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Filling In: Midtown Parcel 5 (Revisited)

August 29th, 2016

2008 Conceptual plan for Midtown by the City of Rochester [PHOTO: City Hall Photo Lab Contemporary Collection]
By Matthew Denker

Welcome back, readers! In this edition of Filling In, let’s take another look at Parcel 5. Before we get started, quickly refresh by scouting the last time we discussed this site. I apologize in advance that this article probably isn’t going to cover much more about what I think should be done with the site, rather, what should probably not be done, and why…

Rochester Visionary Square (a.k.a. This Is Not A Park)
Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room – Rochester Visionary Square external link a.k.a This Is Not A Park.

Before we go on, I think it’s important to point out that I also do not support a single-use performing arts center or a casino on this site. Additionally, I am not submitting a proposal of my own for the site, and have no vested interest in anyone who is.

And with that out of the way, much of the remainder of the few hundred words I’m about to spill regard why a park here is probably not a good idea and why housing probably is…

1. Rochester has plenty of parks

Rochester Zoning [PHOTO: City of Rochester]
Over 17% of the city of Rochester is open space. The only single use in the city that accounts for more of its land area is Low Density Residential (at over 41%). This 17% translates to 4030 acres of open space, which means Rochester has 0.019 acres of open space per citizen. You might be surprised to learn that this is almost 2.5x the amount of parkland recommended per citizen by the National Recreation and Park Associationexternal link (and yes, I acknowledge that a parks advocacy group might not be the most trustworthy place to get a recommended parkland per capita number, but can we agree that the actual number could only be lower than they’d suggest?). I’ve frequently heard the argument that this park space isn’t downtown, but elsewhere in the city. Sure, but is anyone planning on redeveloping some of the parkland that isn’t downtown if we add park space at Midtown? How’s thatexternal link working out? If Visionary Square isn’t park space at all, which I’ve also heard, then why does it matter to this project if downtown is under-parked or not?

2. Midtown already has a park

Midtown Commons. Rochester, NY. [PHOTO: Jim Mayer]
Midtown Commons external link has already been invested in and built at the Midtown site. I’ve seen all kinds of strange numbers given for the size of Midtown Commons, but a simple measurement shows it as about 100′ x 400′ including Cortland Street through it. That’s right around 1 acre. And 1 acre is actually quite large. In case you’re curious, fire code dictates 7 sf per person. That means Midtown Commons could accommodate 5,700+ people. Is this not already enough space? That’s almost 3% of the population of the entire city. All of this isn’t including the addition of the much-under-loved Site 6 to the Commons (a move I also disapprove of, but seems likely). Ignoring that, the south fifth or so of Parcel 5 is above the underground garage and not entirely suitable to be developed over. Any developer on a budget is likely to set this aside as open space, which would also add to Midtown Commons. I don’t see a problem with this plan, but I also don’t see this as a mandate for more open space, just a pragmatic move by any proposers.

3. Midtown isn’t set up for a square

Midtown from the Construction Cam [PHOTO: City of Rochester]
Quick, name some of the top urban square spaces in the US. If you named Rittenhouse Square and Bryant Park, congrats, you’ve thought of the same two cherry-picked examples of great urban square spaces I did. If you thought of Millennium Park in Chicago, slap yourself – Michigan Ave is over 6 lanes wide. Ok, with that out of the way, it’s obvious that Midtown, and Parcel 5 in particular, is nothing like them. First, Bryant Park and Rittenhouse Square have many thousands more people than Midtown living immediately around them (Bryant Park is, unfortunately, not conducive to getting a number of immediate residents – just look at what the 10018 zipcodeexternal link covers. But Rittenhouse Square is much more firmly within the 19103 zipcodeexternal link, which had 24,400 residents in it as of 2014). Second, each of them has at least 3 sides completely activated by ground floor retail (The back of the NYPL is of questionable activation status.). You might be surprised to learn, then, that only one side of Parcel 5 might have ground floor retail, and that’s across Main Street at Sibley. To the south of the site is another park (see point 2). To the west is office space (Windstream). While to the east is the open air plaza of One East. Greatexternal link urban spaces in other cities are greatexternal link, because they are active all the way around. There is no plan for this at Midtown, and it’s not clear when that could ever change with the current built environment.

