Parcel 5: Rochester’s Future In The Balance

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There may never be a more furious debate over a piece of land in downtown Rochester than the one currently taking place over the use of Parcel 5. Five months ago, I wrote about this for the first time. I’ve been addicted ever since.

The intrigue and debate over this 1.1 acre slab of gravel space in the heart of our downtown covers so much more than simply a park versus a performing arts center. The decision surrounding Parcel 5 represents the direction Rochester faces as it marches toward the future. With a downtown that is experiencing a massive influx of residential growth, and with projects still in the works, Center City is quietly becoming one of Rochester’s fastest growing neighborhoods.

This is not a word many associate with urban cores. But like it or not, Rochester is just one of countless cities that are shedding the long-held notion that dense city centers must be a source of entertainment and a haven for recreation and tourism. This vision, chained to our brains with images of Times Square and Las Vegas is being vanquished in other cities that are choosing elements of walkability, comfort, beautification and livable amenities over large scale, costly entertainment venues. What’s even more surprising? It’s working.

In a 2016 New York Times article entitled “Open Spaces Bring Light to Downtown Columbus,” Ohio’s capital is praised for creating a series of downtown public spaces, one of which is built on the footprint of a demolished urban shopping center just a few blocks east of a major waterway. The geographic and socioeconomic similarity to Rochester’s Parcel 5 is unmistakable, but the result of Columbus’s efforts to preserve open space for mixed use is even more impressive. A cost of $25 million to create Columbus Commons, along with 2 other downtown mixed-use spaces and walkable infrastructure amenities has been in-part credited with nearly $2 billion in private investment and 1,600 jobs since 2011. In a nation where urban cores have been losing population for decades, Columbus Ohio is seeing growth. And they’re not the only ones… cities like Greenville, Minneapolis, Chattanooga, Fargo, nearby Buffalo and countless other urban centers have made significant investment in preserving public space and a walkable, connective downtown that is helping to fuel positive growth after decades of decline. Note that many of these cities have winters that rival Rochester’s, but their planning for a vibrant, walkable and livable downtown is overcoming this often-cited reason for not investing in these amenities.

It is very difficult to quantify the direct socioeconomic impact that spaces like these have on urban environments. What experts do know is that today’s job producers seek out cities with a plan that places a priority on putting people first. When corporations seeking to expand or relocate are being offered incentives and tax breaks everywhere they look, often the deciding factor in choosing the right city is the amount of investment in happy, healthy city residents for their future workforce. Public space is key to ushering a residential population that has a connection to where they live, work and play, and this model is essential for the future of Rochester.

What advocates of mixed-use public space in this highly-coveted slice of land know is that the decision by Mayor Warren to support a performing arts center in this location will not benefit an ever-growing population of Center City residents. This is an over-ambitious project aimed to bring people from outlying communities into the city for an evening of entertainment a few times a year. It is the conscious or unconscious dismissal of the growing downtown residential population in favor of a token urban experience for suburban residents.

Our growing city population has has taken a collective risk. They have committed to a downtown that is still in transition in the hope that their leap will be the motivator behind growth in Rochester. While other cities have experienced tremendous success by making mixed-use space a fundamental priority, the Mayor and supporters are sending a clear message to a city population that says “thanks for coming, but we’ll take it from here.”

Our cities, like the human body, grow healthy when we nurture their incremental advancement, not rush their maturation with the injection of economic steroids for short term performance and long term degradation and decay.  We must focus on a Rochester that grows from the inside out, and that must start with an approachable, sustainable and healthy core where the community and visitors can collect for to experience our city as it unfolds around us.

With all due respect to the Mayor and the RBTL, an organization that deserves our admiration, this endeavor is not about the arts. It is another “too big too fast” legacy project that does little for a growing downtown neighborhood that is simply pleading for space to hold outdoor concerts, festivals and shows, as well as a creative space to walk, meet friends, or hit up a food truck. If Rochester’s growth is to be sustainable, we must take the lead in catering to our residents first by building a downtown that feeds a big-picture socioeconomic plan centered around sensible livability and a pro-business culture, not overambitious injections of money in projects that have abundant question marks. Only then will we take the next steps toward an urban core that is built grow, built to last, and built for all of our citizens.