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Saturday, 20 October 2007
Midtown - biting the bullet, or the dust?
Topic: urban issues

So Midtown Plaza soon will bite the dust. Actually, it will be Rochesterians who’ll bite any dust raised in the process: the inevitable though unseen air pollution from dismantling and imploding older buildings laden with asbestos, gypsum, silica, and other things inimical to human lungs. But that’s progress, right?

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Midtown for years. When I was an Eastman student, and later when I worked there in the Sibley Music Library, Midtown offered me a respite from the unfortunately small world of the arts. Never mind the kitschy Clock of the Nations; the plaza floor itself measured, step by human step, the depth and range of city life. You could see anybody at all walking through, waiting for a slice of pizza, pausing over a cup of coffee, focusing on urgent or imaginary business, trying to find a seat among the “No Sitting” signs on what looked like natural benches – you were part of Midtown, whether you looked eminently respectable or any other form of lost soul.

The hate part of my feelings was architectural. Even when it was a newborn, as the gleaming progeny of once-revered Victor Gruen, the plaza always looked cheap, and the 1960s-style updating of several older buildings that staked out the site like pylons depressed the aesthetic value even more.

Yet Midtown at its best fulfilled the promise of good urban design. It brought people together – as close to “everybody” as you can get, and as you do get on Saturdays at the Public Market, to cite Rochester’s greatest success. And as you won’t get with whatever succeeds the plaza – whether it’s a stuffy office tower for Paetec, as now promised, or the plans change again and we get a stuffy collection of boutiques and upper middle class retreats and redoubts.

At the very least, some effort should go to saving the more valuable older buildings that the plaza swallowed whole, or nearly whole. Why demolish everything on the 8.6-acre site? There’s got to be space that’s retrievable.

But most of what needs retrieval is the life of the street. When Rochesterians reminisce about Downtown in the old days, they mostly talk about the crowds, the packed department stores at holiday time, the annual monorail in Midtown loaded with kids. It’s that critical mass of humanity that we need to worry about most. And as we assess the Paetec plan, we should be asking what life it will bring to East Main, Clinton, East Avenue, and Chestnut And forgotten streets like Euclid, Lawn, and Atlas. Where are those, you ask? Exactly my point.

(Note: A few days ago, the D&C ran a pretty good piece by Erica Bryant about bicycle commuting. I say pretty good because I think Bryant should have dealt comprehensively with transportation issues like intermodality - including the fact that most serious urban cyclists, particularly in the winter, are low-income men who need the cheapest transportation possible. But you can't have everything in one article, and Bryant certainly must have turned some people on to giving their two-wheelers a whirl. She also interviewed my friend Jason Crane and hightlighted RocBike.com, which he created and for which I'm a contributing writer. So visit RocBike, read your fill from cyclo-cyberspace, and give a listen to some entertaining audio files, like one that Jason, Adam Durand and I did on a trip to Charlotte and back.)


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:01 EDT
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