4. Downtown’s existing parks are under-loved

Washington Square Park. Rochester, NY. [PHOTO: Google Maps]
Building more park space, while continuing to neglect the existing parks is a recipe for failure. No one is going to get on board with building new housing on top of the site of Washington Square Park, or Genesee Crossroads Park, or MLK Park, so we will be building more park space for the same number of residents who already aren’t much using the existing park space. To repeat, there is already too much park space (see points 1 and 2) in Rochester. Further, any new park space is going to lack the mature tree cover of a park like Washington Square, which could just use someone actually planning events for the park to be better. Going even further still, any new park isn’t going to have the pedigree of having been designed by one of America’s greatest modern landscape architects – Lawrence Halprinexternal link. A thoughtful refresh of MLK park could leave Rochester with a monument on the order of our only Frank Lloyd Wright Houseexternal link. Or we could scrap it to great dismayexternal link like Halprin’s Skyline Park in Denver. I contend that if all of the effort of building a new park and programming it were put into just caring for and programming our existing parks, the gains could be larger than chasing the next big thing.

5. Midtown doesn’t need more commercial space

Main Street, Rochester NY. [PHOTO: Google Maps]
Strictly speaking, the Visionary Square proposal for Parcel 5 isn’t a park. That’s because it has commercial space. But Midtown has a 45% vacancy rateexternal link of its commercial space (and downtown 12.4%). That’s for all commercial space (both office and retail), but I suspect just retail is even higher still. For all of downtown, there’s 1.3 million sf of vacant commercial space. In case you’re curious, that’s enough space for every Targetexternal link in Monroe county to move downtown and still have space for 3 more. And while the plan is to assist small businesses in the new space, I’m not clear on why this same level of care and assistance can’t be proffered in existing space. I doubt Buckingham really wants to own tens of thousands of square feet of vacant commercial space. I further contend that if all this effort instead were put towards negotiating a master lease agreement with the City of Rochester, not so dissimilar to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation oneexternal link, then we could fill space that would really make a difference downtown instead of adding more.

6. Downtown needs more residents

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the massive population growth downtown. Why, Rochester’s downtown population is now over 6,000 strong! And this is unarguably so. But the average citizens per full-service grocery store in the US is 8,456external link. So downtown isn’t up to one grocery store yet, let alone a second one after Hart’s. On top of that, vacancy in downtown rental unitsexternal link is a mere 3.7%. For reference, Seattle, a market no one sneezes at, has a vacancy rateexternal link of 4.3%. But what about NEW apartments, you say? Like, from AFTER the now-ancient 2014 report? Well, the biggest building to open was Tower280, and it is 90% rented at an eye-popping (for Rochester) $2 per sf in less than a few months. Demand isn’t yet satiated. Downtown Rochester could handle hundreds of new units without impacting rents. Even new build units ($2 per sf will support elevators, for crying out loud) are doable at this price.

7. Downtown needs more vibrancy

I have heard a new park would provide vibrancy, but it’s not clear why. Yes, there is plenty of research and all manner of writing about how parks raise property values, what makes great public spaces, and all manner of success in cities that are far denser than Rochester with much less park space per capita overall. But it’s not even clear who would benefit from raising property values downtown. According to the 2014 market report, there are only 135 units of owner occupied housing in all of downtown. The rest of it is rentals. If Buckingham wants to raise their property values, why don’t they buy parcel 5 at market rate from the city and build a park there? Is the whole city to subsidize the 135 private downtown owners by giving valuable downtown land away to a non-profit? If the idea is that people from outside the city will come in regularly, suburbanites have already proven unwilling to drive downtown to work or to shop, and they have plenty of unused parks out in the ‘burbs too. But even if they WOULD drive to said park, they could never provide the vibrancy of people living near a park. And surprise, not enough people live near Midtown yet (see point 6). And they never will if a huge part of downtown becomes a park. This will yield only a slightly less dead space than a surface parking lot (The F block gets activated to much acclaim a few times a year – is this a good excuse for UofR not to develop it?).

Cleveland's
I could go on about how I don’t think the concept of Visionary Square is being budgeted in the way it is being compared (Public Squareexternal link in Cleveland at $5m per acre, or Millennium Parkexternal link in Chicago at $33m per acre). Even ARC Parkexternal link in Richmond, VA, which this project hasn’t been compared to, but is in a city much closer to the size of Rochester, was $1.5m an acre.

The long and the short of it is that Rochester has too many parks with too few people caring for them and even fewer people still using them. Adding more park space isn’t the answer to this problem – adding more people is.

