Explaining Syracuse University’s controversial University Place promenade
Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor
UPDATED: Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016 at 4:35 p.m.
Syracuse University will look like a very different campus come this fall. This is in part because the university is undertaking a major construction project on University Place — the street in front of the Schine Student Center and E.S. Bird Library — that will result in a car-free, pedestrian promenade.
The project is one of many renovations planned for the summer that are a part of the Campus Framework, a 20-year plan for the physical structure of SU. A draft of the plan, which included details about the University Place promenade, was released June 20 — weeks after construction on the promenade had started. The Campus Framework is one part of Chancellor Kent Syverud’s three-part Fast Forward Syracuse initiative.
But the promenade has been met with backlash from some faculty, staff and students. Starting in the weeks leading up to construction on May 31, the project was mired in complaints about its possible consequences to the surrounding area, its funding and the administration’s lack of transparency about the project. Still, despite vocal opposition, the promenade is slated to be finished before the fall semester starts.
Here’s a deeper looking into University Place promenade project — and the controversy surrounding it.
What’s a promenade anyway?
A promenade is basically a huge sidewalk. So the street between South Crouse Avenue and College Place will become a car-free walkway when construction is completed, only allowing emergency vehicles to pass.
There’s already one promenade on campus: the path between the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and Schine. But it wasn’t always that way. The street was converted into a promenade in the ’90s. Before then, people could drive all the way up University Avenue to University Place.
Traffic and bus routes will be affected
During the summer, bike lanes along Waverly and Comstock avenues will be modified into a single one-way track. The bus stops on University Place will also be moved to Waverly and Comstock avenues.
Once the promenade is built — SU officials say it will be done before the fall semester starts — the bus stops in front of Schine and Bird Library will permanently change to the opposite sides of the buildings on Waverly Avenue.
Since the promenade will make University Place unusable to cars, traffic on roads surrounding the promenade will increase. Opponents of the promenade claim the traffic increase will be unsafe. But according to a traffic study conducted by the city of Syracuse, the area can handle it. The increased traffic would not negatively impact traffic patterns in any way, the study concluded.
Tula Goenka, an associate professor in Newhouse’s television, radio and film department, said in May that she doesn’t trust the traffic study because, she said, the city has made a traffic related mistake before: implementing floating parking lanes on Waverly and Comstock avenues in 2014. The lane on Comstock Avenue was ultimately removed two months later amid some complaints and confusion.
The promenade will be more than just a sidewalk.
The promenade will also have heated sidewalks to help melt snow, a bike rack in front of Bird Library and huge concrete furniture lining the promenade.
Two replicas of different concrete furniture options were displayed in Schine during a week in April for students to look at and sit on. Students could then vote on which option they liked best.
Students will be able to vote again in the fall on which furniture options will line the promenade, said Joseph Alfieri, director of the division of campus planning, design and construction, in an email. The winning option will also be installed in other places around campus. In the meantime, standard wooden benches will be used as placeholders, he added.
The project has been surrounded by controversy
Ten days before construction was scheduled to start on May 16, a petition against the promenade circulated among faculty members and was eventually sent to Syverud with 108 signatures.
The list of grievances in the petition included concerns about traffic, safety and accessibility, cost and a lack of transparency from the SU administration. In short, those who signed the petition said they felt the money being used to build the promenade should be redirected toward improving academics, a goal in the Academic Strategic plan — another part of Syverud’s Fast Forward Syracuse initiative.
SU officials responded with an email detailing the university’s public outreach effort as a rebuttal to the claim about the lack of transparency. The email included a fact sheet with the traffic survey from the city to respond to complaints about unsafe traffic levels.
The fact sheet also said the university is doubling down on making sure the promenade and the surrounding areas are accessible to people with disabilities.
Cost of the promenade was not directly addressed in the email.
SU officials scheduled two open sessions the following week to hear feedback from faculty members who signed the petition. At the two sessions, faculty rehashed their complaints and the administration tried to assuage their concerns, often leading to heated exchanges. Syverud even showed up at one of the meetings, but tension still remained.
