The Interstate 81 bridges, in the heart of Syracuse: As a community faces a decision, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says removing them could be “transformative.” (Liam Kirst/Submitted image)

Sam Gordon, startled and thrilled, had to fight back the temptation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was speaking last week at the newly restored Syracuse Downtown Marriott, where Cuomo hosted a conference on "sustainable development and collaborative governance." The governor went to an unexpected place in his remarks that made Gordon want to jump up and start "high fiving" with other planners and civic officials in the room, if Gordon could just find one willing to stick up a hand.

Cuomo, standing in the heart of the city at the center of the state, offered words that rippled across decades of New York history, words that shook the whole post-World War II engineering ethic on which cities like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester were changed and rebuilt:

“A classic planning blunder,” he said of the elevated Interstate 81 bridges that slice through the middle of Syracuse.  “Let's build a road and bisect an entire community. That's an idea, yeah, let's do that, cut it right in half," said Cuomo, expressing shock at the original concept.

To Gordon, planner for the Onondaga County town of DeWitt, the message was both joyous and almost staggering:

“I feel like everyone in the room was surprised that he said it, because without coming right out and saying it, he was saying: 'The highway’s coming down.'”

[Also by Sean Kirst: Amid more bloodshed upstate, one young couple sees a cure]

The debate has sweeping philosophical application. In the 1960s, the elevated portion of Interstate 81 was built through the center of Syracuse. The same imperative, in that era, was at work in Buffalo: Faced with the exploding use of the automobile, the idea was that the only way to save the city was by tearing down its core. The bridges in Syracuse leveled the 15th Ward, the traditional home of the city’s African-American and Jewish communities. At the time, city planners spoke of the elevated highway as a means of “slum control.”

Greater Buffalo has faced its own debate about the future of the Skyway. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Greater Buffalo has faced its own debate about the future of the Skyway. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Instead, it turned into what Gordon and others describe as a giant wall, an outsize spine in the civic body that separated downtown Syracuse from Syracuse University and the city's major hospitals. Accident rates on the elevated bridges were higher than on other portions of I-81. The elevated highway became an eyesore, often thick with trash, difficult and treacherous to clean.

[Also by Sean Kirst: The untold tale of Jim Dyson, the man who named the Buffalo Bills]

At the crossroads of New York, near the place where the Thruway and I-81 cross paths, the bridges are a symbol of what happened after World War II: In a near-panic to serve the fast emergence of the automobile, Upstate cities often sacrificed the fabric of established neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Sixteen years ago, it was Gordon – as a young planner for the City of Syracuse – who sat quietly in a meeting at City Hall, listening as civic officials lamented the drawbacks from the elevated interstate, and then said words that brought rueful laughter from the room: Why don’t we bring it down?

Among those in the room was Van Robinson, a member of the Syracuse Common Council. He embraced the idea and went public with it. Robinson is African-American, and he arrived in Syracuse when the black community was still reeling from the displacement and destruction of the 15th Ward. He, too, was met with laughter when he first proposed razing the bridges. Yet such cities as Milwaukee were taking similar steps, and Robinson began picking up supporter after supporter.

Pretty soon, the idea was no longer a joke. The Syracuse interstate is more than a half-century old, and the state Department of Transportation says it must be removed or rebuilt. The DOT began a process that essentially identified four options. One is a tunnel, considered an expensive long shot. One is leaving things as they are.  The two other choices are rebuilding the bridges - most likely with an even larger footprint - or creating a boulevard in their place.

Even the cheapest option, a boulevard, is expected to climb toward $1 billion in costs.

[Also by Sean Kirst: As 'zip line' opens, Onondaga faithkeeper counsels respect for thundering majesty of Niagara Falls]

There have been fierce arguments about the best choice. The owners of Destiny USA, a giant shopping mall on the city’s northern edge, are among the business interests who claim shifting traffic in any way from the existing route will do economic harm to the community. Many planners say a civic boulevard would have the opposite effect, that it would open up vast new areas - now lost to the bridges or rust-stained areas beneath - for development and parkland.

Sam Gordon: Planner's dream of seeing interstate bridges leveled may become reality. (Submitted image)

Sam Gordon: Planner's dream of seeing interstate bridges leveled may become reality. (Submitted image)

Advocates for Pioneer Homes, a historic public housing complex in the cross hairs of the plan, want assurances that residents will stay in their homes, no matter what happens, even if the value of the land suddenly skyrockets. Others worry about the potential damage and demolition from a plan to fully connect interstates 690 and 81, a connection left partially undone when they were built decades ago.

[OPINION: DOT study should hasten Buffalo's ability to replace the old and obsolete Skyway]

Still, Gordon knows there is a nagging belief around the region that in the end Syracuse will take the most predictable path, that it will simply build the bridges anew and accept the status quo.

“On a personal level, I’ve said to my wife: ‘If we rebuild that highway, I’m leaving,’” Gordon said. “It has that much importance to this community.”

Cuomo had stayed neutral in the debate. His transportation commissioner is a former mayor of Syracuse, Matt Driscoll, who also declined to tip his hand. The standard expectation was that the governor would wait until the end of the process, moving toward a draft environmental impact statement on the different choices by the end of this year, before he showed a preference or made a choice ….

Which is why his comments in Syracuse - the simple recognition that knocking down the bridges could be "transformative" - shot across the state like a bolt of lightning.

Interstate 81 bridges, in the heart of Syracuse: Sam Gordon, a civic planner, speaks of "atrocious" use of space. (Sean Kirst/Submitted image)

Interstate 81 bridges, in the heart of Syracuse: Sam Gordon, a civic planner, speaks of "atrocious" use of space. (Sean Kirst/Submitted image)

Gordon knows Interstate 81 could become a kind of statewide template, a billion-dollar affirmation of a new planning philosophy that's already in motion. In suburban Syracuse, he's part of an effort to transform Erie Boulevard - a classic commercial strip where it's overwhelming and frightening to walk or bike - into a more attractive thoroughfare.

In Rochester, they’re pulling out part of the Inner Loop, a circle of pavement wrapped around downtown. In Niagara Falls, the state wants to get rid of a parkway that separates the city from the Niagara River. That parkway was recently renamed Niagara Scenic Parkway, removing the name of Robert Moses, the postwar titan whose passion was focusing on the automobile, above all else.

In Buffalo, the process is underway to transform the Scajaquada Expressway - another highway that cuts through the heart of a community - into "Scajaquada Boulevard."

And the state plans a "comprehensive study" in Buffalo about the future of the towering Skyway, the iconic and much-debated highway bridge on the city’s waterfront doorstep that is a lightning rod for these planning questions.

[RELATED: Officials consider removal of Skyway, but some savor its history]

Cuomo’s words in Syracuse traveled along all those roads and flew across the Skyway. With trademark impatience, he urged civic leaders in Onondaga County to make a decision, once and for all. He spoke of how knocking down the bridges could be “transformative,” echoing the vision that a young planner named Sam Gordon first raised in a meeting, 16 years ago.

There was one big difference when the governor made the point.

Gordon looked around the room. No one was laughing.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com, follow him at twitter.com/seankirst or leave your thoughts here, as a comment, on the status of expressways in Upstate cities.

Click here to see the comments. Add yours now!