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July 16, 2024

TCTA Participant Syracuse, New York, Wins $180 Million Grant

Reena S. Burt, Program Analyst, Priority Projects and Innovation Division
Cole Ford, Intern, Priority Projects and Innovation Division

Federal, State, and local-Syracuse stakeholders at Interstate 81 carrying shovels dig into a pile of dirt. A large sign on the left reads Federal, State, and local-Syracuse stakeholders break ground on Interstate 81 to mark the start of the $2.25 billion reworking of the elevated highway that split the city. Photo credit: Ana McGough, City of Syracuse

For some residents of Syracuse, New York, the Interstate 81 (I-81) viaduct is a high-traffic, dilapidated, 70-year-old roadway that needs repair. For many others, however, the elevated viaduct represents more: a symbolic barrier to progress, both physical and emotional.

Like many American cities, Syracuse is working to rectify persistent inequities that its older public infrastructure projects, including I-81, created. For decades, there has been discussion and controversy about tearing down the elevated viaduct that divided the city's 15th ward, a thriving Black community in the 1960s. However, even with the viaduct demolition scheduled to begin, Syracuse city officials recognized that connection doesn't happen just because you take down a highway. Given that, how does a city rebuild and reconnect?

The first step in the rebuilding effort was obtaining a $500,000 planning grant in fiscal year 2022 through the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT's) Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Program to study the most effective methods to create safe and protected transportation routes for residents of the 15th Ward in the city's South Side. To thoughtfully begin fostering connections, Syracuse city staff reached out to Thriving Communities Technical Assistance (TCTA), a $5 million HUD technical assistance (TA) program designed to help local governments coordinate and integrate transportation and housing in infrastructure planning and implementation. TCTA capacity builders provided valuable insights to help Syracuse build strong partnerships that led to the city winning a $180 million Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods grant from DOT. "[TCTA] has been instrumental for us in many ways," said Sarah Walton, director of East Adams Neighborhood Redevelopment in Syracuse's Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. "Its support — with the right team, at the right time — most certainly elevated our ability to meet this moment and successfully take advantage of the DOT funding opportunity."

Cultivating Interagency Collaboration

Syracuse city staff understood that the damage that I-81 caused was more than a transportation problem; addressing it would require a holistic approach that considered how I-81 impacted the area's housing, mobility, segregation patterns, built environment, and access to economic opportunity. Implementing a multifaceted solution that tackled the issue's intersectionality required partnering with multiple city agencies as well as the local public housing agency. Moreover, jurisdiction over the interstate fell to the state, not the city.

The work in Syracuse involved two separate projects: one focused on the highway, and another centered on community development. City officials created this distinction because the projects had separate implications, required different regulatory focuses, and had individual staff and leadership as well as unique workplans.

TCTA expert guidance revealed that the two-project structure was limiting the city's ability to drive impact. Although each project had specific needs, the impacts affected multiple overlapping communities. To ensure the success of the undertaking, city staff had to blur the lines between projects and begin thinking about them together.

TCTA provided the external perspective needed for city staff to make that shift. HUD's TA providers helped Syracuse officials break down silos and create clear communication structures with defined meeting goals across agencies. This action enabled robust partnerships that advanced the project smoothly. As Walton observed, "TCTA is really helping to strengthen our own communication channels — our own way of collaborating."

Having a project with multiple stakeholders also meant managing conflicting viewpoints on project processes and outcomes. Syracuse staffers noted that the TCTA team shared essential guidelines that allowed the different stakeholders to navigate their conflicts effectively. Ultimately, the feedback from TCTA experts catalyzed a new, unified project model with clear communication methods that empowered staff members and cultivated strong teams. The focus on building interagency connections resulted in huge wins for the project, such as being able to include a joint resolution between the Syracuse Housing Authority Board of Commissioners and the Syracuse Common Council in the city's Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods application. According to Walton, this resolution was key to the city's successful grant application. "[I]t was the TCTA program — and HUD's willingness to meet the community where we were and create flexibility in the program — that helped us stand out."

