Rochester is a city with a rich history that has experienced a steady decline in population, quality of life, and reputation. Despite this the city has many proud residents who are not satisfied with the status quo. Due to repeated failures we’re skeptical of large projects. This environment of pride mixed with skepticism has produced a generation of Rochester supporters who embrace progressive ideas, respect history, and proceed with caution. My personal contribution is a plan to establish a large State University in Downtown Rochester. We’ll call it SUNY Rochester.
PART I: The Idea
The books, Walkable City by Jeff Speck, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, have largely shaped my ideals towards city planning. The expertly written books point out that, ‘How’ you build & shape your city is just as important as ‘What’ you build.
Below is a summary of the SUNY ROCHESTER plan:
- The University will offer a different experience than existing universities in the region.
- It will increase downtown population.
- It will create jobs.
- It will make the city a more attractive place to live, work & play by paying particular attention to the concept of ‘walkability’.
- It will make use of empty lots & existing vacant buildings. Respecting historical buildings and repurposing rather than tearing-down whenever possible.
- It will be located downtown, roughly defined by the area currently encircled by the Inner Loop.
Evidence shows that healthy, vibrant downtowns require a mix of housing, businesses, shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and transportation. Equally important as filling space with structures is filling that space with people for a majority of the 24 hours each day. Rochester’s downtown is full Monday through Friday 8-6, and mostly empty otherwise, including weekends. It has business, but is missing a critical mass of residents, and the mixed uses that serve residents. The tough part is ‘Who jumps first?’ There’s no downtown Wegman’s, because there’re no people living there. There’s nobody living there because there’s no Wegman’s. A University provides a population (students) which you can build around.
The Rochester area has many colleges and universities but none that truly represent the city. The Private Institutions UofR and RIT are akin to exclusive clubs, whereas MCC, Brockport, and Geneseo are too far away, too small, or too transient to play the role of a defining University. My idea is for SUNY Rochester to be a permanent point of city pride, a physical & emotional hub, ‘Everyone’s College’. It will take an interest in Rochester’s poor neighborhoods by allowing flow in both directions. Currently, Rochester’s worst areas are roped-off like a stagnant swamp from rest of the City and its opportunities. I imagine kids from city neighborhoods playing on the University’s sports facilities & attending summer science camps. Flowing in the other direction, University students would volunteer for programs like Habitat for Humanity. This isn’t to take away from the admirable efforts UofR and other organizations put forth, but a local downtown source of that help would be more powerful. SUNY Rochester’s proximity to the City’s poor areas would put it in a place to serve symbolically and tangibly as a permanent fixture of Civic Pride.
The scale of the University is important. To succeed in improving the vibrancy of downtown, the school needs to be large and the majority of students have to live on or near campus. Something on the scale of an Ohio State or any other University that has 10,000+ students and defines or is a major part of its city’s culture. Another downtown commuter school like MCC, Brockport Metro, or the new RIT satellite would defeat the core purpose of increasing permanent downtown population.
Establishing a permanent downtown population will increase demand for shopping, restaurants and entertainment downtown. The college age demographic may entice interesting businesses to locate downtown. The University District combined with existing neighborhoods can take back some of the shopping and other services lost to the suburbs over the past 60 years. Park Avenue, Corn Hill, South Wedge & other city neighborhoods will see the scales tipping back in their favor and will find shopping, restaurants, & markets, closer to home. This increase in quality of living for existing residents may entice a second wave of people to move downtown. As empty lots & buildings become filled with people it would amount to victimless gentrification. Proposed infrastructure projects like bus terminals, and performance art theatres will make more sense if the city is seen as growing rather than shrinking.
A new University has the potential to increase Rochester’s population by attracting 10,000+ students, teachers & staff to the area. A University brings with it jobs for teachers, staff positions, construction workers, and service industry. College is largely a recession-proof industry. When people lose their jobs they go back to college. Parents prioritize spending on their children’s education, so a recession is less likely to affect college admission numbers than other industries. A University isn’t going to relocate or go bankrupt like Kodak or Bausch & Lomb.
SUNY Rochester will fill a physical void in the City; either by inhabiting existing buildings or constructing new ones. Where exactly would it be? My only requirement is that it be close to or in downtown, the part of the city that needs it most. Within that area there are several options to explore. With a constantly changing cityscape it’s important to stay flexible. Three years ago, the Midtown location was ripe for a large project. In 2013, Midtown is filling in and Kodak headquarters might be the next candidate for a large scale project. One need only drive through downtown to see the gluttony of empty lots and vacant buildings. Finding space is simply not an issue.
