Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland filed a lawsuit to stop the community grid from replacing Interstate 81. Members from Save the 16th, a nonprofit Garland has often consulted, largely disagree with the lawsuit. Garland is pictured here with Save the 16th members Jackie LaSonde and Charles Pierce-El earlier this summer. Credit: Mike Greenlar

Sitting on the second floor of Beauchamp Library in Syracuse’s South Side, a group of community advocates tried to reconcile their positions on Interstate 81. 

Jackie LaSonde gathered the core members of Save the 16th, a nonprofit that advocates for Syracuse’s South Side, in the days after a lawsuit halted work on the highway viaduct.  

One of the group’s prominent members, Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, in favor of stopping the construction. But LaSonde sought to distance Save the 16th from it. The group has since made clear Save the 16th is not affiliated with the suit.

LaSonde and longtime South Side residents Al Williams and Ida Stewart, who all work at a food pantry next to the library, said they want the I-81 viaduct torn down and replaced by a community grid. 

But at the meeting, Charles Pierce-El – one of the members in the group who perhaps has the deepest roots in the South Side – spoke up about the lawsuit: “I’m in favor of it.” 

LaSonde closed her eyes, exhaled and slumped her shoulders.

Pierce-El’s position flummoxed the group. For years, he knocked on doors in advocacy for the community grid. 

The lawsuit isn’t just politically frustrating for many of the group’s members. They live in the shadow of the highway and are again caught in the middle of a battle over the future of their community in which they have little power to decide.

It’s forced the group to grapple with how much they trust each other, Garland and the state.

Garland, former Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler and town supervisors from DeWitt and Salina, among others, filed the lawsuit in September under the name Renew 81 for All. 

The lawsuit accuses the state of shirking its duty to fully analyze the effects of the viaduct teardown. Its filers say the state got wrong each step of the process in its decision-making: The review was too short and too flawed; The assumptions that fuel its traffic projections are wrong; The teardown of the viaduct will not make for a more environmentally safe and equitable South Side, the lawsuit says.

Garland in interviews since the filing has reiterated that he supports the lawsuit and believes the skyway and community grid would be best for the community.

Renew 81 for All asked a judge to throw out all the underlying approvals for the community grid project and force the state to reconsider other options, such as a viaduct, a tunnel and a skyway. Two of the options had been studied for about 10 years along with the grid.

The judge agreed to issue a temporary order stopping the construction in November.

The state has been considering whether to tear down or replace the viaduct since 2011. In April, the state Department of Transportation put its choice to tear down and replace the highway in writing: It selected the community grid, which officials say will re-knit streets and neighborhoods.

All of Save the 16th — including Pierce-El — agrees that the viaduct needs to come down. But the group also agrees the state has not answered enough questions about how construction on the viaduct could affect residents living near it.

“We see the devastation that happened when it went up,” LaSonde said. “What’s the purpose of keeping up something that has devastated a community?”

‘We’ll probably be protesting it’

For much of the meeting at Beauchamp Library, other members of Save the 16th challenged Pierce-El’s position, and the idea that he could both support the viaduct coming down and also support the lawsuit.

Stewart noted Pierce-El is a community elder whose opinion gets respect. 

“We don’t always agree with them but we respect their opinion because they have longevity and concern for the community,” Stewart said. 

United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at Wilson Park in Syracuse, advocating for the community grid plan for I 81, November 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

The viaduct coming down is an inevitability, Pierce-El said. The lawsuit, he said, is a way to slow down the state and force it to answer questions community members are continuing to ask. Pierce-El said he is particularly worried about how tearing down the viaduct might affect air quality for residents who live nearby. 

He said he believes the delay provided by the lawsuit will force the state to reconsider its decision to not to perform a health needs assessment, which has been requested by community advocates. 

Pierce-El agreed to join a separate, but similar lawsuit filed in federal court. He is listed as a litigant alongside Garland in that case. He said he saw the federal suit as a chance to advocate for compensation to residents who lost their homes and businesses when I-81 was first constructed.

