Knocking down or building up? Among central NY policymakers, urban renewal has complicated legacy

  • 5 min to read

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has a simple explanation for the driving force behind the construction of the Interstate 81 viaduct in her city and the Arterial in Auburn. 

"They were designing for cars, not people," she said in an interview. 

Both projects — the elevated portion of I-81 and the Arterial that stretches through Auburn — were born out of urban renewal, a policy that sought to revitalize cities throughout the country. 


The lasting impact of urban renewal can be felt in both cities. Before the Arterial and the I-81 viaduct, there were neighborhoods with businesses and homes. These structures were torn down to build the highways. 

In Syracuse, a neighborhood made up of mostly African American residents was cleared for the elevated highway. 

"You have a whole bunch of decisions which ended up tearing communities apart and then making communities distrust their government in order to build infrastructure that served machines, not people," Miner said. 

For Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, discussing urban renewal goes beyond the policy. It brings back memories of downtown Auburn pre-Arterial. 

Quill was serving in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1972. During that time, several buildings were demolished and work on the Arterial began. While he was away, he didn't realize the changes being made in his hometown. 

He returned home and started with the Auburn Fire Department in November 1973. The Arterial wasn't completed yet, but the transformation was evident. 

More than four decades later, Quill wonders if constructing the Arterial was a good decision for the city. 

"Do I miss some of the old buildings? Absolutely," Quill said. "Has it been better for the city of Auburn? I don't really believe that it has been as helpful as it hoped." 

There are obvious differences between the Arterial and I-81. I-81 is an elevated highway as it passes through central New York's largest city. The Arterial that runs through Auburn is a flat roadway. You can easily turn off the Arterial onto side streets. Exits are available on I-81, but getting to your preferred destination may take additional travel. 

That is, of course, if motorists are interested in what Auburn and Syracuse have to offer. 

One reason for the construction of the I-81 viaduct and the Arterial, after all, is to make it easier for vehicles passing through both cities. 

"Everyone coming from the east to the west — they just travel through the city and boom, they're gone," Quill said. 

Miner added that there's a policy lesson to take away from the motivation for why the two highways were constructed. 

"I think you start by saying we need to be mindful of what we're doing," she said. "We're trying to create stronger communities for people. What's going to help communities of people grow economically and culturally and socially? And then make policies consistent with that rather than thinking about how can we move people from point A to point B as quickly as possible."

Auburn and Syracuse have been changed by the presence of the highways. 

In Syracuse, I-81 splits the city in half. Miner referred to some areas near the viaduct as "dead zones." She said the highway cut off the downtown area from University Hill — two of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. 

Auburn's situation is similar. In some cases, the Arterial splits entire streets. What was one neighborhood before is now two — or more — areas with a different environment. Businesses thrive in some of these areas. In others, the same success is hard to find. 

While Quill has his criticisms of the Arterial, he doesn't question the city leadership and other officials who pushed for its construction at the time. 

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"I'd love to be in the minds of all the individuals who were involved at the time," he said. "I know they did it in the best interests of Auburn. It wouldn't be fair for myself to second-guess what their thoughts, what their intentions were. But I am, to a point, disappointed with the Arterial as to what it's done to our downtown. I'd rather go back to the old way that it was." 


Not all upstate cities approached urban renewal the same way. 

When you talk about urban renewal in Canandaigua, it's less about transportation infrastructure and more about building improvements. 

Canandaigua Mayor Ellen Polimeni said the city's approach emphasized preserving structures that were vacant and in need of repairs. 

"We had a lot of space above the commercial areas in those historic buildings and urban renewal really focused on making those habitable with residential housing units," Polimeni said. "We had a lot of apartments that developed, but also some office space that developed." 

The apartments in the historic buildings are still there today. Polimeni said the units are being renovated and the city is seeking grants to help property owners make facade and structural improvements. 

Perhaps the biggest development related to urban renewal was the creation of Canandaigua's business improvement district. The policy, Polimeni said, helped start the discussion about the city launching a business improvement district. 

"You gotta have the buy in and one thing that a business improvement district is it gets buy in," Polimeni said.

She added, "We have some vacancies, but they're on top of it. They're always out recruiting and looking. And then event-wise, they bring a lot of people into town for various events." 

Polimeni knows Canandaigua had a different urban renewal strategy than other cities. That might explain why she has a much more positive view of the policy than her counterparts in Auburn and Syracuse. 

"We didn't do what a lot of different communities did," she said. "We didn't tear down and we didn't tear down buildings. We built up. We tried to establish our sense of place. We wanted to be noted for our history. We built on that foundation — historic preservation. We put in a historic preservation ordinance and it's still adhered to." 


Within the next few years, the neighborhoods torn down for the I-81 project decades ago may, in some way, return. 

Federal, state and local officials are planning for the future of the I-81 viaduct. The elevated highway reaches the end of its useful life in 2017, which means it must be either rebuilt or replaced. 

"We're now getting at a point of time where we can start to undo some of the damage that was done, at least to the topography," Miner said. "People's sense of whether the government listens to them or works for them is another deeper seeded issue. But I think if you start with a premise that you should design for people, not machines, we will make better decisions."

One of the proposals to replace the viaduct is a boulevard. A tunnel has also been mentioned. Rebuilding the elevated highway is another option. 

The state Department of Transportation is currently reviewing which option is best for I-81, Syracuse and the entire region. 

The Arterial, however, likely isn't going anywhere. 

Quill said it would be interesting to hear from Auburn residents on what they think of the Arterial. But he doesn't believe the Arterial will be removed, at least in the next couple of decades. 

"I don't see that becoming a topic of conversation or even the possibility of altering the route," he said. "I-81 is on a much larger scale than the Arterial." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.


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