How a Superhighway Split Syracuse

In Syracuse, the I-81 viaduct has two groups at war. One wants to tear it down, one wants to leave it up — all in the name of environmental justice.

Nathan Porceng   ·   July 6, 2023
Syracuse I-81 viaduct with the city in green behind it and a crack through the middle.
Two camps have lobbed scathing attacks at each other, each casting themselves as protectors of an “environmental justice community” and questioning the other’s motivations. | Image: NYS DOT | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

Along the eastern edge of Syracuse’s predominantly Black Southside neighborhood, a superhighway teeming with traffic emits a toxic onslaught of fumes and particulate matter. An average of 100,000 cars make daily trips across the I-81 viaduct, a 1.4-mile stretch of road that slices through Syracuse’s city center. Under the roar of engines, the Southside community suffers disproportionately high rates of asthma and lead poisoning.

This runs contrary to New York’s constitution, argues a state-aligned coalition. Advocates like Lanessa Owens-Chaplin of the New York Civil Liberties Union say the viaduct jeopardizes the community’s Green Amendment right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment,” and state officials see her point. So last January, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the state would tear it down.

It seemed like a straightforward fix. But soon, a group emerged with a different strategy to protect the Southside community’s health and livelihood: stopping the teardown.

The debate, which is now winding its way through New York’s court system, has been framed in the press as a city-versus-suburbs issue. On one side are the city of Syracuse, the state of New York, and the NYCLU; on the other are an eclectic group called Renew 81 for All and the suburban towns of Salina, Dewitt, and Tully. But both groups claim leaders with deep roots in the city, who say they have Southside’s interests in mind.

The two camps have lobbed scathing attacks at each other, each casting themselves as protectors of an “environmental justice community” — a locality, often largely populated by people of color, disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards. And they have opposing views on whether or not to account for the proposed Micron plant nearby, a much hyped multi-billion dollar state project.

The state’s plan would demolish the viaduct, reroute highway traffic, and create a community grid system of home and business-level streets in Southside. The state projects it will reduce airborne toxins and equitably redistribute the burden of traffic. It doesn’t account for future Micron traffic, because, the state figured, operations remained too speculative to factor in. It was just what Owens-Chaplin and the NYCLU wanted.

Then, Renew 81 for All and the towns petitioned the Onondaga County Supreme Court to stop the state’s project. They argued that the Department of Transportation’s environmental review process lacked adequate studies and misrepresented traffic data. Their case rested on the same constitutional guarantee, but flipped: Renew 81 said that the proposed community grid system would violate their Green Amendment rights to a healthy environment.

“Their whole analysis was bogus,” Alan Knauf, an environmental attorney representing Renew 81, said of the state’s review. “The study was made to fit the end result that they wanted.”

Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri was sympathetic. Ruling against the state, the city, and the NYCLU, he ordered the state to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement mandating that the DOT complete new traffic studies accounting for Micron-related growth. In the meantime, the I-81 viaduct would remain in place.

Owens-Chaplin, director of NYCLU’s racial justice center, called Renew 81’s lawsuit an “unfortunate tactic” to stall the demolition. Renew 81 has refused to disclose its membership, and she suggested it’s effectively a reincarnation of a previous anti-teardown campaign by mostly white suburban leaders and business elites. The group is misappropriating the Green Amendment, Owens-Chaplin argued, “using it in a way that could ultimately be harmful to the communities that the amendment is intended to protect.”

Lanessa Owens-Chaplin speaks in front of a banner for the NYCLU of Central New York
Lanessa Owens-Chaplin says Renew 81 is misappropriating the Green Amendment, “using it in a way that could ultimately be harmful to the communities that the amendment is intended to protect.” | NYCLU

Renew 81 levels that same charge in return. It’s naive not to consider the $100 billion Micron project, they say, which Hochul promises “will bring transformational growth to the region” and create 50,000 jobs. And they worry that the DOT’s community grid plan will lead to gentrification and displacement of Southside residents.

“They’re willing to destroy all of central New York, the whole economy, just so they can have this grid,” said Charles Garland, a county legislator and member of Renew 81.

Sixty years ago, the Southside neighborhood formed part of the 15th Ward, which housed a bustling Black community. Alongside a large Jewish population, almost 90 percent of Syracuse’s Black residents lived there.

Garland’s family remembers it well. The family business, the Garland Brothers Funeral Home, opened its first location in the city in 1936 and is one of the oldest Black-owned companies in central New York.

“We were on East Fayette Street,” Garland said. “When they put in I-690 and I-81 through eminent domain, we lost our funeral home, our land, all of that.”

Charles Garland stands in front of a chain link fence with a field and buildings behind him.
Charles Garland believes that with Micron in town, I-81 could be “the literal pathway” out of poverty for Southside residents. | Charles Garland

In the 1960s, Syracuse city officials decided to run the new superhighway through the gut of the 15th Ward. By the end of the decade, the city’s urban renewal campaign had displaced over 1,300 families, including the Garlands.

Garland, who now represents Southside in the Onondaga County legislature, acknowledges the adverse health and environmental effects the viaduct has wrought. But he believes the state’s planning process has been rushed.

