Skyways, folkways and the rehabilitation of a bisected city

This morning, my good friend Jon sent me an email where, among other things, he referred me to his recent article in Buffalo Rising about how Syracuse University is engaging the community, comparing it to UB which isolates its students in a little bubble in Amherst. In particular, Jon mentions two SU projects: the Warehouse and the Connective Corridor. The Warehouse is a former warehouse near Armory Square in the city’s heart that has been renovated for the School of Architecture and cultural exhibitions (check out this link for a similar plan in the works for a downtown campus for Binghamton University).

More interesting, to me at least, was the proposal for the Connective Corridor: an enclosed elevated walkway connecting SU with cultural destinations in the urban core. The center of Syracuse is blighted with I-81, which cuts the city in two, isolating neighborhoods and greatly impeding transportation (except for the quick exodus of suburbanites out of the city of course). The proposed plan by SU would have their main campus and the Warehouse as the two end points (making about a 1.5 mile route) and link up destinations like The
Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation, the Downtown Writer’s Center, The Museum of Science and Technology (the MOST) and the shopping and entertainment areas of Armory Square (for a full list of Corridor destinations, click here). The idea is to ease students’ contact with the City and to facilitate city residents in reaching the cultural activities at the University; in particular, the goal is to cut over the top of I-81 to make crossing the highway safe and easy.[1]

The proposed Corridor has much going for it. It’d be convenient, probably better for your lungs than breathing the street air and sure as hell better than forcing people to drive everywhere. Their designs, which call for a shared pedestrian and bicycle path and featuring art and informative displays, could make the walk a pleasant experience. I personally support any effort to get Americans out of their cars and walking more.

However, I also have some mixed feelings about the walkway, in particular because of my experiences with the similar “
Skyway” in Rochester. This walkway system links sites like the Hyatt Regency, the Xerox Building and parking garages. Whenever I used the Skyway it seemed to me to be a way for middle class white folk and yuppies to avoid walking in the streets. There was a serious class and race divide in the project: the streets below hummed with the activity of (mostly black and often poor) city residents while in the air above a tiny handful of (mostly white and mostly wealthier) suburbanites scuttled to museums and corporate meeting areas. When all of the places that the middle class wants to visit in the city are connected by a tunnel in the sky they are able to avoid true interaction with the city below. There is no "overflow" of prosperity into the surrounding neighborhoods by pedestrians who might buy a hot dog or a newspaper (or even better, become outraged at poverty in their city and seek to change it...). The Skyway in Rochester, while probably facilitating pedestrian access to cultural sites, also serves to exacerbate that city’s problems.

So how can SU and Syracuse change all of this? Firstly, the Skyway in Rochester largely connects those who are already inside the cultural sites (or parking garages), if the city were to facilitate entrance to the new Corridor from the street and from poor neighborhoods they might find a more diverse population on the Corridor and an increased usage in general. The facts that there are few safe crossings of I-81 and that a major university with thousands of students in it might also increase usage of the Corridor. Finally, the designers need to take into account the desires of all potential users of the Corridor, not just students or suburbanites looking to avoid walking the streets. By working with the poorer neighborhoods, the communities of color, immigrant groups, etc, the University and the City might find out what destinations are important to them and what amenities would be important to increase their excitement and participation.

-Posted by Jesse

[1] I’m personally looking forward to peering out of the glass at the cars racing below in early evening, but that might just be me.


NYCO said...

I'm not too sure that any elevated walkway (or tramway) is still in the works for the so-called Connective Corridor. It is definitely the one Nancy Cantor initiative that people in Syracuse are most skeptical/ambivalent about. Right now it just seems to be a gleam in someone's eye. (The tramway notion, briefly floated a few months ago, had people wondering if the cars would come with rock- and bullet-proof glass, since they would make attractive targets.)

The Connective Corridor is pretty much still in the talking/dreaming stage.

Personally, I just fear there is too much PHYSICAL distance between the SU hill and all these places downtown, no matter what they do with the pathway. It is a long haul to downtown. You could have it the nicest, safest walkway in the world and I still don't think students would use it. Unless it were lined with bars. Which it won't be.

Democratus said...

Just wanted to thank you for the mention. Much appreciated.

Jesse said...

I have been corrected in one regards--- it seems that the planned walkway (minus the part over Route 81 I assume) is going to be on the street level... not an elevated "Honkey Tube" (I was sent an email that said that this was their nickname in Rochester).

With that said, my opinion changes. People in America are often suspicious of pedestrian streets... how do you drive there!?!?!? And 1.5 miles! Of course, this isn't nearly as far as some might think, most people on a mall outing do more than this (of course, I'm a bit biased in this regard as I was once a mountain guide and got paid to walk all day long for weeks on end).

I think, though, that if we begin to explore two of our "neighborhood" pedestrian malls: the Ithaca Commons and Church Street in Burlington, we see that they have been wildly successful. I think that a pedestrian street leading from campus to Armory Square, if well designed, could become the focal point, the heart of the city, much like the Commons and Church Street.