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20 Responses to “Midtown Plaza and Baby Steps Back to Urbanism”

  1. Carl Binger says:

    I definitely needed to hear that especially after being disappointed in the size of these buildings. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  2. Carlos Mercado says:

    Look at two great urban de3velopments. Country Club Plaza in Kansas City (1920’s) and The Gateway in Salt Lake City (1990’s). Neither are exactly high-rise. Why build another Xerox or Lincoln Town if there are not sufficient tenants to fill it? Inc incremental makes sense.

  3. Martin Edic says:

    Great piece. Part of it is economics- really tall office buildings aren’t sustainable anymore downtown. A lot of the vacancies are in Chase Tower and the HSBC Bldg and others. And a lot of the new residential is on the upper floors of older buildings where they can sell views.
    I would like to see more new architecture that is not quoting nineteenth century facades. Otherwise we end up with a 21st century city that looks like a Disney version of the 19th century city.
    Parking is a big problem with tall buildings- higher density means more people per block but parking spaces don’t multiply the same way. I’ve been through that with a former employer who wanted to relocate downtown from the suburbs. We ended up in Village Gate because of parking, among other considerations. Rochesterians with professional careers won’t ride public transit, unfortunately. That would also change a lot of things.

  4. Jason Haremza says:

    Hear hear, Irene! I totally agree. As long as the structure is put in place so that additional floors can be added at some point in the future, which is itself a form of incremental urbanism, 3 floors is just fine. If there’s no market right now for 5 floors, there’s no market for 5 floors.

    After all, some of our most iconic buildings started out short and grew taller as conditions (or ego) warranted: Powers Building, Kodak Building, eastern portion of Sibley Building, 44 Exchange. Others were designed for this, but never had the extra floors added, most notably the Rochester Savings Bank building now owned by RIT.

    Granted, buildings like Sibley started at what, 6 stories, and grew to 12 or so, but if starting with 3 and growing to 5 or 6 or 7 the reality today, than that’s fine.

  5. Jason Haremza says:

    Martin, I agree with you regarding architectural style. However, I disagree with you regarding professional Rochesterians and public transit. I’ve taken both the #1 and #7 buses along Park and Monroe and witnessed a fair number of “professional” riders during rush hour. Also, hundreds of professionals are willing to ride the “private” buses provided by U of R, so is it that big a leap for them to take public buses?

    “Professionals” that won’t ride public transit need to get over themselves. If Rochester ever wants to be a real city, we cannot build enough surface parking to accommodate everyone driving their own private vehicle and we cannot afford to build structured or underground parking. Transit (and walking and biking) need to be part of addressing MOBILITY AND ACCESS (not just “parking”).

    That being said, mobility and access are easier to address at low-rise (but still very urban and compact) buildings of 2-6 stories than high rise towers. Given the economy both locally and nationally for the foreseeable future, the era of building tall buildings (10+ stories) in Rochester may be over.

  6. irene says:

    Re: Rochester Professionals won’t take transit
    It has been my experience that professionals’ willingness to take transit grows sharply as driving becomes more costly and less convenient. A few years ago when gas shot up, many of my coworkers in the Xerox tower switched to transit (at least till gas went back down a bit). The traffic and parking fees at UR/Strong seem to be pushing many toward transit – RTS recently added a new route covering East Ave Wegmans, Park Ave, and UR/Strong. And personally, after moving to this area from Toronto I got used to driving, so when I went back to Toronto on a frigid winter weekend I drove downtown to visit the CN Tower with my young son. After spending 35 minutes to find a parking spot, paying $25 to park there, and ending up walking in freezing wind for a lot farther than we would have walked from the transit stop, I viscerally remembered why Torontonians (and people in other major cities) are “more willing” to take transit.

  7. Martin Edic says:

    Irene, you bring an outside perspective to this which is great. I ride a bus once a week to Irondequoit (#5 St. Paul) at 5:20pm and once we cross into Irondequoit I am the only passenger.
    But things are changing. Two years from now we’ll have at least another 500 people living near Midtown, mostly empty nesters and young professionals, all likely paying for parking. And a new transit center right there. That could shift things.
    I think I’ll be writing a piece about the UR Med Center/downtown connection soon.

  8. ACW says:

    Good article.

    New tall buildings are pretty unlikely to be built in Rochester. However, if the community has any power over architectural design decisions (do we?), then we should be pushing for engagement with the street and walkability, not added height.

  9. DJ says:

    @Irene. You nailed it re: ‘Willingness’ to take public transit. It’s driven by economic forces. I live in Brooklyn & I don’t take the train to work bc I love trains. it’s 1000x cheaper & convenient than owning a car in a giant city.

    I think ROC downtown has potential to support a non-car owning population. Need more people, grocery shops, etc. before it can happen. Thanks for writing. Good attitude.

    @ACW – Exactly. Walkability, Street engagement, not cement walls with no character. This actually scares me the most about new development like D&C bldg. Is anyone paying attention to this aspect or are we going to add to the cement walled wind-tunnel that is Main Street?

  10. Jason Haremza says:

    No cement walls. The new building will probably be like the Windstream Building, which may not be “cutting edge” architecture, but is a good, solid, attractive, pedestrian friendly, urban building with lots of first floor transparency and the built-in flexibility to convert the first floor to retail space should the market ever demand that.

