Uncertainty Still Surrounds I-81 Plans

On Aug. 31, 2009, National Basketball Association celebrity player Carmelo Anthony stepped out of a black Cadillac Escalade onto Wilson Park, in the South Side neighborhood of Pioneer Homes, to dedicate a basketball court in his namesake and another named after Jim Boeheim, his former coach at Syracuse University, who was also in attendance. A crowd of about 500 neighbors swarmed Melo seeking autographs and pictures with him.

The dedication of the two refurbished courts was part of the Courts for Kids program – a partnership between the Carmelo Anthony Foundation and the Jim & Juli Boeheim Foundation – whose objective is “to encourage and help kids in the disadvantaged socioeconomic areas of Syracuse.”

Carmelo Anthony visits Wilson Park Courts in 2009. | File Photo

“Refurbishing this court gives these kids the opportunity to escape from everyday life and just be kids,” Anthony said.

“I couldn’t have picked a better place than to do it right here,” added Boeheim. “We look forward to watching out city’s kids playing on these new courts and, who knows, maybe these courts will help us grow our future local basketball stars.”

But the Pioneer Homes children’s’ dreams of becoming the next Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant could be shattered before April 1.

The courts are at risk of being razed to give way to a road interchange for a new elevated portion or street-level options to supplement the current Interstate 81 viaduct. Currently, the edge of the viaduct deck stands just three feet away from the eastern sideline one of the basketball courts.

In its joint “Draft Scoping Report” released in late June of 2014, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) contemplate building a new massive interchange on I-81, at Burt Street, in close proximity to the Carmelo Anthony Court and the Jim Boeheim Court. The objective of the proposed interchange would be “to improve access” to the South Side and University Hill from I-81 and it would have “a northbound exit ramp and a southbound entrance ramp,” according to the report.

This interchange is a common feature of all of the six alternatives that FHWA and NYSDOT are recommending to carry forward for further study in search for a replacement for the current I-81 viaduct, whose technical life cycle is anticipated to end in 2017. These six alternatives are a new viaduct fully Improved to current standards, a new viaduct with substantial design improvements, a new viaduct with considerable design improvements, a street-level boulevard, a street-level one-way traffic on Almond Street, and a street-level two-way traffic on Almond Street.

Literally at the door step of the proposed interchange is the central office complex of the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA), which is right on Burt Street. In the immediate vicinity are Wilson Park’s community center, swimming pool, bathhouse, athletic field and playground.

The assistant director for development and central office administration at the SHA, David Paccone, said that the full market value of the central office complex is a little over $1 million, but that this figure is short of replacement value. He added that SHA didn’t have information on the economic value of the 2.069-acre Wilson Park (including the basketball courts) and that this SHA property is in a 50-year lease with the City of Syracuse for use and management by its Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs.

Across Almond Street from Wilson Park lies another leased property: the one-story Building No. 49 of Pioneer Homes, a building that is occupied by the New York State Police according to a lease agreement signed between SHA and State University of New York Upstate Medical University (SUNY UMU). The assistant vice president for facilities and planning at SUNY UMU, Thomas Pelis, said that Building No. 49 has been leased since 1998 and that the current lease term will end in 2018.


SHA’s executive director, Bill Simmons, has been vocal in defense of the interests of South Side residents at several recent public forums.

One of these forums was the second installment of the Interstate 81 Speaker Series sponsored by NYSDOT, Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse and held on May 13, 2014 in the John Mulroy Civic Center. At this event, Simmons said that “thousands of neighbors live in hundreds of SHA-owned residential units abutting the I-81 viaduct” and asked NYSDOT Commissioner Joan McDonald when the residents could learn of their possible relocations.

Simmons stepped up to the plate again at the Final Scoping Meeting for the I-81 Viaduct Project hosted by FHWA and NYSDOT on June 26, 2014 at the Nicholas Pirro Convention Center. Simmons pleaded for “economic justice” to be upheld in order to protect “600 families living in Pioneer Homes and 300 families living in Toomey Abbott Towers,” a building owned by SHA. Simmons talked about the proposed northbound exit ramp and southbound entrance ramp.

“These ramps would create a wall on the South Side,” he said. “The entrance to I-81 should be further south than Burt Street or Martin Luther King Street East.”

Finally, Simmons lamented that FHWA and NYSDOT haven’t made public details on which specific properties on the South Side would be compulsorily acquired by NYSDOT by eminent domain proceedings so as to build a new viaduct or boulevard.

Mark Braiman, who described himself as an “avid bicyclist,” shared similar views as Simmons.

“There is a lack of information on which properties would be taken by NYSDOT,” he said. “Two months ago, The Post-Standard requested this information from NYSDOT, which hasn’t responded.”

View from the SUNY Upstate Garage. | Photo by Tony Shi

According to the “Draft Scoping Report,” the three viaduct alternatives would acquire between 18 to 40 buildings adjoining I-81 plus “all or portions of other property to allow for a wider right-of-way.”

