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Equity Should Be at the Heart of I-81 Planning Process (Syracuse Post-Standard)

By Rashida Richardson and Yusuf Abdul-Qadir

For more than 50 years, the Interstate 81 viaduct has stood as an unsightly monument to the failures of top-down thinking.

It cuts through the heart of Syracuse, much of it crumbling, while the federal, state and city officials consider how to replace it.

Their deliberations have left communities bordering the viaduct anxious about their futures, fueling worries that officials could repeat the same missteps as the original planners, who decimated neighborhoods to build the roadway.

When city officials and state engineers originally planned I-81, they did so with minimal community input. Carving through an area that planners considered blighted, its construction disrupted a predominantly black working class part of the city. Nearly 1,300 black households were displaced and left with scant job and housing opportunities.

After its completion in 1969, there was immediate public backlash. Residents realized I-81 was an economic, social and design failure.

The Post-Standard called I-81 an “eye-sore” and a “mistake.” The interstate’s narrow lanes and curved design are dangerous for drivers, and the area under I-81 never appealed to developers, who instead focused on projects in Syracuse’s outskirts. With that, resources and the city’s white residents fled to the suburbs, leading to both neighborhood and school segregation.

“It was very devastating,” Syracuse Common Councilor Helen Hudson told us recently. She grew up in the wake of the project. “Fifty years later, we’re still feeling it.”

As a result, Syracuse now faces daunting, multipronged challenges of an expiring highway, one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and the most segregated school district borders in the state.

The removal of I-81 presents Syracuse with an opportunity to address the impact of the original construction and develop an equitable solution. The planning process must include painstaking efforts to distribute the positive and negative impacts of such a large-scale infrastructure project equally among all residents.

The New York State Department of Transportation must lead active community engagement efforts throughout the planning process. This should include a comprehensive environmental impact statement that gathers insights from black, Latino, Six Nations and low-income communities, who have felt left out of the planning process so far.

Any ultimate removal and construction plans for the interstate must ensure that people forced out of their homes because of construction can return after completion and retain their neighborhoods. It should also ensure that jobs created by the project go to women, minorities and local residents.

City officials and developers view the removal and replacement as an opportunity to attract higher income residents, lured by the proximity to Syracuse University and buoyed by the area’s emerging drone research and development sector.

But these plans must not push out residents of other income levels and perpetuate economic segregation. Plans should include mixed income housing and affordable housing, efforts to better integrate the public schools in the surrounding area, and a public transportation system that connects the Syracuse metropolitan area.

These may seem like lofty goals, but a transformative and successful infrastructure project like this has been built before. Take the city of Oakland, California, for example.

The city and the California Department of Transportation worked hard to develop a highway rebuild construction project in the 1990s that addressed the needs and concerns of a low-income, historically black community that had been severely impacted by the original construction of the Cypress Freeway.

The California Department of Transportation involved the community in the planning, design and construction of the project, and the result was new job opportunities, reduced noise and emissions, new public space and a closer-knit community.

Syracuse deserves the same chance to develop its future without repeating the top-down mistakes that have plagued I-81 for half a century.

For that to happen, the people who stand to gain and lose the most by what comes next must have their voices heard.

Rashida Richardson is legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, based in New York City. Yusuf Abdul-Qadir is director of the NYCLU Central New York chapter in Syracuse.


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