Thoughtfully Centering Community Engagement

The Syracuse project team leveraged TCTA to improve engagement with the community by identifying mechanisms to directly connect TCTA experts with community members. This process allowed residents to think through challenges, create solutions, and build capacity without governmental institutions intruding in their space. Ideally, the TA programming has strengthened the ability of community members to advocate for their needs with their government. This skill is important not only for the current I-81 work but also for future neighborhood projects.

At a basketball court on Wilson Park, Quenton House shoots a basket as Savon Clanton waits for the rebound.Quenton House shoots a basket as Savon Clanton waits for the rebound at Wilson Park near the elevated I-81 Viaduct. Photo credit: Michelle Breidenbach, Syracuse.com

In addition to bolstering community capacity, city staff worked with TCTA providers to understand how to effectively communicate with their constituents. Residents experiencing negative impacts from the different projects or hearing about upcoming projects wanted their elected officials to respond to their concerns. Instead, complaints about the highway meant reaching out to the New York State Department of Transportation, whereas issues with public housing meant communicating with the Syracuse Housing Authority.

TCTA facilitators worked with Syracuse staff to craft a solution. To complement the city's new unified internal project structure and communication systems, the TCTA team recommended that the city project team develop coordinated messaging or branding that is clear to all community members. The city government needed to bear the responsibility for successfully communicating with residents. TCTA's support created huge shifts in the project's community communication strategy. "We have…new goals in mind, as a result of TCTA, to unify the messaging and make sure that, when we go out to the community, we are all coordinating with each other — that there are no silos between us," said Joe Driscoll, I-81 project director.

Proactive Problem Solving

After years of broken promises, Syracuse government officials realized that their actions spoke louder than their words. "We're aware that we have to start moving forward, and trust will build from there," said Driscoll. City officials must continue to respond to community needs to build institutional trust. As the city of Syracuse implements the I-81 project, staff plan to leverage TCTA programming to help them tactfully address future problems.

Community leaders have noticed that many neighbors are dealing with "meeting fatigue." Not only have residents been asked to attend multiple neighborhood meetings, but they also have endured frequent door knocking, surveys, and feedback requests for new designs. As Walton noted, "When you've been told all this change is coming for the last 10, 13 — [or] 15 years, in some cases — and nothing's changed [even though] you keep providing your input and or insight…it's hard to continue showing up to those spaces."

City staff are trying to determine how to meet the need for engagement without burdening the communities most affected by governmental inequities, especially considering the upcoming release of funds for the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods planning grant recently awarded to Syracuse. This planning grant focuses on improving neighborhood residents' mobility and access to opportunity. Staff already are exploring opportunities for coordination and discussing strategic inflection points with the TCTA team. "[TCTA] ensures [that] there's collaboration and…strategic and coordinated engagement of residents throughout the process," said Walton.

To begin lifting the burdens placed on the community, Syracuse has leveraged the Community Quarterback model popularized by the nonprofit Purpose Built Communities. This model aims to ease the work required from the whole community by relying on area leaders to represent residential needs.

With the unwavering support and coaching from HUD's technical assistance providers, committed cities can cultivate place-based, community-centric solutions that transform their city.

What’s Next?

The Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods planning and construction grants in Syracuse represent the dedication, tenacity, and proactive problem-solving of city officials. However, Syracuse team members know that this grant, and I-81's reconstruction, are just the start of their efforts to rebuild the city's communities. Walton emphasized that the team is excited to continue this work and the partnership with TCTA. "We are hoping the momentum continues as we wait to secure additional, competitive funding. In the meantime…the TCTA program is making [a difference] in our community."

HUD firmly believes that supporting local jurisdictions is key to making equitable, community-informed infrastructure decisions. Through flexible TA programs such as TCTA, HUD is meeting the unique needs of localities and supporting their efforts to make an impact.

We thank Sarah Walton, director of East Adams Neighborhood Redevelopment for Syracuse's Department of Neighborhood and Business Development., and Joe Driscoll, I-81 project director, for sharing their experiences as TCTA participants.

Interview with Sarah Walton, Director of East Adams Neighborhood Redevelopment in Syracuse's Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, and Joe Driscoll, I-81 project director for the city of Syracuse, 8 April 2024. ×

Email correspondence with Sarah Walton, Director of East Adams Redevelopment, 13 March 2024. ×

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