  11. Martin Edic says:

    There are actually zoning requirements downtown that require some first floor retail. I’m not sure how Windstream was exempt- they probably made a deal. The D&C building will have a coffee cafe and Sibley has quite a lot of retail space. If Morgan builds along the river expect retail similar to Corn Hill Landing which made a big difference over there.
    There was also a master plan that called for on-street parking on Main after the buses are off the street. This would effectively narrow the street making it much more pedestrian-friendly. I think changing St Paul/South Ave and Clinton into two way streets next year (as part of the transit center planning) will make a big difference. This will directly connect the Wedge with downtown in a much more friendly manner. Then there is the Inner Loop fill…imagine Park ave extending across into Broad st…

  12. Jason Haremza says:

    Unfortunately, there are currently no zoning requirement for retail. There are zoning requirements for building entrances and transparency. But those can be achieved with first floor office space.

    Realistically, even if zoning required retail usage, this requirement would likely be often waived due to the current limited market for downtown retail space.

    Clinton and St. Paul two way conversion is only happening north of Main Street initially. Soon afterward extending southward to Broad. Full two way conversion all the way through to the South Wedge is a longer term project.

    Park Avenue extension is separate from the Inner Loop Transformation project, although the latter certainly will allow for the possibility of the former.

  13. jimmy says:

    Patience is key, but one of the issues is that the parcels are bigger now then they used to be. This encourages short fat building rather than tall skinny buildings. The parcel at Clinton and Main should be divided in two.

  14. John Smith says:

    A weak economy is the primary reason why Rochester hasn’t had a significant skyscraper built since the 1990’s. The good news is that there is a small growing community of entrepreneurs, if they are supported by the community and local government you will surely more significant buildings in the future.

    After all… much can happen over the course of 20 years if the city has a strong booming economy… one extreme example is the city of shanghai.

  15. irene says:

    @jimmy That’s a great point! Even though the city broke up the superblock at Midtown and made multiple parcels, each one is still much larger than traditional downtown lots. I just saw this great article on small lots the other day
    http://www.plannerdan.com/2013/01/the-evolution-of-city-block.html

  16. jimmy says:

    That is a nice link. Thanks Irene. You might be familiar with this blog: http://townhousecenter.org/author/townhousecenter/ . I am a huge fan of Townhouses and mid-rise buildings on small lots. They were the past and I believe they are the future. We need more townhouses in Rochester.

  17. Matthew Denker says:

    The realities of modern financing and construction costs do not favor the erection of narrow tall buildings. While it doesn’t HAVE to be this way, it’s unclear what mechanism would possibly change this situation. The market in Rochester, or anywhere really, is not about to match that of NYC.

    It is a good style though, and has driven many large scale developments to adopt architecture that uses different forms to at least appear to be numerous smaller buildings. Doing so here would not be bad thing.

    As for townhouses, I am as big a fan as any of the style, but I’m still not sure downtown is the place for them. There’s no reason there can’t be townhouse oriented neighborhoods (Grove Place, Corn Hill, etc), but I don’t see why we shouldn’t demand more from downtown.

  18. Vicki says:

    Re: taking public transit. I would love to take public transit to my workplace. I don’t think it’s a question of “getting over oneself.” I drive because it takes me 20 minutes to get to work when I drive. According to the RTS website, it would take between 1 hour 36 minutes and 1 hour 58 minutes (depending on the route) to get to work in the morning. I presume, but didn’t check, that it would be similar getting home in the evening. I simply don’t have 3 hours to spend sitting on a bus everyday. If Rochester’s public transit was more like the big cities’ transit systems mentioned in these remarks, it’s a slam dunk that more people would take it.

    When public transit competes with driving, not only on cost, but on time and convenience, then people will start using it.

  19. Jason Haremza says:

    @Vicki. I totally understand where you’re coming from. When I wrote that professionals need to “get over themselves” when it comes to taking public transit, I meant people who won’t take public transit simply because it’s public transit and there’s a perceived stigma. I didn’t mean people who would like to take public transit but is extraordinarily inconvenient. I too would not want to spend 3 hours commuting every day.

    Public transit is not, and never will be, convenient for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for RGRTA to provide high frequency, convenient public transit to low density suburban neighborhoods and rural areas.

    If you live in a fairly dense city neighborhood or inner ring suburb and commute to downtown, public transit in Rochester is decent (trips are direct and under 45 minutes) and getting better. It should be a considered a viable option for people of all socio-economic levels.

    Now, not everyone is going to have that commuting pattern of urban neighborhood or inner suburb to downtown. But that suggests a few things:

    1. Our bus routes may need to be adjusted

    2. If you want to have the option of public transit, you should make every effort to live and work in the city or inner suburbs. Easier said than done, I admit, and not everyone has the luxury of choice. But for those who do, I believe too many people don’t consider walkability and transit access when choosing jobs or housing.

    3. Our land use policies are divorced from our transportation policies. New employment opportunities are not necessarily being located where there is, or ever will be, the realistic option for transit. For an extreme and tragic example of this, funded by your tax dollars, see the STAMP project in the Town of Alabama, Genesee County. http://www.empirestatefuture.org/geography/state/stamp/

  20. Martin Edic says:

    I agree with Jason but there is an easy way to make a comparison for any individual situation. Go to Google Maps, do Get Directions then click the Bus Tab above the left hand column. You’ll see exactly what your options are, how long they take and how much they cost and a comparison to what it costs to drive. Very handy.
    However, taking a bus will never be faster than a car in a place like Rochester. We have some of the shortest commute times in the country so it is unlikely that we’ll see significant changes in public transit for the foreseeable future. Just the way it is I think.


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