Road to Nowhere

A new boulevard? Maybe not, especially if it’s like the old one.

Most of you know we’re experiencing a temporary partial shutdown of the Interstate 81 bridge through town. It’s a bummer, especially if you’re late for a job interview or an organ transplant.

But let’s be positive. This is the perfect opportunity to put on our urban planning hats and contemplate a reinvented Syracuse without that unsightly overpass. The best way to do this is on the bathroom floor in the fetal position eating Nutella with a plastic spoon.

Here’s reality, folks: The project, scheduled to end mid-August, pales compared to what’s ahead. Syracuse is down to three long-term options for the crumbling bridge. We can build a new one ($800 million), replace the span with a six-lane boulevard at ground level ($650 million) or text photos of our private parts to strangers and run for mayor of New York City (price varies).

So, realistically, there are only two options. If you put a gun to my head, I’m in favor of a boulevard. It eliminates a hulking elevated interstate that splits the city in two and replaces it with a potentially less horrible alternative: a six-lane smogway and pedestrian killing field that also splits the city in two, but maybe less than the bridge.

Best to envision the new boulevard as a Great Unifier of East and West. The Syracuse University Hill will slope gracefully into the city center. An SU athlete can punch out an undergrad on campus, then stroll through greenspace and public art for his arraignment. Armory Square partiers too poisoned by drink to drive will enjoy pedestrian-friendly access to the ER of their choice. It’s all so perfect. . .  in theory.

But I’m wary. The planning schematic shown here, which I labored on for nearly an hour, shows how things could go wrong with the boulevard if we’re not careful. We’ve all been here before. They promise us a rich civic stew of whimsical Tuscan villages, crystal-clean Onondaga Lake water, lovingly restored hotels and football coaches whose “dream job” is to lead the ’Cuse to greatness. But when it’s actually time to eat, all we get are a bag of frozen Talapia filets and a tray of NutterButters from PriceRite.

All this blabber of pedestrian greenways, outdoor cafes and gurgling fountains needs to be taken with a grain of Salina Street. Traditionally, we don’t “do” boulevards well here. Just travel the boulevard we already have–Erie Boulevard–and tell me the notion of a downtown Chumps-Elyfleece isn’t deeply troubling.

At Syracuse Auto Color, an Erie Boulevard East body and paint shop I patronize far too often, owner Brian Potts took me on a tour of a hole on the edge of the road that is large enough to swallow a bear. The concrete edge that would normally support a protective grate has deteriorated. The city’s response has been to place sawhorses over the chasm so motorists and other souls don’t fall in. Inevitably, a car smashes into the warning barricade, which splinters and disappears into the hole.

“That’s one way to fill it up,” said Brian. “It’s all organic.”

So it has been for months.

For these and other reasons, Brian is skeptical about a boulevard-based solution for downtown. He doesn’t buy the Great Unifier thing. Gazing out the window at the Sam’s Club across the street, he said he feels no particular connection to the other side. “They’re a big corporation. How close can you be?”

At Upstate Sewing and Vacuum Center, also across from Sam’s Club, owner Rick Mecomonaco was also stressed about the open sewer hole.

“Imagine hitting that thing with a motorcycle,” Rick shuddered. “Someone is going to fall right in the sewer for a bazillion-dollar lawsuit.”

His words remind us that while dining al fresco and strolling European-style on a new boulevard is a neat idea, we first must hold our leaders accountable for including design elements that will make the space welcoming. I’m talking about subtle touches–like preventing people from being swallowed by the Earth.

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