Familiar Arguments About I-81 Replacement at "Fact Finding " City Council Meeting

Jun 13, 2018

Joe Bright of Dunk and Bright Furniture says replacing the I-81 viaduct with a community grid would "be a disaster" for his family's business.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

The Syracuse common council Tuesday evening re-ignited the debate over what to do with I-81 though the city, because councilor Joe Driscoll says the topic is so important.

"When this meeting was announced, the overhwhelming feedback was 'haven't we had this discussion enough? I've heard about this on and on, to death.' My response would be 'no we haven't.'  This is the most important decision to affect this region for 50 to 100 years, so it's worth a couple more discussions."

Driscoll says turnover on the council prompted the meeting.

He says current members want to pass an updated resolution asking the state to include certain information in its long-delayed environmental impact statement on the replacement options.  Those from the various sides of the debate were invited to council  chambers, and dozens packed into chambers to hear familiar arguments. Barry Lentz is with the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, and is a proponent of the community grid option.  He understands the regional impact of the project…but…

Barry Lentz defends the community grid option.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

"It is wildly illogical to suggest the needs and interests of someone living in Watertown, Auburn, Oswego, or LaFayette are the same as the needs and interests of someone living in Syracuse next to the viaduct.  That speaks to the question about how the DOT will evaluate the different criteria, and whether or not there will be weight applied to the differential interests of communities based on where they are and their realtionship to the viaduct."

Others like Joe Bright expressed deep concern about the impact on his family’s furniture store…Dunk and Bright, if the viaduct is removed in favor of the grid.  Right now, traffic flowing over the viaduct from the north can exit one block from the store’s front door.

"This would be a disaster for Dunk and Bright.  But I use it as an example of what would happen generally to any south side business.   We can be confident that a certain percentage of Syracuse residents will no longer come to visit south side businesses.  That's an unfortunate reality for a neighborhood that has historically struggled to maintain healthy businesses."

Councilor Joe Driscoll, center, lays the ground rules for the "fact finding" meeting. He's joined by councilors Steve Thompson, left, and Michael Greene, right.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

Bright says in a survey of their customers, 16 percent said they would not shop at Dunk and Bright if the viaduct was replaced with a community grid.

Walsh administration officials were on hand to defend the mayor’s case for a community grid.  Director of Mayoral Initiatives Greg Loh says the economic development of 10 city blocks has been a missed opportunity for the past 50 years.

"It's time to unlock the revenue generating potential of the land in the shadow of the viaduct and use it to create revenue and jobs that will benefit not just the city, but the entire region.  The viaduct today is overshadowing assets that can generate hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity in our region."

At the same time, fellow grid supporters  expressed concern that the state could just decide to keep the land and not turn it over to the city, as it has with other projects.  An environmental impact statement might not come until next year.  Until then, the debate is likely to continue. 

Dozens filled council chambers for the meeting. The gathering was civil, with no one interrupting anyone's remarks.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News