What can Syracuse learn from Rochester about rebuilding a neighborhood split by a highway? 7 tips

Over the next decade, Syracuse city planners will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invent something new as the state tears down the Interstate 81 overpass.

Rochester, a Thruway neighbor with the same history, has already started. The state has filled in part of a sunken four-lane highway that split neighborhoods in that city for half a century. Now, there are 500 brand new apartment units, new streets built with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind and three big chain hotels under construction.

The project is not immune from criticism. There is little public green space and some space originally planned for retail was abandoned for indoor parking.

“Instead of the moat, now we have a wall,” activist Shawn Dunwoody said about the dense line of apartment buildings in place of a sunken highway.

What can Syracuse learn from Rochester? Flower City neighborhood activists are here to help the Salt City.

Even opponents say, it’s fascinating that Rochester city leaders pulled off the $22 million Inner Loop East project – replacing a formidable barrier with a walkable, livable community.

But neighborhood activists regret that they did not get involved until plans were well underway. Now, as Rochester starts to fill in the next stretch closer to their homes, they have a lot of opinions about the way it should be handled differently.

In July, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans showed Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens around the first part of the project. They walked by the new apartment buildings, the new 120-room Hampton Inn and the expanding Strong Museum of Play.

Next, the bus tour stopped for the mayors to watch the cars whiz along the Inner Loop North, the next stretch of moat to be filled in.

Rochester Inner Loop

Shawn Dunwoody and Suzanne Mayer lead Hinge Neighbors, a group active in the redevelopment of the Inner Loop in Rochester.

What the tour guides did not show, however, is the people who live there.

“So you never actually walked in,” Dunwoody asked a reporter after the tour. A visit beyond the highway would show the change in architecture and the people who live there.

Dunwoody, an artist, grew up in the Black neighborhood near the Inner Loop North. In Rochester, it’s called the 16th ward and has the same story as Syracuse’s 15th ward – a thriving Black community wrecked by a highway.

Suzanne Mayer is an activist in the mostly white, wealthier community on the other side of the sunken highway.

The two are working together as leaders of a group called Hinge Neighbors. They encourage people to “stick a foot” in the planning processes already underway in both cities.

Dana Miller, commissioner of Rochester’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Development, is also upfront about lessons learned the first time around.

Here is their advice for Syracuse:

Get interested in zoning

Planning takes time, they say. But when it’s time to build, “then it’ll be hurry up,” Mayer said.

That’s why Syracuse neighbors should get involved now in the tedious debate over future land use and zoning, Dunwoody and Mayer say.

Zoning choices can mean the difference between single-family homes and high-rise buildings. Commercial versus residential. How many people should live in new neighborhoods? How tall should the buildings be? Should there be indoor parking? What about courtyards?

“That’s why land use is so important. If you have no zoning, you can do anything you damn well please,” Mayer said.

In Syracuse, the mayor and city council are overhauling the city’s zoning laws and maps, which were first introduced in 1922. Since then, the laws have been updated in pieces, but there is no one easy document.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is already involved. That group objects to the type of zoning the city has proposed for land that will be freed up by the I-81 project near Martin Luther King Elementary School.

The current proposal puts that land in a high-density commercial district, which NYCLU leaders say, sends the wrong message to neighbors who fear gentrification.

Walsh said he has met with NYCLU leaders and expects to revise the proposal before city councilors.

“We’re sensitive to their concerns,” Walsh said.

Rochester Inner Loop

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens tour Rochester’s Inner Loop redevelopment with Rochester city officials in July 2022.

Smaller is better

Mayer says residents should insist on smaller lot sizes for new buildings. That gives small developers a chance to win a successful bid. In Rochester’s Inner Loop East, she said, smaller lot sizes would have added some variety to the tall, densely populated apartment buildings that line the new city streets.

Miller said the city arbitrarily split the vacant land into seven large lots, in part, because it was more manageable to select fewer developers and make sure they actually built what they promised. At the time, he said, there was a lack of confidence.

“Our first goal was: Can we fill this all in? Can we even do this?” Miller said.

He said city planners reviewed the seven different projects in isolation, when they should have hired a consultant to help them see the bigger picture.

“We looked back and said it would have been nice to save one of those parcels as green space because there really isn’t any now,” he said.

