Rochester’s Parcel 5: A Critical Urban Debate

On a beautiful July 3rd night last summer in Rochester, over 5,000 residents and visitors eagerly collected in a vast open area in the middle of downtown, ready to watch Jazz Fest’s premier act, Trombone Shorty.  While Mr. Shorty’s electric musicianship had the crowd rockin’ for hours, people weren’t talking about music the next day.  Instead, the city was abuzz with talk of one thing… the fact that the empty piece of open space where everyone gathered for last evening’s show needed to be permanently transformed into a park.  Suddenly, Rochester residents and visitors were introduced to an area of land that used to house one of America’s first malls… a now empty space called Parcel 5.

Social media, casual conversations… anyone who was anywhere near Parcel 5 that night seemed to echo the same thing, that this rectangular swatch of land in the heart of downtown needed to remain open so that people of all walks of life could come together for events, gatherings, or just walk a dog or enjoy a good read.  The unique Rochester skyline to the east, the brand new Tower 280 to the south, the Liberty Pole and Sibley Building to the north… the space was one of the few that seemed to cradle viewer in the urban arms of the city.

enlight1-31enlight1-31enlight1-32enlight1-32Fast forward to last week when the announcement was finally made that Parcel 5 would house a $130 million performing arts center and a high-end apartment building with the generous donation of $25 million from Tom Golisano.  While other proposals of mixed use greenspace at more approachable price tags were reviewed, the city settled on a new and beautiful performing arts complex, touting more jobs and more money coming into downtown Rochester.

While this complex will likely be a positive addition to the city, reintroducing a surging downtown to a suburban and outlying population that has long since been disconnected with the city’s center, there’s a mounting concern from the scores of people that have already moved back into Rochester’s core.  It is an issue of direction, of balancing the creation of vibrant attractions that usher visitors in, while still ensuring a livable space for growing numbers of people who are taking a chance on downtown.  In a city center that was virtually vacant for decades, the demand for downtown housing is now reportedly outpacing supply… but like any surging urban area, the next step after creating space for people to live is creating space for people to live well.

Rochester’s downtown residents, however, are beginning to express concerns over the recent Parcel 5 decision to build a performing arts center instead of a mixed use greenspace.  The message seems to be the first cry from residents that are settling in to their new downtown apartments that just because they are there doesn’t mean the city can move on to other priorities.

“In Tower 280, we have a professors, doctors, business people, nurses, technologists, clinicians, and literally all of us wanted mixed use greenspace here,” said a resident of Tower 280 who asked to remain nameless.  “But we truly felt like there was no way for the mayor to hear our voice.  We moved downtown, we’re spending our money downtown, we took the risk… now we want to be heard.”

“I don’t want to look out my window and see a building.  I want to see trees and grass while still having the amenities of downtown.  We have people in our buildings who have dogs, they don’t want to take their car down to Genesee Valley Park just to walk their dog.”

Dr. Brandon Comella is another Tower 280 resident.

“It is a bit unnerving sitting, wondering why the other proposals were not allowed to be reviewed before choosing this plan, specifically Mr. Gallina’s proposal.  I don’t have all the information and that’s even more unnerving. In my opinion, Parcel 5 is a bit of a hot topic for those of us who live adjacent to that that space and we should have the ability to evaluate the proposals and ask the important questions that impact the city’s future.”

“I am neither for or against the project moving forward but I am looking for a lot more information and open discussions. The behind closed door type of negotiations with city’s elected officials has led to disastrous consequences for the city’s taxpayers in the past and it’s unfair to allow this happen again.”

“Its current state as a community space [Parcel 5] for events has proven to be very positive and welcoming. Both the Rochester Jazz Festival and Fringe Festivals had record turnout and the feeling was fantastic and it felt right being held in the heart of the city. My neighbors and I really enjoy the fresh open air of the undeveloped Parcel 5 but also understand there are viable development options that have to be reviewed.”

“I love the idea of a performing arts center which is very positive for the area and would lend to future growth and a revitalization for downtown experience. However, the questions of funding and tax implications to those actually paying their fair share in the city limits need to be addressed.”