Then THE General Body weighed in.
The University Place promenade ignited long simmering tensions
THE General body, a coalition of student organizations that staged an 18-day sit-in in Crouse-Hinds Hall in November 2014, sent another petition to Syverud on May 15 with 246 signatures and additional complaints.
For THE General Body, the University Place promenade is another decision the SU administration has made without seriously consulting the student body. The closing of the Advocacy Center, cutting of POSSE scholarships — both of which led to THE General Body’s original sit-in — the changes to graduate student health care and the employee buyout are just a few of the roots of THE General Body’s frustration.
At the heart of THE General Body’s concerns are their beliefs that the administration has tried to pull the wool over student’s eyes and that the promenade itself is a waste of money. That money, they argue, should be used to right some of what perceive as previous wrongs of the administration by hiring employees back who took the buyout, funding POSSE scholarships, increasing mental health services on campus and paying adjunct professors more.
As a result, THE General Body organized a protest on campus on the same day construction for the promenade began. Since school was out of session for the summer during the protest, only about 40 people showed up, a number vastly lower than the number of signatories on the petition.
Was the university actually transparent about its plans for the promenade?
One of the first public mentions of the promenade was in April 2015 in a open house given by the architecture firm hired to spearhead campus renovations, Sasaki Associates. The University Place promenade, along with other elements of the Campus Framework, was presented to about 450 members of the SU community as just ideas at the time and no timetable was given on how long it would take to implement them.
The next public meeting about the promenade wasn’t until nearly a year later in March 2016. More than 300 faculty members attended the open session, but plans for the promenade were still being described as “conceptual” and “speculatory,” and actual designs had not yet been proposed, Michael Speaks, dean of the School of Architecture, said at the time.
Later that month, SU officials held public meetings with city stakeholders, including with the volunteer-based group Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today and the Landmark Preservation Board, though the matter did not appear on the Syracuse Common Council agenda until a few weeks before construction was originally set to begin. Four public meetings aimed at students were scheduled a few weeks later. Another public meeting was held after that.
And during this summer, the university is holding information and update sessions about the summer construction and Campus Framework.
The problem with these meetings, critics say, is that few in the SU community went to them or knew they were happening. Ten students showed up to the first open session and two went to the second one. It was never announced that the promenade was out of the conceptual stage until early May, prompting the faculty petition.
Syverud even said in May at a faculty feedback session that transparency about the promenade was not perfect.
“Neither the communications nor the process of the promenade were as good as they should have been,” Syverud said. “I think we should say that and get over it. We’re not all perfect.”
Additionally, a draft of the official Campus Framework plan — which includes plans for the promenade and other projects around campus as well as a forum to leave comments — wasn’t released until nearly a month after construction on the promenade had already started. This left no official channel for people to voice their concerns about the promenade before construction started.
How is the promenade being funded?
The short answer: we’re not quite sure.
The university has not released any specifics about how the promenade or the Campus Framework will be funded nor how much each will cost. In May, Pete Sala, vice president and chief facilities officer, said the final cost of the promenade was not yet finalized. But he estimated it would be less than $6 million and said money would come from the Capital Projects Fund.
How is the university dealing with accessibility?
In the fact sheet sent to faculty after the first petition was created, SU officials said accessibility was at the “forefront” of conversations about the promenade and the Campus Framework. The university, it seems, is holding to that.
In weekly emails over the summer, Sala has provided updates about the various construction projects around campus, including numerous projects that will make dorms and campus buildings around the promenade more accessible.
The Daily Orange will continue to update this Explainer as new information about the University Place promenade is released.
Disclaimer: The Daily Orange leases a house on Ostrom Avenue owned by Syracuse University. As part of the Campus Framework, the university has proposed building student housing on Ostrom Avenue where The Daily Orange currently operates.
Published on July 10, 2016 at 12:36 pm
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