SUNY UMU owns five buildings on Almond Street, adjacent to the I-81 viaduct: the Parking Garage West, the Upstate Cancer Center, the Regional Oncology Center and the Computer Warehouse Building. The Garage West, which opened in 2008, is a $31 million, 1,500-space facility; the Upstate Cancer Center, dedicated on July 18, 2014 is a $100 million construction. The Oncology Center and the Computer Building are valued collectively at $69 million at a maximum, Pelis, the SUNY UMU vice president, suggested.

In contrast to Simmons, Pelis projects a cool confidence regarding the possible effects of the final I-81 solution on the properties under his supervision.

“We do not think any of our buildings will be impacted by any of the alternatives under further investigation for the re-alignment of I-81,” Pelis said. “Leased Building No. 49 will not be impacted, either.”

Pelis went on to say that SUNY UMU is investing in its existing computer warehouse building.

“The work scope includes electrical and mechanical systems upgrades,” he added. “The construction work is underway and nearly 40 percent complete.”

The university likewise plans to spend approximately $2 million on applying new siding to its computer center.

SUNY UMU occupies buildings not only on Almond Street but also on a parallel road: Townsend Street. These buildings are the Upstate Health Care Center – leased from Sutton Real Estate Co. – and the Geneva Tower Residential Hall, a 139-apartment high rise that opened in 2012 after a $28 million renovation.

The street-level one-way traffic alternative being retained by FHWA and NYSDOT envisions turning Almond Street into an artery serving northbound traffic and Townsend Street into an artery serving southbound traffic.

“Based on current design information, it would be necessary to acquire 5 to 10 buildings for construction” of this alternative, the report says. A similar range of buildings would be taken down by NYSDOT in the street-level two-way traffic alternative.

The report doesn’t indicate if these buildings are located on Almond Street, Townsend Street or both.

Pelis’ confidence appears to be shared by the rest of SUNY UMU administration as it hasn’t even requested to be invited to participate in the Community and Economic Development Advisory Working Group or the Sustainability Advisory Working Group, two committees created by NYSDOT “to provide in-depth feedback on issues and ideas” to help it “in its decision making about this project.”

Pioneer Homes was originally organized in 13 rows running north to south and seven rows running west to east. In early 1967, north-south Row No. 8 – containing Buildings Nos. 32, 33, 40, 41 and 48 – was demolished after federal highway administrator Rex Whitton signed a Record of Decision mandating the construction of a viaduct in the area occupied by the buildings. As a result, an estimated 237 people, who lived in about 46 apartments, were sent packing elsewhere along with hundreds of other 15th Ward neighbors.

Later on, Row No. 9 ceased to exist as such when its Buildings Nos. 58 and 65 were torn down too, but this time by action of SHA as ice and snow being pushed off the viaduct by plows was falling on them. This action displaced an estimated 82 tenants, who occupied 16 apartments.

Pioneer Homes, also known as P.H. by some members of this tight-knit community, straddles the border of 9th and 15th wards, cleaved asunder by the viaduct. The 9th Ward section of P.H. lies to the west of the interstate; the 15th Ward section of P.H. lies to the east of it. The 15th Ward section was devastated by the construction of the viaduct; the 9th Ward section remained unscathed.

If Pelis’ assumption – that SUNY UMU properties would not be touched by NYSDOT – holds true, this would spell excellent news for Row No. 10 of P.H. With Rows No. 8 and 9 having already been wiped off the map, Row No. 10 is now the closest row to I-81 from the eastern side. An estimated 153 residents live in 54 apartments in Buildings Nos. 50, 57, 59, 60 and 64, which make up this row.

According to its “Draft Scoping Report,” NYSDOT: “will strive to minimize the acquisition of developed land.”

As already stated, abutting the I-81 viaduct on the eastern side are the four SUNY UMU buildings, whose total value could reach $200 million, Pelis said. Abutting the I-81 viaduct on the west side is P.H.’s Row No. 7 with an estimated value of $1.6 million, based on a breakdown of figures provided by Paccone. Row No. 7 consists of Buildings Nos. 31, 34, 39, 42 and 47, with a total 62 apartments, in which an estimated 170 residents live. It might come down to NYSDOT selecting between seizing properties on the eastern side or on the western side. The criteria set by NYSDOT for choosing includes avoiding “substantial property acquisitions.”

NYSDOT would have to take into account that the SUNY UMU buildings are worth 125 times more that Row No. 7 in economic terms. Seen from another perspective, the $200 million value of these SUNY UMU buildings is approximately 14 percent of NYSDOT’s cost estimate for preliminary property acquisition costs, which ranges between $1,419 million and $1,438; the $1.6 million of P.H. buildings is only about 0.1 percent of this same estimate.

Another P.H. row not entirely off the hook is Row No. 1, occupied by an estimated 321 residents, living in 62 apartments in Buildings Nos. 1, 8, 9, 16, 17, 24 and 25. These would be in jeopardy if NYSDOT includes them on the list of five to 10 buildings it anticipates to take for construction if the alternative involving Townsend Street is selected.

The street-level alternatives entail designating Interstate 481 as Interstate 81, which “would carry through traffic around the eastern side of Syracuse,” according to the report.

