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I-81 plan is better for neighbors — but NY can do more

By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center

Gov. Kathy Hochul correctly called Syracuse’s crumbling Interstate 81 viaduct a “failed…promise” of urban renewal. But even as there are promising signs that we’ve learned from history, more must be done to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

More than 50 years ago, the construction of I-81 devastated a neighborhood that was home to Syracuse’s working-class Black community, known as the 15th Ward. The I-81 viaduct severed the social fabric of the community, forced 1,300 families to flee, destroyed hundreds of buildings, and physically isolated the southside of Syracuse from wealthier neighborhoods across Onondaga County. I-81 also helped lead to the severe racial segregation of public schools in the area by limiting housing access and spurring white flight.

Now the viaduct has reached the end of its lifespan and must be torn down. The state has settled on the “Community Grid” plan to replace the viaduct with a street-level grid. Doing so will remove a barrier that divides our city and stands as a symbol of structural racism that has decimated land values, supercharged segregation, and polluted the environment.

The state recently released its Record of Decision, which serves as the construction plan for I-81.

The New York State Department of Transportation has taken important steps to improve its previous plan for replacing the viaduct. These changes came after three years of advocacy from groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and thousands of community members who let their voices be heard through emails, meetings, public comments and rallies. The changes reflected in the NYSDOT’s final plan reflect a willingness to listen to those who will be most impacted by the I-81 project.

The changes include moving a planned highway on-and-off ramp away from STEAM at Dr. King, a majority-Black elementary school, creating a robust air monitoring program to track air quality during construction, and the creation of a land-use working group to determine the best use of newly developable land.

The NYSDOT is also committed to getting feedback from the community on the noise walls that will be built as part of the project and on how the newly moved on-off-ramp will be designed.

But there are still elements of the new plan that raise serious concerns about the health and safety of the Black community that lives in the shadows of the viaduct. I am optimistic the NYSDOT will continue to listen to these community members’ voices as they put the final touches on the construction plan.

The residents that live adjacent to the viaduct need assurances that they will be safe from lead exposure during construction. They also need guarantees from the city of Syracuse they will not be displaced as a result of new development after the viaduct is removed.

Residents adjacent to the viaduct live in what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls an “environmental justice community.” This means residents in this neighborhood have been historically ignored or left out of government decision-making processes and are now over-burdened by pollution and/or poverty. Yet despite the fact that a years-long heavy construction project will take place just steps from many residents’ doors, the NYSDOT inexplicably insists “the community will not be impacted by construction.”

It seems highly likely that demolishing a viaduct with decades of embedded lead from paint and gasoline will make the already high rates of lead poisoning in this Black neighborhood even worse. Black children in Syracuse already have some of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the nation and the NYSDOT must do everything possible to make sure the community is protected from this dangerous toxin.

To fully understand the impact of lead or fugitive dust on this already over-exposed community, the NYSDOT must take the additional step of conducting what’s called a health needs assessment. This assessment will take a snapshot of individual health needs to determine what steps need to be taken to mitigate the risk of lead dust. It will also identify vulnerable people that require relocation during construction.

Just as these impacts from lead must be mitigated, the Black community must also see some of the benefits from the I-81 replacement project. Several acres of land will now become developable as a result of tearing down the viaduct. New land development should improve the lives of people living near the viaduct, not push them out through gentrification.

One way to make sure this happens is by turning the four acres of land adjacent to the viaduct into a community land trust for the Black community. The NYSDOT currently owns this land and has committed to transferring it to the city of Syracuse. Now the city of Syracuse must do its part to ensure the land is zoned for — and is used for the benefit of — a community land trust.

The NYSDOT and the city of Syracuse must continue to heed the calls of those who live closest to the viaduct. They must make sure this project transforms Syracuse for the better — especially for those who endured the fallout from the racist decisions of the past.

This piece was originally published in the Syracuse Post-Standard

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