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Sunday, 28 October 2007
Rethinking, and re-biking, Midtown
Topic: urban issues

Since I wrote the post directly below, questions have surfaced about the difficulty and expense of taking Midtown Plaza down. Who knew? It turns out that demolishing a major complex within an active business district (ca. 50,000 workers Monday through Friday, plus nighttime entertainment seekers and a growing permanent population) is more complicated than, say, smart-bombing an apartment house in Baghdad, where Amerika has been honing its urban policies.

But as the new chapter of Farewell to Midtown is being written - by committee, and with little democratic discussion – there is one word that hasn’t been put on paper: bicycle. Odd, isn’t it? The players, from the too-oft-quoted head of the RDDC to City Hall’s Tom Richards to the new mandarins of Paetec, talk about more than 1,000 new downtown workers, new office towers and even new side streets, and maybe a touch of greenspace, yet nobody has talked about biking as part of the solution. What do they want, a form of transportation that dare not speak its name?

Every city I’m familiar with that has maintained or restored vitality and humanity to its core has been serious about accommodations for cycling - recreational, commuting, and business (restaurant delivery, messenger service, etc.). Some cities in our greater bioregion, like Chicago and Montreal, have worked for years on bike plans and have invested big bucks in implementation. What has Rochester done?

Well, I’m as happy as the next gearhead about the bike racks on RTS buses and the few locking posts installed on some commercial blocks in the ring of so-called urban villages. And as I’ve said many times, this area has a world-class multi-use trail system. But look at downtown: all the millions of dollars that years ago went into new sidewalks and lampposts and benches, and there’s nary a bike facility or amenity in sight. And the planners, movers, shakers, and imploders still won’t say what they’ll do to encourage bicycling.

Bike advocates, though, have plenty of ideas to offer. Here’s a short list: Put post-and-loop locking facilities up and down Main St.; make sure secure bike racks are in place outside every public building, and put them outside major private buildings within the public right-of-way, too, with or without the consent of owners or merchants; try some marked bike lanes on suitable side streets and arterials; plow and sand the Genesee River Trail and maybe other multi-use trails so they, like New York City’s Hudson River Greenway, can be used year-round; restore two-way traffic to downtown streets, with as much curbside parking as necessary; bring back, and expand, the downtown fare-free bus zone to promote intermodal commuting. And when those 8.6 acres that Midtown Plaza now occupies are cleared or reconfigured, make sure you create a biking-and-walking refuge of some kind.

There are bigger ideas that should get attention, too, like the creation of a light-rail system through downtown that would give intermodality a boost. (“People Movers” and other commuter trains, which move on dedicated rights-of-way, beat buses all hollow, especially at rush hour – and you can walk your bike right on board, too.) But many of us would be happy to see some baby steps. The main thing is to get moving without delay. Otherwise we’ll plunge into the era of Peak Oil as just another washed-up Motor City.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 16:09 EDT
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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, 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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Wednesday, 6 June 2007
No sense of history
Topic: urban issues

The Duffy Administration has opened a new front in its campaign to unravel Rochester’s historical fabric. Along with the real bulldozers taking down hundreds of old houses in the Crescent (“decrepit,” Mayor Bob Duffy calls them, a word never attached to even the lowliest and shakiest structures in trendy areas like Corn Hill), there now are figurative bulldozers taking down the intellectual structure of local history. Specifically, Duffy wants to downsize – effectively, to eliminate – the office of City Historian. To save around $50,000 a year, the mayor would ruin an institution that’s distinguished this city for decades and given the whole Community of Monroe a vital sense of self.

I’ve had my disappointments with this institution, for sure. Neither the late Blake McKelvey nor the current historian, Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, has produced the kind of radical historiography that turns me on. For that, we’ve all looked to the excellent work of labor historians Jon Garlock and Linda Donahue, not to mention primary sources like Emma Goldman’s autobiography.

But really, Mister Mayor! What you’re doing to the Historian is comparable to what the county has done to the parks system: set it up for slow decline. Just as the county saved a few bucks by not hiring a professional arborist, you’re proposing to save a few nickels by demoting Rosenberg-Naparsteck and, in a sense, outsourcing the job. You’ll end up impoverishing Rochester and degrade one of its biggest attractions: a cultural base that’s exceptional among mid-sized cities.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:38 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007 12:56 EDT
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Saturday, 26 May 2007
Civilized destruction
Topic: urban issues

Lately it seems I can’t make a Saturday morning Public Market run (bike, actually) without encountering some fresh disaster of neo-Urban Removal.

This week’s dark chapter unfolded on Union Street, just south of the viaduct that separates the Market from the neighborhood around the old Eastman Dental Center. Specifically, at Union and Augusta Street, I discovered that a potentially significant 19th-century brick house, one of a pair, had been torn down. Barely a shard remained on the leveled corner lot. (You can see what the building looked like at, in the image captioned “Emergence of Forgotten Neighborhoods.” It’s the building on the right. And while you’re visiting the website, check out all the good offerings from the Design Center.)

Many times I’d thought of how the two houses, both long vacant, could have become a commercial adjunct to the Market, which really is only steps away. Now at least half of the possibilities have been lost.

So what the hell is happening in this town? Whether the demolitions are part of City Hall's plan to "downsize" neighborhoods in the Crescent (i.e. remove inconvenient structures and impose lesser population densities on what become faux-suburban streetscapes) or disconnected, lightly regulated private plans (like the reconstruction of the Genesee Hospital site, which began by obliterating a 19th century building at Monroe and Alexander), the onus is on the Duffy Administration.

I think highly of Bob Duffy as a person, but honestly, his crew is responsible, directly or indirectly, for a lot of bad stuff. Today City Hall is failing to nurture the creative brainstorming that must precede law- and policy-making. Rochester never was very sharp in this regard - the city depended too much on the kindness of robber barons - but now it's got no edge at all. But I guess that’s what we should expect from an administration dominated by likes of Tom Richards and Carlos Carballada, business types who are temperamentally incapable of leading an urban renaissance worthy of the name.

I wouldn’t be so peeved if I hadn’t just confronted the Rite Aid plan for Monroe and Goodman (see below). If City Hall continues its policy of developer-appeasement, two things will come to pass: Our community will lose more and more of its heritage, and the neighborhood and architectural advocates who’ve achieved critical mass in just the last few years will get discouraged and drop away. Then the bulldozers will be working overtime.

This has got to stop.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:41 EDT
Updated: Monday, 28 May 2007 14:37 EDT
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Saturday, 28 April 2007
Crime report
Topic: urban issues

No need to recount here the crimes and misdemeanors of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Bush crony’s reputation as facilitator of torture and political corruption is well-documented – a national and international embarrassment that just won’t go away.

So what’s with Rochester’s gracious welcome for this S.O.B on April 26? Well, it was all about cold, hard cash: a $2.5 million handout from the Justice Department for local anti-gang work through Pathways for Peace and other initiatives.

I have serious problems with the kind of policing that some of this money will support. But for now, all I can think of is how disgusting our local “leaders” are – helping Gonzales, whose specialty is paving paths to violence and war, rehabilitate his public image and ride out a political storm.

Gangs, indeed. There’s no more dangerous bunch loose in communities all over the world than the Bushies, of which Gonzales is a charter member. If our “leaders” had any principles, they would have put the rhetorical cuffs on him when they had the chance, not lubricate his escape from accountability.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 09:40 EDT
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