Rochester has hemmed to a suburban ideal for too long (see 5,000 sf minimum lot sizeexternal link) to its ongoing detriment. You may rip into me for being mean-spirited or whatever you like. But demanding additional park space at every turn is part and parcel of this misguided dis-urban planning.

• • •

Addendum

The last time Rochester was in the 100 largest cities and thus included in the Trust for Public Land’s City Parks Report was in 2011. The report (found hereexternal link) is interesting in how average Rochester is. They definitely have a different number for parks than places that are just open space, as I used above, but their findings show that in terms of everything but baseball diamonds (Rochester has SO MANY!), the city is nothing if not middle of the pack. Take that as you will.

• • •

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 29th, 2016 at 7:00 am and is filed under Opinion, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Filling In: Midtown Parcel 5 (Revisited)”

  1. carl says:

    Good stuFF Matt.

  2. Ben says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you said here. I really feel like everyone crying for a park here doesn’t actually understand how cities work. An already vibrant city makes a park great, not the other way around.

    Also, it’s kind of hard to track down on the RDDC site but they did actually publish a 2015 housing market study:

    http://www.rochesterdowntown.com/wp_rddc/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/DOWNTOWN-HOUSING-MARKET-Full-Report-December-2015.pdf

  3. Daniel says:

    Is anyone considering the very intelligent option of…waiting?

    Downtown is changing rapidly. The population is growing and will continue to. A pressing need or public consensus around development for this parcel might well emerge in the next few years where one is clearly lacking at the moment.

    It’s been vacant since Midtown died. We can stand to wait a few more years to make sure we get this right, while using the space for temporary/pop-up uses in the interim.

  4. Chris Stone says:

    Waiting might be a very prudent thing to do. Unfortunately, waiting does not meet the political exigencies of being able to make a big splashy development announcement and/or cut ribbons before the Democratic mayoral primary in September 2017.

  5. Mike says:

    do we have any choice BUT to wait?

  6. Chad says:

    Great points, Matt – a lot of points I hadn’t thought of yet.

    BTW, is your Corn Hill project still a go? Was following the fascinating progress through approvals….

  7. I’m not opposed to waiting, certainly not in the way I’m opposed to a casino or a park here. As Chris said, though, I don’t know if it’s feasible, and from an economic perspective, the money is worth more now than it will be in a few years. I have also heard through the grapevine that there will be a number of feasible proposals this time around (it’s a wonder what the success of renting out Tower280 will buy in moneied interest). Just a few more weeks until proposals are due, and I am sure we’ll hear quite a bit in a hurry.

    As for Corn Hill – Yes! It’s definitely still a go. I met with SWBR while I was in Rochester a couple weeks ago to kick everything back off. Other than setting a timeline for now through shovels in the ground, though, we didn’t do any design work to report on. I am hoping to have bigger updates throughout the fall, culminating in financing in the winter and then really regular updates when we get to the point of building. My wife and I are both really excited and really nervous. We’ve never done anything like this yet, and it’s already been a wild ride.

  8. Dan says:

    Visionary Square is the closest thing to just waiting. That’s why I’m in favor of the project…for now. Until a proposal comes along that can’t be ignored. It would be a lot easier to rip out some hardscaping and shipping containers than to convert a 10 story building that’s not fit for purpose. What’s the worst case?That it’s an actual success?

  9. Hi Dan, unfortunately, no, it’s unlikely to work out like this. Doing anything isn’t close to waiting. First, if the site really does become park under visionary square, or anything that could legally resemble a park, there are complicated and onerous nys laws about vacating it. Second, if it’s just a little hardscaping and shipping containers, we are being sold a materially different product in comparisons to Bryant park and Martius square. Third, there would need to be some very specific deal in place whereby the city could take the land back and the nonprofit be dissolved for the idea of the site to be redeveloped. I don’t see why tax payers should personally enrich the couple founders of the nonprofit if they get to sell off valuable downtown land that they were given and that they paid no taxes on for however long they held the land. And even then, look how that’s working out with UofR and Block F. They made a pathetic and token effort to look like they tried to do something with the land and are getting to hold onto it. Doing something makes things incredibly more complicated than doing nothing. Considering it could be an utter failure and still raise a public outcry over its removal. It doesn’t take many of the public to make it seem like there is demand for something, even if the broader numbers might say otherwise. At best the site is in a dedicated urban renewal district, which I believe absolves the city from getting market rates on the property. If that’s the case, they could sign a one year $1 lease with the nonprofit that renews every year and potentially make it work, but what kind of donations is a nonprofit going to pull down with that kind of uncertainty? Probably not the couple million they would need to get going, so I think this setup would likely doom them to failure.

