Article by, Sam Ogozalek
Robert Mike had just gotten back from church.
The president of the Pioneer Homes Tenants Association was still dressed in a suit, and carefully rubbing his gloves together in the cold.
Walking underneath the Interstate 81 viaduct, unseen trucks and cars thundered by above his head. It was nearly dusk as Mike stepped between small drifts of snow.
Mike’s lived near this deteriorating highway for about 10 years. He’s now fed up with I-81. And he’s not alone.
In more than a dozen interviews with The Daily Orange, public housing tenants living by I-81 in the low-income, majority black East Adams Street neighborhood expressed increasing frustration and anxiety with what several called an unnecessary delay of the interstate’s replacement project.
“They should just go ahead, do it and get it over with, before something terrible happens,” said Mike, who’s a Syracuse Housing Authority maintenance employee. “If something falls down and kills someone, off the highway, then they gonna say ‘(they) should have acted quicker.’”
The project, which would fundamentally reconfigure the major highway that bisects Syracuse, was pushed back earlier this month by New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo for more study.
Tinica Short, vice president of the Pioneer Homes Tenants Association, said the area no longer trusts state officials.
“Some of these political decisions have ‘kicked the can down the road,’ so to speak,” said Bill Simmons, executive director of the SHA, which owns and operates Pioneer Homes and Toomey Abbott Towers. Both of those facilities are in the city’s East Adams Street neighborhood.
Pioneer Homes, a set of apartment buildings, is also in a census tract known for highly concentrated minority poverty, just west of the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. Toomey Abbott Towers, a building with just over 300 units for the elderly and people with disabilities, is adjacent Syracuse University’s Brewster/Boland/Brockway Complex.
Joe Morrissey, a New York State Department of Transportation spokesman who works in the agency’s Albany office, responded to a Daily Orange inquiry about tenants’ concerns with a two sentence statement:
“(The) NYSDOT is studying all options to ensure the best outcome for the central New York region. We are sensitive to the needs of residents adjacent to the project area and will continue to solicit feedback from all local stakeholders to ensure their voices are heard,” he said.
The highway project has dragged on for 10 years, with dozens of public meetingsand reports. NYSDOT officials are now considering three major options for replacing the viaduct, which was expected to reach the end of its “useful life” in 2017, according to the state. An NYSDOT recommendation on how the project should move forward was expected to be released sometime this year.
Instead, Cuomo announced that a previously dismissed tunnel idea would be further analyzed by the NYSDOT, pushing the expected release of the I-81 recommendation back until 2019. Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-DeWitt) and local business leaders have supported various tunnel concepts.
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A few Toomey Abbott Towers tenants, in separate interviews, said they were not frustrated by the delay. Joseph Askins, who’s lived in the building for more than five years, said it’s better for the state to take its time with a big project.
But Latoya Allen, the city’s common councilor of the 4th district, said the project’s “process” has been unfair. Tenants of Toomey Abbott Towers frequently brought up I-81 concerns during her campaign last year, Allen said.
The 4th district includes Pioneer Homes, Toomey Abbott Towers and most of Syracuse’s South Side.
“We’ve been talking about it for so long and nothing has happened,” Allen said. “A lot of people are just uncomfortable … they have to wait for somebody else to let them know what’s going to happen to their home.”
Clifford Smith, wearing an old T-shirt, walked inside the Toomey Abbott Market on a recent Sunday. It was bitterly cold. A handicap-accessible door whisked open near an advertisement for Natural ICE beer, and soon other tenants filtered into the store to buy groceries, cigars and lotto tickets.
The I-81 project is not expected to displace tenants at Toomey Abbott Towers, SHA records show. But most towers residents who spoke to The Daily Orange were exasperated by state officials:
“It seems like they can’t make up their minds,” Smith said. “We don’t know what’s going on.”
“I’m worried about where I’m gonna go,” said John Adams. He’s lived in Toomey Abbott Towers for eight years.
“We all got scared,” said Cathy Corbacio. She’s lived in the towers for four years. The building is a few hundred feet from the highway.
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Some residents also said they had no idea what the I-81 project was. Sherree Vannoy just shook her head when asked about the highway. She’s lived in Toomey Abbott Towers for 20 years.
Others were confused by aspects of the project: Adams said he thought Toomey Abbott Towers tenants would be displaced by construction. But only Pioneer Homes residents could face relocation, records show.
Regardless of what I-81 option the NYSDOT selects, the redevelopment of Pioneer Homes as part of a long-term SHA plan to build mixed-income apartments, renovate old buildings and beautify the area “will require some displacement for a period of time,” Simmons said.
As “an educated guess,” the executive director said 150 to 200 units could be affected by the plan.
“It’s difficult for anybody to know what’s going on, whether you’re paying attention to this issue or not,” Simmons said of I-81. “There’s tons of rumors out there.”
In 2017, Morrissey said the NYSDOT organized individual and “small group” project meetings with the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, the SHA, the local chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the CNY Fair Housing Council, among other groups.
State officials also held I-81 replacement presentations in Toomey Abbott Towers during summer 2013 and fall 2014, NYSDOT records show.
But the majority of tenants who spoke with The Daily Orange expressed anxiety about I-81 and said they had little idea of what was happening with the project.
Morrissey, in a follow-up email, said the NYSDOT, “will continue to provide opportunities for public engagement throughout the process,” when asked if the transportation agency would again hold project meetings in Toomey Abbott Towers.
“It’s taken a real long time … I haven’t heard much about it,” said Kiki Martin, a Pioneer Homes resident who was recently shopping in Toomey Abbott Market.
Martin, 20, grew up in what most tenants call “the bricks,” or Central Village, an SHA-operated facility on Oakwood Avenue, three blocks west of I-81. She’s spent most of her life in this neighborhood, bordered by the hospitals and unceasing traffic. She’s spent half of her life waiting for a decision on I-81.
“It’s just too much. It’s way too much,” Martin said.
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