These alternatives are strongly opposed by the Town Board of DeWitt, which, on June 10, 2013, passed a resolution saying: “Moving Interstate 81 to Route 481 will only exacerbate local and pass-through traffic leaving a heavy toll on already taxed DeWitt resources.”

This is an scenario reminiscent of Carmaggedon, a traffic version of Armaggedon, prophesied to occur when a 10-mile portion of Interstate 405 closed over a weekend in 2012 in Los Angeles. Carmaggedon captured national attention because I-405 was the scene of double-murder suspect O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase, which was viewed on TV by over 95 million people. Despite all the hype, Carmaggedon 1 failed to materialize.

Four advocacy organizations banded together around a proposal that would partly allay the Town Board of DeWitt’s concerns of Carmaggedon 2.

The proposal was detailed in a letter sent to NYSDOT on June 11, 2013. If accepted, it would reduce the footprint in DeWitt by approximately 60 percent by designating only the portion of Interstate 481 between East Brighton Avenue (on the southern tip of Syracuse) and Interstate 690 as the the new Interstate 81. Additionally, the portion of I-690 between the current I-81 and I-481 would also be designated I-81.

Among the chief proponents of this novel alternative are Bob Doucette (with ReThink81), Rob Simpson (with CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity), Merike Treier (with the Downtown Committe of Syracuse), and Peter Sarver (with the Moving People Transportation Coalition).

“This approach would permit the current pathway of the elevated highway to return to normal street grid,” Sarver said.

“The proposal to reroute Interstate 81 along Interstate 481 and Interstate 690 may have merit. DOT will look into developing the proposal to determine if it meets the project’s purpose, needs, goals and objectives,” replied Mark Frechette, the project director for NYSDOT’s I‐81 Viaduct Project.

On Jan. 26, 2015 the Syracuse Common Council voted 7-0 to approve a resolution promoting “a street level boulevard option to replace the current Route 81 Viaduct.”

This resolution didn’t endorse explicitly the rerouting proposal of I-81 put forth by the four advocacy organizations, proposal which Sarver characterized as a “potential game-changer idea.” But the council’s resolution does say that the boulevard “addresses the needs of Syracuse’s housing vulnerable population living in close proximity to the current I-81 Viaduct,” including Pioneer Homes.

Paccone, assistant director at SHA, said he met in July of 2014 with NYSDOT engineers. He added that he explained to them that SHA would need to know with a 36-month lead time if the viaduct is going to be replaced by a new one. “This much amount of time is required because this is how our funding cycles and investors work,” he explained. Since the viaduct is projected to reach the end of its life span in 2017, as stated earlier, the amount of lead time at SHA’s disposal is already below its set standard.

Paccone elaborated in another reason why SHA would to have to know well in advance the decision on the construction of a new viaduct. “We have to brace ourselves for permanent mothballs and temporary mothballs of SHA buildings, see how many of the 882 families living there would be displaced, and make preparations to move them plus the 145 employees who work currently in our central office.”

After having listened to Paccone’s concerns, Joe Flint, I-81 project manager, addressed an audience of approximately 100 residents of Pioneer Homes and Toomey Abbott Towers. Flint told them not to worry about the possibility of their housing being taken by NYSDOT materializing.

But Paccone didn’t seem quite convinced.

“Promises are hollow,” he said.

New York State Assembly member Sam Roberts echoed Paccone’s sentiments.

“The state made false promises to Kennedy Square tenants,” Roberts said. “Empire State Development didn’t keep its promises and displaced these tenants in 2008.”

Sharon Owens, chief executive of the Southwest Community Center, expanded on the precedent of Kennedy Square, a public complex of assisted living units, as a likely forthcoming scenario for Pioneer Homes. She said that New York State notified Kennedy Square residents, asking them to move out, only 90 days before the final deadline.

“The state made people feel ashamed of themselves during this period, which included Christmas time,” Owens said. “As a result, many people staying there decided to leave the Syracuse community for good.”

Then, both Roberts and Owens turned their attention more precisely to Pioneer Homes as current federal highway administrator Victor Mendez gets his pen ready to sign another Record of Decision before April.

“Displacing poor black and brown people from Pioneer Homes for a new viaduct is not politically correct,” Owen said.

Roberts was a bit more dramatic. He added that he has a personal connection to this neighborhood.

“I grew up on Rose Avenue, three blocks away from Pioneer Homes,” he said. “DOT has to show me what they are going to do. They would have to go over me in order to displace the Pioneer Homes community.”

Finally, Paccone suggested that before meeting with him, the project engineers were out of touch with the reality on the ground of the South Side neighborhoods adjacent to I-81. Carlos Lopez, a highway engineer who works on the I-81 project for Parsons, an engineering services firm contracted by NYSDOT, was asked to comment on local press reports that SHA “has taken down two residential buildings because they were targets for snow and ice that plows pushed off the interstate.”

Lopez said, “I’m not familiar with reports of snow plowed from the highway affecting buildings on-the-side of I-81.”


– Article by Miguel Balbuena, Community Correspondent for The Stand; Homepage Cover Photo by Tony Shi