  10. BJ says:

    From the Visionary Square link: “Our idea is not another big brick-and-mortar building in an already crowded urban landscape.”

    This is…oh my god, what? They’re being derisive of *buildings* and suggesting downtown Rochester is “already crowded?” *Scoffs* “Buildings? Bro, don’t tell me you still use buildings? Me? I prefer flexible, low-impact structures and nature. Lol buildings.”

  11. Dan says:

    BJ, it might be shot at the abomination that is midtown tower. If you’re not sure what I’m saying, I believe you can get a good look at it by entering “Monroe County Jail” into Google Image.

    Matt, your right. Screw it. Too difficult. Just spend the ~$100 million for a new theater. Never mind the fact that I will walk past 4 other theaters on my way to the new one. 2 of which are roughly the same size. I know you’re against it too, but while we squabble a certain mayor will be happy to ignore the conversation and sign the paperwork. Like you I want more retail downtown, but I think a better spot for the shopping district is the old inner loop. Not to mention the city would be against adding retail at parcel 5 for the reasons you laid out, plus the fact they just ripped down a mall in the exact spot.

    Let me see if I can make my point another way. I have a choice when I walk out of my front door every night to walk the dog. Take a left and go to Park/Berkeley. Take a right and go to parcel 5. Guess which one I choose 100% of the time? Both spots are the same distance away. The city is looking for a reason to get me to turn right, and I just told you what that reason is. Do what you want with the information.

  12. Joshua Stone says:

    A couple thoughts:

    1. People are clamoring for a park/greenspace because the existing downtown parks are terrible. Most are tiny, full of aged concrete, and only have a couple trees. They are better described as small squares than parks. I would argue the city really only has two parks, MLK and Washington Square.

    2. Washington Square is great and about the same size as parcel five, but it’s not designed or landscaped in a way that is suitable for events. Nor should it be changed in any way. MLK is large, but has a terrible design. The architecture around that park is also some of Rochester’s worst, so while they could re-do the whole thing I’m not sure it could ever be a “great park”. The city has tried to get the Strong to take over portions of the park. I’d be curious what they would be open to doing with the entire thing.

    3. I’m against both a casino and performing arts center for parcel 5. Casinos are too “big box/suburban” for a downtown and the arts thing makes little economic sense for the city that already loses money on other event spaces. Residential would be fine if we didn’t already have tons of empty buildings that can or are in the process of being converted to housing.

    4. The two things the notapark is trying to be, event space and commercial space are good short term ideas, but probably not good long term ones. I can only support their proposal if this is a semi-temporary plan for the space. The better longterm commercial/market type space for downtown is the aquaduct (all season) and the better event space is the Terrace Park overlooking high falls (best view). Terrace is our “canalside”. Neither area is really ready for that yet though, so the open square makes sense for now.

    5. The other thing a square does that is being overlooked I think is that suburbanites go to events down there at midtown and its kind of one giant advertisement for how the city has changed. I’m not sure one gets the same impression from an event at MLK even though its only a few blocks away.

  13. BJ says:

    The more I think about it, the more the “Visionary Square” thing is the worst idea imaginable. First of all, when you’re looking for ideas for downtown Rochester and your vision takes you to Detroit and Cleveland for inspiration, you should go away. That tells me all I need to know about what you really think about this city and your vision for it. That is, “Rochester sucks, so I can ONLY compare it to other shitty places.”

    Next, the idea itself indicates that the people who came up with it have absolutely no faith in downtown and no interest in making it better. They think they do, but they don’t because they have proposed nothing more than putting down some grass on a vacant lot. “But we’ll get some food trucks, and people could sit on the grass!”

    Then, add in some alleged hipster-ish trend (shipping containers!) and some “community relations” language that you think makes you sound woke to other wealthy suburbanites but actually makes you sound like a “white-man’s-burden” style racist, and, anyway you have no plan or intention of following through on it (Low income minorities from the city can use our shipping containers to incubate small businesses!”). WTF? Also, if they *really* had any intention of doing anything like that, then they’d just fucking do it instead of tying it to this thinly veiled, yet densely worded bullshit attempt to turn that lot into a park. Put your alleged “shipping containers” on the parking lot next to Kodak/MCC fronting State Street. Incubate some business on that dead stretch of ashphalt! That would actually be a good idea! Or, turn that parking lot into a park. Nope, has to be Midtown for this group, for some reason.

