My Downtown is a Neighborhood, Not Your Urban Zoo

For most of us, the word “Downtown” typically evokes visions of the bright lights and bustling streets of Manhattan, LA, Chicago or Las Vegas.  We stare up at massive structures, glistening billboards and smell of the street… Times Square comes to mind, a vast chaotic series of ooos and aaahhhs as your mind is swept away by the magnificence of a place you love to visit but would scarcely want to live in.

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I’m not knocking any of these places, they are truly unique and wonderful attractions.  But they have, unfortunately, forever tainted our view of what a downtown can and should be.  Like urban zoos, we visit for the “must see” attractions with wide eyes as we enjoy our token tourist experience.

I sat in a city council meeting this evening as a local radio host praised the city for undertaking a massive development project that is currently underfunded and overpromised on its rewards.  Like so many, this gentleman, at no fault of his own, embraced the misconception so commonly held about our city centers… that downtown must be a place for high-end glitz and glamour, and most importantly, a place that draws people in from the outside suburbs and beyond.  It must be an attraction, where people from all over can come and see, hear and even smell… as long as they do so behind the confines of a “barrier.”

Meanwhile, an overwhelming population of people who live in my downtown are fighting this project in the hopes of creating public space that will unite the city with a mixed use, flexible parcel that welcomes everyone, most of all, the people that live there.

What the gentleman who spoke didn’t understand, and what so many people across the country are struggling to wrap their minds around is that within the next 10 years, the our center in Rochester will see residential growth in the 5,000-7,000 population range.  What does that mean?

It means, very simply, that our downtown, as well as city centers across America, have given up trying to be the Vegas Strip or Times Square.  As we speak, they are trying to be… dare I say it…. neighborhoods!

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Syracuse’s Armory Square

Where the average American still sees our cities as places where people party, drink, see shows and watch sports, the truth is the new urban revival has as much to do with creating livability as it does entertainment.  Young professionals are looking for a city they can live in, not just visit on occasion for a good time.

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Rochester’s new WedgePoint apartments

Amenities like public space and comfort additives, which are typically foreign to those who still view cities as places you “visit,” are more important than ever as old manufacturing plants and long-vacant office buildings are being repurposed into apartment space.

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Main Street Rochester’s historic Sibley Building, which is being repurposed into apartments, offices and retail
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Doyle Lofts in Utica New York

Our cities are changing, but the perception that a downtown needs to be a place exclusively for entertainment, like an urban zoo for curious outsiders to view behind glass still persists.  Nothing is more off-putting to city residents than to feel that their needs are being ignored while the powers that be turn their home into an attraction that feeds the suburban curiosity.  For our cities to survive and take that next step toward livability, and excitement, we need to remedy this misconception and reintroduce our downtowns as the booming residential neighborhoods they are quickly becoming.