While there is ample vacant space in Rochester, I would hope to predominately make use of existing buildings, and build new structures on empty lots. We would refrain from strong-arming residents or existing businesses. The University would opportunistically purchase buildings as tenants or businesses decide to leave. It is important that the University is seen as a city partner and not a bully.
With all this talk of how the University could help the city it’s worth noting that the school could benefit from the downtown location. Brockport Metro, MCC, and RIT don’t have downtown locations because of the great lunch options. As decrepit as downtown appears it still represents the highest concentration of businesses and jobs in the Rochester area. Colleges locate campuses downtown to take advantage of the proximity to partnerships, jobs, internships for their students. SUNY Rochester could take similar advantage of being close to the core of Rochester businesses. And conversely, businesses would have a natural incentive to locate downtown to have access to scores of potential interns and freshly minted graduates.
There are drawbacks and hurdles to the idea. It costs lots of money to start a college. There’s the physical task of building the necessary dorms, classrooms, labs, cafeterias, etc. Then there’s the task of getting thousands of students to want to come to a college with no reputation in a city with a high crime rate, and poor weather. In short it’s going to cost a lot of money and take a huge leap of faith by early supporters. To that I say this: What if Thomas Edison was preoccupied with how much effort or money it would cost to make a light bulb?
PART II: Turning Idea to Action
The only thing that qualifies me to write this is that I lived in Rochester for 25 years and have a sincere passion for the city. I don’t have political ties, I’m not a billionaire benefactor, I’m not a city planner or architect; I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.
So rather than laying out an uneducated grand plan for implementation I hope the idea will receive attention of the people who possess the expertise and various tangible & intangible means required for such an undertaking. That being said, it would be negligent to run and hide from the most difficult part of the project. I intend to stand behind it whether it stays forever on paper or someday becomes a reality. There’s someone out there who first said, ‘Hey Barack, you should run for President’. But it is not the idea originator, rather those who took action who are written about in history books.
It doesn’t take an expert to know that any project needs local support, political support, expert planners, and Money. Money is simultaneously the most important aspect, and the least important detail to address. Without money you have no University. It’s scary to think about raising millions of dollars, but on the other hand there are thousands of successful examples sitting right in front of our eyes. What do the other thousands of college do to get money? Find out & copy them.
As for local & political support, another topic I lack expertise, I foresee a 99%/1% divide. 1% of people, those with immense wealth, or political stature, hold individual power, capable of great help or harm to the project. The 1% must be dealt and bargained with directly on an individual basis. They must be shown how this project would benefit themselves or those they represent. Conversely, 99% of people are individually powerless to help or hinder. The 99% are the thousands of local residents who hold no immense wealth, nor political office, but will be directly/indirectly impacted by a new University in their area. The 99% of people must be respected as a whole. Through inclusive and transparent planning processes, people need to feel respected and involved. The 99% when combined are equally as powerful as the 1%.
My basic idea for the organizational structure of the University is to have it founded as a New SUNY School. This would give it credibility, and both financial and administrative backing. Along those lines I propose to enlist SUNY Buffalo, Brockport, or Geneseo as a parent to the fledgling school. The parent University would lend Staff, faculty, and administrative advice, until the school is ready to stand on its own.
Lastly, and most importantly, I would appoint a multi-faceted committee charged with guiding the physical aspects of the endeavor. It is of the utmost importance that the University does not turn out like SUNY Albany, which owing to the generation of city planners in power at its inception, is a sprawling cement slab with 4 towers and a fountain. Progressive city planners, like Jeff Speck, who have a proven track record of revitalizing cities would have ultimate decision power in the physical construction of the University.
Here’s an article about how downtown campuses are helping revitalize downtown areas.
I see this idea as continually developing. What you are reading is the 4th draft of a 3 year old idea. I look forward to constructive comments. And I hope to incorporate your thoughtful suggestions (perhaps your expert advice) into the next version.
About Donald J. Sullivan:
Tags: Donald J. Sullivan, downtown Rochester, Monroe Community College (MCC), Nazareth College, Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Rochester NY, St. John Fisher College, State University of New York, SUNY Albany, SUNY Brockport, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Rochester, University of Rochester
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