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Saturday, 22 October 2005
The public squared
Topic: urban issues
If I were a Democrat, I might already have made peace with (sold out to?) Renaissance Square.

The temptations are many, you have to admit. The $230 million plan means downtown investment, something every urban center in the region needs desperately. In the case of RenSquare, most of the funding will come from the feds, so we’re talking free money, right? The logic of capitalism (here I return to e.e. cummings’ quip that in retail, there’s no moral distinction between “lonjewray or shrouds”) trumps every other concern. It’s not really “build it and they will come,” as they say in the movies. If you build it and walk away with a wad of profits, who cares if they come? Or if they rot? Just wait to see how they rebuild New Orleans on the backs of the drowned.

Okay, RenSquare does have a thin silver lining: the project will bring some jobs to a neglected corner or two. I’m not so sure about permanent jobs and businesses, though. Talk a walk through the old Sibley’s any weekday. The MCC Damon campus on the fourth and fifth floors is crowded and vibrant. A good deal of office space is occupied, and the farmers market and other temporary events on the ground floor make the place come alive, at least a few hours at a time. But the food court on the second floor – surely the most direct model for the businesses our leaders hope will come to the RenSquare concourse eventually – doesn’t look well. The pizza joint and an Asian fast-food restaurant, among others, are gone; only a cookie counter is still in operation.

Go over the bridge or cross Main at street level to Midtown Plaza, and things aren’t much livelier. I do like the espresso place on the terrace, and the Bruegger’s bagel takeout is okay. But there’s not much dough, real or symbolic, changing hands here, for one simple reason. Too many people who come through Midtown, and who’ll come through RenSquare, barely have enough disposable income for a leisurely cuppa joe. Forget the power lunch.

Looking over the RenSquare plan - which has wowed the downtown development corps, with Heidi Zimmer-Meyer at their vanguard - I can’t help think how common, how trite the whole thing is. Its got some bells and whistles, but generally it looks like a dozen other cheapo complexes in comparable urban areas. I think immediately of “Rainbow Center” in my hometown, Niagara Falls, a retail and “wintergarden” destination that’s turned into anything but a pot of gold. Chronically starved of operating funds – not least because the rentals don’t materialize – such a glittering temple soon grows dusty and drab. Even the attached parking garage, no jewel to begin with, becomes a howling wilderness.

I’m annoyed that the architect failed to integrate the old buildings into the RenSquare facade. He’s condemned part of Rochester’s history to that contemporary dustbin, the demolition landfill. And by moving the buses off-street and focusing on a concourse and interior park, he’s making sure that the sidewalks at Main and Clinton, and not just those on the northwest corner, will be vacant. But I suppose that’s the idea: keep the inconvenient populations out of public view, with the fiction that you’re providing better service.

The RenSquare elevated park/walkway idea is getting undeserved kudos. I wonder about fumes rising from the bus area below. But even if the mini-park air is breathable, how much foot traffic will go there? For an answer, look at Genesee Crossroads. That riverside reclamation project was another attempt to bring pedestrians to new ground above a vehicular space (the buried municipal parking garage off Andrews St.). Now, experts agree, the whole thing needs to be removed.

Want to know how to spend a quarter billion on transportation? As a bicyclist and pedestrian, I have some thoughts. Go way beyond the recent recommendations from the Urban Land Institute (i.e. tear down Midtown Plaza and re-create a user-friendly mixed-use neighborhood there) in creating a walkable central business district. Slow the traffic down by any means necessary, starting with thorough restoration of two-way streets. Charge people for auto-use in downtown, not just through parking fees but through a congestion tax like the one in Ken Livingstone’s London. And when the drivers flee to the malls and office parks, tax them there, too.

Fix the sidewalks, for Pete’s sake. And shovel them, along with the bus stops, in winter. Soon we’ll be seeing Rochester’s annual answer to the Iditarod: pedestrians struggling through the mush and slush or over the ice, or forced out into the traffic lanes. Why isn’t there more emphasis on basics like snow removal? And on the jobs that such down-to-earth service would generate?

Here’s another suggestion, certainly not original with me. Put more buses on the road, and make them non-polluting. Create more bus routes, both radial and crosstown. And while you’re at it, planners, build us a light-rail system. An entry-level system would cost less than RenSquare.

A pleasant train ride can also lead to meditations on the logic of public service – providing something people actually need, something that builds a community without bulldozing its heart.

The kind of thing a “small ‘d’ democrat” can love.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:21 EDT
Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005 05:34 EDT
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Tuesday, 25 October 2005 - 12:42 EDT

Name: carlene woodward

Jack, I've been involved with this project since the beginning. The largest error is that the people who are proposing the plan have actually abandon the city and have no clue about the real opportunities for making the city vibrant. There are several conflicting issues here.

-what does it do for the city core to plan a gramd project and ignore all the adjacent properties, Sibley Building with MCC gone, and Midtowm vacant?

-the driving force for Ren Square is MCC- there should be a plan for a large campus, open square, housing and parking for all remaining buildings, e.g. Granite, Cox,
Former Chamber of Commerce now Brockport. The need for parking cannot be underestimated.

-1998-1999 There was a plan sponsored by the city and county for the rebuilding of Midtown. It involved tearing down the old McCurdy building (not historical) and building a major theater, with smaller theaters,resturants and shops. The parking was already there. It didn't happen because the then owner was viewed as a greedy entrepreneur, who had done nothing for the property and the plan died or was killed by political decisions. The plans still exist in the bowels of the County Office Building!

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