What kinds of businesses do you want?

Neighbors should discuss the kinds of businesses they would like to live around. In Rochester, so far, that’s chain hotels.

The city allowed one developer to change the proposed retail space to indoor parking after the developer worried there would not be enough of a demand for stores and restaurants.

There is empty retail space available in some of the apartment buildings and city officials still hope to attract restaurants or something like a Lego store that would complement the Strong museum.

Rochester Inner Loop

Syracuse and Rochester city officials walk by vacant retail space in Rochester’s Inner Loop in July 2022.

Who should own vacant land that was once a highway?

In Rochester, the city took ownership, issued requests for proposals and sold it to developers.

In Syracuse, Walsh, said the consensus is so far on a model in which the state puts the land in a trust. The details, including who would control it, are still in the works, he said.

The NYCLU says a land trust for the property near MLK school should be set up for the Black community living near the viaduct.

The state Department of Transportation, which owns the land now, is setting up a working group to discuss what happens to the property.

Rochester could use a land trust when it develops the North part of the Inner Loop, Miller said.

The value of a land trust is to keep the land affordable for future generations. A trust would own the land and lease it to builders on something like a 99-year lease. It stops the next generation of political leaders from converting the property to market-rate housing or commercial space as the neighborhood becomes more and more attractive, he said.

How do you want to make housing affordable?

New condos in the Inner Loop East are selling for $500,000.

One bedroom apartments are listed for $1,500 to $1,900.

But city planners have paid attention to people who can’t afford that price tag.

The newest building has 112 apartments – 36 for people who make 60% of median household income and 63 are for those below 50% of median income. Thirty-five units are reserved for seniors who use the services of Episcopal SeniorLife Communities, including home health services, transportation and help with shopping and preparing meals. Twenty units are reserved for veterans who use services by Eagle Star Housing.

270 on East was built with substantial government help, including $5.3 million in tax-exempt bonds, federal low-income housing tax credits and a $12.6 million state grant and $1.5 million from the city of Rochester.

Other buildings have space reserved for formerly incarcerated prisoners who are homeless and in recovery.

There is a law in Rochester that requires developers to reserve 20% of space for affordable housing in new buildings that have financial help from the city or are built on land sold by the city.

Syracuse only has that requirement for construction helped by the Syracuse Industrial Development Authority. Walsh said a law like Rochester’s could be included in the new set of zoning laws.

Do you want to hang out inside or outside?

The new apartment buildings in the Inner Loop East focus their community space inward. They have indoor gyms and common spaces on rooftops. But there is little outdoor green space and not all apartments have balconies.

Rochester Inner Loop

Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens looks at the next stretch of highway to be demolished and redeveloped in Rochester. Owens toured the city in July 2022.

How will the city take care of shiny new stuff?

Owens, Syracuse’s deputy mayor, tested the bounciness of the new bike trails in Rochester. She liked how they were off the street, protected from cars.

Rochester residents like bike trails, too. But Mayer says there needs to be a plan to plow them in winter. Snow pileups are an obstacle for pedestrians, she said.

Mayer wonders how much it would cost for Syracuse to use materials that melt the snow?

These are the kinds of questions Mayer said she would have asked if she had been involved in the first redevelopment. She said she never looked at the requests for proposals for new development.

“I don’t think we all knew how you could get involved early on,” she said. “Why do we want to be involved? We want to see good design in what they’re asking for. We’re trying to say how do you make it a really fun place to be. How do you bring businesses and not separate us again? And how do you do it in a fair way?”

Read more:

$1 billion plan for Syracuse neighborhood near I-81 revealed: housing, high school stadium, other surprises

I-81: Upstate NY’s biggest highway project is about to start, but maybe not where you think

Syracuse Mayor Walsh to state: I-81 community grid should feel like city streets, not a highway

Syracuse embarks on $800 million plan to end public housing as we know it

A clear direction for the new I-81 in Syracuse: After 15 years of talk, we know where we’re going

Interstate 81: Read NY’s complete final plan for removing the elevated highway in Syracuse

Why Joe Driscoll, a musician turned politician, thinks he’s the right guy to be I-81 point person

Contact Michelle Breidenbach | mbreidenbach@syracuse.com | 315-470-3186.