison,” Barrett said. “But these examples do show that it can and has been done. It allows us to seriously consider the notion of taking down 81 before … it is too late to consider alternatives.”

Greg Munno can be reached at gmunno@syracuse.com or 470-6084.

Looking for …

More information on the Onondaga Citizens League, I-81 and the Citizen League’s “Rethinking I-81” study? Visit oclblog.wordpress.com.

On other cities that have removed portions of interstates or are considering it? Visit www.cnu.org/highways.

A video on the removal of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway? Visit blog.syracuse.com/cny-speaks.

Milwaukee’s story

Built in 1969, the Park East Freeway created a psychological and physical barrier that divided the North Side of Milwaukee from the rest of downtown.

In the 1990s, a new Riverwalk system stretching along the Milwaukee River through the entire downtown renewed interest in the riverfront and sparked a downtown housing boom. But the area around the Park East Freeway remained underutilized with surface parking lots and aging industrial parcels.

Demolition began in 2002. The teardown and construction of the replacement McKinley Boulevard cost about $45 million, paid for through a variety of federal, state, and city sources.

Soon after the creation of the boulevard, a Fortune 500 company moved its headquarters a block from the former highway and mixed-use developments popped up along the boulevard and surrounding blocks.

Between 2001 and 2006, the average assessed land values per acre in the footprint of the Park East Freeway grew by over 180 percent, far higher than the citywide average.

Source: City of Milwaukee and the Congress for New Urbanism

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