He’s especially incensed that the state claimed the Micron project was too speculative to factor into its environmental studies. He says that contradicted previous public statements Hochul and President Joe Biden made on the Micron project, and, by creating uncertainty, the state undermined efforts to finance the new plant.

Currently, I-81 provides the most direct route between Southside and the proposed site of the Micron plant. Garland believes that if Micron comes to central New York, I-81 could be “the literal pathway” out of poverty for Southside residents.

“What we’ve always been clear on is the environmental racism is having the viaduct in the middle of the community.”

—Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, NYCLU

Last October, Micron announced plans to invest up to $100 billion over the next 20 years to build a computer chip manufacturing facility in Clay — a predominantly white suburban community about 16 miles north of Southside. The proposed plant will receive hefty assistance from the county, state, and federal governments, and Micron says it will directly employ about 9,000 workers and create more than 40,000 additional jobs for suppliers and contractors.

While the announcement generated significant buzz, the plant remains in the planning stages. Construction will not begin until 2024 at the earliest, and Micron still needs to secure federal funding through last year’s CHIPS and Science Act.

Owens-Chaplin agrees that the state should take economic considerations into account, but says the Micron project is currently too speculative to consider. She stressed that once Micron has more concrete plans for its new plant, it will undergo its own environmental review process.

To her, it seems obvious that the best way to serve environmental justice is to eliminate the source of environmental harm as soon as possible.

“They’re willing to destroy all of Central New York, the whole economy, just so they can have this grid.”

—Charles Garland, Renew 81

“What we’ve always been clear on is the environmental racism is having the viaduct in the middle of [the Southside] community,” said Owens-Chaplin.

Garland worries that the viaduct’s demolition will bring more displacement. He argues that the community grid will primarily benefit real estate developers and wealthy landholders — especially Syracuse University. The school’s main campus lies just a few blocks east of the viaduct, and Garland fears that if the viaduct is removed, the school will take over Southside.

New York state eventually transferred the former site of his family’s funeral home to Upstate Medical University, another local school, Garland pointed out. Syracuse University, meanwhile, recently expanded a loan program to help its employees buy homes in nearby neighborhoods, including Southside. Jeffrey Stoecker, a spokesperson for Syracuse University, said Garland’s fears are unfounded.

“Syracuse University has stated publicly, on several occasions, that it has no intention of acquiring property associated with the I-81 viaduct project and its neighbors in the city’s Southside,” Stoecker told New York Focus. “That has not changed. Rumors to the contrary are simply false.”

Not only are Garland and Owens-Chaplins at odds over what the community needs, they’re split on how to determine what it wants.

According to Garland, polling data show that Syracuse residents fear the “grid-only” plan will lead to adverse outcomes, and that most prefer keeping I-81 in some fashion. According to Owens-Chaplin, Garland’s polling data is biased and unrepresentative. Of the 400 people polled, only 10 percent self-identified as Black, and just 26 percent reported an annual income of less than $50,000.

“We know that community is predominantly Black and we know that [approximately] 70 percent of that community lives below the poverty line,” said Owens-Chaplin. “I think what is more accurate is that through the work of NYCLU and our coalition partners, we were able to submit over 5,000 comments from Syracuse residents that all said they want the community grid.”

Owens-Chaplin also questions the motivations behind Renew 81’s lawsuit. She believes Renew 81 is using the language of racial and environmental justice to benefit the predominantly white, middle-class suburbs, not the actual environmental justice community in Southside. She and others claim that Renew 81 is a reincarnation of Save 81 — a shadowy group that long opposed efforts to tear down the I-81 viaduct.

Local business and political elites formed the core of Save 81’s leadership, and the group received financial backing from Pyramid Management Group, the owner of Syracuse’s Destiny USA shopping mall. Save 81’s opponents alleged that the group falsely portrayed itself as a grassroots movement in order to advance the interests of the rich and powerful.

Save 81’s once lively Facebook page stopped posting a month before Renew 81 filed their lawsuit. Ann Marie Taliercio, President of UNITEHERE Local 150 and “charter member” of Save 81, is a co-petitioner. Nick Paro and Edward Michalenko, town supervisors of the co-petitioning towns Salina and Dewitt, respectively, were also members of Save 81. Taliercio declined to speak with New York Focus, and Paro and Michalenko did not respond to interview requests.

Garland acknowledges that Save 81’s membership overlaps with his organization’s. Renew 81 does not have a published membership list, nor does it maintain a website or social media page. When New York Focus asked about the group’s membership, Garland stressed that Renew 81 is a diverse coalition, and that its members vary in their priorities and motivations. For a different perspective on Renew 81’s case, Garland suggested Michalenko.

“I represent Southside in our issues,” said Garland. “Other people ... they have their own issues ... their own concerns.”

For now, the fight is caught up in appeals, waiting for a ruling from the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court. It may take them months.

In the meantime, the I-81 viaduct will remain in place.

Nathan Porceng is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared in Balls & Strikes, Grist, The Daily Beast, and more. Nathan grew up in Central New York and spent five years as a submarine officer in the… more
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