    This idea sucks and, what’s worse, it absolutely sounds like complete and utter BS that is carefully tailored to *sound* like something extremely substantive. Even the name is meaningful-sounding non-meaning jargon-speak. “Visionary Square.” GTFO. 1) there’s no vision; and 2) it’s not a “square” in any sense of the word.

    This thing is complete snake oil and it needs to go away.

  14. Dan says:

    Oh man, what a meltdown. Why so much hate for the millennial’s, BJ? The Baby-Boomers killed Rochester, and it seems about time somebody takes their keys away. Don’t worry, soon Hillary will be President and she’ll get rid of all our student debt. Then we’ll really be able to price you out of the market. I hope they fill the shipping containers with infinity scarfs and wood pallet furniture.

  15. BJ says:

    @ Dan

    Sick burns, bro. Feel free to characterize my rant however you like, but “millenials” vs. “boomers” has nothing to do with it. I am a millenial, and I assume you are, too. I think downtown should have buildings in it, not “lots” (parking or vacant).

    Midtown is JUST starting to develop some critical mass that hasn’t even come online yet, and you want to take a HUGE development parcel off the map? Why? The “Visionary Square” proposal is a proposal to add a semi-permanent vacant lot to downtown. I think that is 1) a bad idea; and 2) a very pessimistic view of Rochester.

    So, that’s what I think. What do you think? Wherever possible, please leave the straw men out of it.

  16. Dan says:

    It was more of an ad hominem argument, but you kind of opened your self up for that (don’t feed the trolls). It’s hard to argue with you since there is more misinformation in your rants than lack of a point. For some reason I feel a civic duty to at least counter your statements.

    You say you want buildings.*pause for effect*. That’s your whole point? Tall ones? Short ones? Skinny ones? Fat ones? Will anything do? I’m glad you understand how this is a massive opportunity, but I think you fail to grasp how small the margin of error is if you build a “permanent” structure. If you build just another building, and put up the mission accomplished banner as soon as its done; that is what’s bad for Rochester. Once you realize an empty building nobody asked for was a bad idea, how long do you wait for superman to come clean it up? The old Midtown took, what, 30 years? …But this time it will work!

    What do I want? A little creativity. Not another vacant silo. Something people can only do and see by coming to downtown Rochester. Something people who already live there have the opportunity (and desire) to use every day. A place where an new entrepreneur can get some skin in the game with minimal investment. A place where big acts can go instead of CMAC or Darien Lake and leave saying “this Rochester place is pretty cool”. If you don’t think Rochester is able to do that, then who is the pessimist here?

    Sorry to Matt for hijacking the discussion. This wasn’t fair to your very thoughtful post. I look forward to your posts each week, and generally agree with your ideas. Just thought somebody should put the opposing perspective out there. Seems like a lot of people think its the field of dreams, and assume nothing could go wrong with any large development here. History tells us otherwise.

  17. Joshua says:

    I am currently designing my proposal for this development. I have the entire building designed and am trying to sell it to developers who are able to make it to fruition. It is a nine story building with four outdoor roof gardens. These include outdoor dining space, public gardens, arts and performance areas and educational gardens. One of the roof spaces is on the roof of my proposed parking garage. This roof will contain utilities and solar energy technology to power rebuilding and gardens at night. I would like to propose my idea to serious investors as soon as possible. I have already drafted the entire building to final design phases and believe that this proposal encompasses all that is required to bring life back to downtown Rochester. I have investors to contribute to a final bid proposal but have not reached the amount required for an official bid and construction investment. I am a local resident who has advanced education and experience in other states. I feel that my return to Rochester has driven me to appreciate my heritage and and invest my future in what I believe is one of the greatest cities in the United States. Please contact me to view and support my design and vision. I am not a wealthy developer with financial motives. I am investing in our history. conwayjoshua@aol.com

  18. Adrian says:

    The push for making parcel 5 a park is still alive:

    https://theurbanphoenix.com/2017/04/14/parcel5/


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    For questions about the Rochester Subway Poster or about your order, please email info@rochestersubway.com.

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    About the Rochester Subway Poster...

    ¤ Black Radish Studio [ ...map it ]
    ¤ Parkleigh [ ...map it ]
    ¤ Poster Art [ ...map it ]
    ¤ Rochester Public Library Store [ ...map it ]

    ¤ Rochester Subway Poster Press Release
    ¤ Article by Otto M. Vondrak
    ¤ Design by Mike Governale

    More About The Rochester Subway

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