His point is mentioned in one line of the federal case filing, as he is introduced as a litigant. It is is not a core argument of the suit. 

This Wednesday, as Pierce-El joined with LaSonde and Williams to dole out food at the pantry near the corner of South Salina and Colvin streets, he shared his thinking. He said he does not actually hope the federal lawsuit — which lavishes praise on a skyway over the community grid — leads to the skyway being built.

If the skyway goes up, “we’ll probably be protesting it,” he said. 

‘I don’t even know what’s in the lawsuit’

At the meeting after the lawsuit was announced, none of the members of Save the 16th members had yet read it.

“I don’t even know what’s in the lawsuit,” Williams said. “It was never brought to me as a member.” 

They didn’t know who else was suing alongside Garland or that the lawsuit pushed for the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge instead of the community grid.

Earlier this year, Garland billed this group as his advisory committee, a group of residents invested in what’s best for the South Side. But other than Pierce-El, none had any idea Garland was planning a lawsuit.

Charles Garland speaks to the media at Wilson Park in Syracuse, November 22, 2022. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

Stewart shares Pierce-El’s concerns about the teardown of the viaduct, but said she still doesn’t support the lawsuit as is.

Garland has cited concerns offered by the New York Civil Liberties Union as justification for his involvement in the lawsuit. 

The NYCLU has supported a community grid, but it has expressed concern over residents’ safety as construction is done on the viaduct. 

The organization asked the DOT to do a health needs assessment for the area but it has so far declined, the NYCLU’s director of the environmental justice project Lanessa Owens-Chaplin said earlier this year. 

“Those are the kinds of concerns I thought the lawsuit was. Let’s stop and get that taken care of,” Stewart said. “I’d agree with that 100%.” 

‘I changed my mind’

Last year, Garland and Alfonso Davis — a community advocate, former Syracuse mayoral candidate and longtime friend to Garland — stood in Wilson Park to support Save 81’s skyway proposal. 

At the time, they both wanted an elevated bridge named after Harriet Tubman to be constructed over a new community grid. 

But a year later, days after Save the 16th convened to discuss the lawsuit, it was Davis who publicly announced that the group was against it.

He spoke during a Save the 16th housing town hall at Gospel Temple Church of God in Christ on Oakwood Avenue.

“Save the 16th is not suing along with those people,” Davis said. 

The group has been supportive of Garland as the legislator representing its district. The members have found places all over the South Side to meet and talk out issues. In that time, Garland has always supported the skyway bridge.

The group has often gotten along by agreeing to disagree.

Earlier this year, Garland voted for County Executive Ryan McMahon’s proposed aquarium. And while much of the group didn’t agree with his choice, they understood Garland’s premise for his vote: The aquarium was going to get built anyway, so why not get something for the South Side in the process? Garland received a number of assurances — namely regarding housing in the South Side — from McMahon.

The county executive has said he believes he could have gotten the necessary votes without Garland’s.

Now, the lawsuit over the community grid – at least in part because of outside pressure – has become something of a breaking point for many in the group. 

“They trust him in the community, he has buried many apersons, genuinely authentic,” LaSonde said of Garland. “… I’ve only been here seven years, these folks have been here their whole lives. It didn’t take me seven minutes to see something is off about this.” 

“Maybe he needs to go back to Corn Flakes from Frosted Flakes. Go back to the original,” Williams said, yearning for the types of disagreements they could more easily settle.

After the housing town hall, in front of the church, a light snow had begun to fall, in stark contrast to the summer day when Davis and Garland had announced their support for the skyway.

Davis said his own opinions on the skyway have since changed. Not only that, he believes the community grid is the right way forward. He’s talked to LaSonde and Owens-Chaplin about the benefits of the grid.

“I changed my mind,” he said. 

READ MORE ABOUT I-81

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.