I love learning about different roles in local government. I was lucky enough to interview Andy Maxwell, the Director of Planning & Sustainability in the City of Syracuse, New York. This interview was especially interesting to me since I spent the past year completing my MPA program at Syracuse. It was fun to hear some behind-the-scenes info about upcoming plans for the city!
Read below for highlights from the interview! You can listen to the full podcast at:
Andy is a Syracuse native, and attended St. John Fisher College in Rochester, then continued his education at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University for his Master’s of Public Administration. He began working for the city of Syracuse in the Community Development department after graduating in 2006. Now, 5 years later, he is still with the City, in a slightly different role in the mayor’s office, as Director of Planning & Sustainability.
Kacie: What are your main responsibilities?
Andy: We’re responsible for a variety of things. One prime area of responsibility is the management of somewhat larger public works programs. We have a number of larger projects that are going on right now in the community. One is the Onondaga Creek Walk project, and our office provides some leadership to that project and we’re seeing that to completion this year. It’s essentially a 2.2-mile walking/biking/hiking trail alongside Onondaga Creek through the city. There’s another program called the Connective Corridor, which is also under construction this year. That’s connecting the Syracuse University area to downtown, using things like road dieting, and bike lanes, and new design elements.
We’re also responsible for some of the larger policy initiatives, mostly related to planning and urban design issues. We’re working on a new land-use plan for the city of Syracuse—we haven’t had one in about 40 years, so we’re working to establish a new vision from the city. And, from a policy perspective, explore ways we can implement that vision.
The Connective Corridor has a lot of different components. One of those components is the public transportation element. In trying to strengthen the connection between the University Hill area and downtown, which really are two economic engines for all of Syracuse and central New York, we’re really trying to connect those two areas, and leverage the different assets that we have there. Part of that effort is the public transportation element, making people more aware of our public transportation system, and trying to bring a unique brand and identity to that, so that people are more aware of it all the time.
Next year, we’ll be reducing the number of travel lanes and therefore calming traffic, putting bicycle lanes in place, really trying to make the entire corridor safer and more comfortable for all users. Those are the types of things that are going to have a major impact on connecting these two neighborhoods.
Kacie: So what you were just explaining about reducing the number of lanes, is that what you referred to before as ‘road dieting’?
Andy: That’s right. Road dieting is when you are able to reduce the number of total motor vehicle travel lanes, in order to make the entire street more safe for all users, including those riding bikes, those who are pedestrians, those who might be in wheelchairs, and so on. We really want our roads in Syracuse to be welcoming and safe for all users.
Kacie: If money was no object, what’s something that you really wish you could do for the community, if you could spend as many dollars as you needed?
Andy: I wish that were the case, I wish I had that problem to solve! Unfortunately, we are in such challenging times. But I think that if money were no object, if we had infinite resources, one thing I would do—in the City of Syracuse, we have a pretty massive challenge looming related to transportation, and we refer to it as the “I-81 Challenge.” We have Interstate 81 that cuts right through the middle of the City and it separates downtown from the University Hill. As I mentioned, we’re going to great lengths through the Connective Corridor project and other projects to try to bridge that gap. Before too long, we’re going to be reaching a point where the elevated viaduct of Route 81 that passes through the middle of the City, is going to reach the end of its useful life and we’ll need a solution for that. Whatever direction we decide to go in, as a community, is going to be very expensive, and I think it’s something we’re seeing all around the nation. We have not, as a nation, been investing as much as we should in our infrastructure, and that’s something that’s going to come to a head here in Syracuse over the next 8 or 10 years related to Route 81. I think there’s a variety of things we can do to take that on, including the possible removal of the viaduct and creating an at-grade urban boulevard that would really stitch back together different parts of our communities that have been separated by the highway, and at the same time make investments in public transportation that would reduce the impact that we have on single occupancy motor vehicles in and around the urban core.
Another thing I would do…in Syracuse we’re lucky enough to have something called Say Yes to Education. This is a program that is really permeating all of the Syracuse school district and beyond. The two main pillars of Say Yes are (1) the additional services that we provide through Say Yes to our students and families around the city. These services include extended day learning, free legal services, health clinics, summer programming—these are the things we’re doing to really enhance what happens with the normal school day to make it something that’s more holistic, and dealing with a child’s entire day, entire year, and really their entire educational life, from pre-K all the way through graduation. The second main pillar is free college tuition for those higher education institutions that are participating in what we call the Say Yes Pact. The Pact is a group of colleges and universities all over New York State and beyond, where if you graduate from the Syracuse City School District and you are accepted to that university, you can attend tuition-free. That’s something that’s obviously a very exciting thing for our school district, for all our young people, for all our young families in Syracuse. It’s something that’s really unique, there’s no program like it in the whole nation. So if I had unlimited resources I’d be dedicating a lot of resources to Say Yes to Education to make that a fully endowed program.
Kacie: Why did you become passionate about a career in local government?
Andy: A main part of my philosophy, and perhaps part of my upbringing as well, is that I really want to do something with my life that is going to make a real impact for people and try to make the lives of other people better. With that as my broad motivation, or philosophy, I started to think about what I really cared about, and things that I may be able to personally contribute to, and so having made that decision to commit myself to public service and having gone to the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, I started to think about where might I fit in best. Where could I put my talents to best use in helping others? And I made the decision that staying in Syracuse was something I really wanted to do. As I said, I was born and raised here in Syracuse, my family has been here for many generations, and it’s a community that I know well and I care for very much. So I made that decision to stay here and see what kind of change I could be a part of. For me it was the motivation of wanting to help others and the belief that my best shot at doing that was right here in my home community.
As you can see, Andy has great plans and is devoted to continuous improvement for Syracuse. In talking to him, he was very modest about his accomplishments, and I'm glad I had an opportunity here to showcase his great work!
If you know any great state/local government employees who you'd like to see interviewed, please send me a message on govloop or at [email protected]
And, check out my first interview with Scott Collins, Assistant to the City Manager in Santa Cruz, California!
Have a great day,