Brandon brought up an issue that’s been the questioned since the Parcel 5 announcement regarding funding and transparency.  Beyond the $25 million from Mr. Golisano, it remains somewhat unclear where the rest of the money will come from.  This is a big issue for new and established residents alike.

Sarah and her husband Matt have lived in the city for 10 years, including downtown for the last 7.  With the birth of their now 11 month old daughter, they have decided to move to the suburbs.

“I was taken aback slightly when they said they were building a new performing arts center [in Parcel 5]. Over the weekend, I went to The Auditorium Theater to see WICKED and the group I went with talked about the Parcel 5 plans and wondered why they wouldn’t put money into an amazing, historical, already standing performing arts center.”

“I know they’ve been working hard to get more people downtown, and they are spending a ton of money to do so. However, I’ll be honest, I don’t feel safe walking around where we live, which includes Liberty Pole and the Parcel 5 lot. When we want to go for a walk as a family, we get in our car and drive somewhere else. As far as what I would like to see there, how about a park? I think it would be neat to have a small piece of paradise in the heart of the city, fit with maybe a perimeter track, a small playground, maybe some picnic set ups.”

“Maybe the city doesn’t realize it’s demographic when they are planning all these upscale restaurants, apartments and condos. It just amazes me that they’d spend $130 million dollars on something Rochesterians don’t need and can’t afford – the median household income in Rochester is 42% lower than the national average. Based on that information, I don’t believe they have the residents best interest at heart when making these types of decisions.”

Sarah’s comments touch on a number of different issues.  The first is the statement that Rochester residents will likely not be the ones supporting the new theater.  Instead, it will likely be suburban populations and visitors that make it a success.  As stated before, this is not a bad thing, as the split between urban Rochester and the ever-expanding “event horizon” of population away from the city has become a tremendous issue.  A new draw in the heart of Rochester will likely lead to a positive re-introduction, and will hopefully generate a renewed interest in downtown from the outlying community residents.  Still, Sarah’s statement validates the growing concern from new residents that the city is fixated on tourism and entertainment rather than building a strong, livable community downtown.

The most important piece of Sarah’s statement is the fact that while Downtown Rochester is beginning to flood with residents once again, it’s still a long way from a suitable place for families, or at least that is often the perception.  As Center City becomes the “cool” new place to be, Rochester, like every city, needs to start focusing on what residents need to stay there long term.  Creating a cycle of “single-no-children” living space does little to ensure a lasting culture in downtown, and amenities need to be implemented in the anticipation that the young people moving downtown now will eventually grow up… and Downtown Rochester needs to grow with them.

This is a new and growing dilemma cities are facing today.  The balance between creating a vibrant destination for visitors, as well as a comfortable, livable space for people to reside there is a problem many cities like Rochester are struggling to stay on top of.  When executed correctly, these two ideals can actually be one and the same.

Washington Square Park in the heart of New York City is the perfect example of a mid-sized open space where people can gather, relax and enjoy light fare and vendors on the periphery, as well as see events and live music.  It adds a level of intimacy and comfort to an extremely dense part of Manhattan, allowing residents and visitors a place to enjoy the blend of nature in an urban setting.IMG_4879_tonemapped2IMG_4905_tonemappedBut when the balance shifts toward development for the sake of short term socioeconomic impact rather than investments in what current and future residents want, it can create a dangerous rift.  When this imbalance occurs, when new and current residents are seen as commodities for socioeconomic growth, change becomes temporary, trendy and unsustainable… only when we make lasting investments that are in the best interest of long-term residents will we set the tone for happy Rochesterians for generations to come.

Rochester is headed in the right direction for sure, and while the Parcel 5 decision may not have worked out the way many residents wanted, it will likely be a positive step forward for downtown.  Many other Center City locations are prime for mixed use greenspace, and development projects that will create a more vibrant AND livable downtown are in the works.  But like every city, Rochester must continue to develop on a “human level,” seeing this newfound flood of residents as the beginning of a new neighborhood, a new foundation, and eventually, a place where generations of Downtown Rochesterians can call home once again.