Rochester, America is Watching

Urbanists across the country are on the edge of their seat, focused on Rochester, New York with a bag of popcorn in hand as if ready to watch the latest installment in the Star Wars saga.  A city with a long-stalled economy, and a nation-high poverty rate is quietly the talk of the city-panning world… and it all has to do with a lot of dirt.

IMG_3878IMG_3889I’m not going to bore everyone with the details of a project that has been talked about endlessly in my home city.  Most people know the story already… the undeveloped dirt slabs seen in the above images were once the eastern portion of The Inner Loop, Rochester’s highway “moat” that encircled the city.  The Google Street View images below show the same areas in 2007.

inner loop 2inner loop 1Faced with needed repairs and underutilized highway space, The City of Rochester decided to bring the east side of the Inner Loop up to grade, essentially creating approximately half a million square feet of development space where there was none before.  In essence, Rochester took a tax burden and will soon turn it into a source of revenue for the city.

Projects like this one have shown promising success in cities like Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Milwaukee.  The idea is not simply to create development space… it is also seen as vital to reducing the man-made barriers that have been shown to cut off populations both socially and economically.  My earlier reference to these freeways as “moats” is not far from the truth.

Furthermore, slowing traffic and bringing cars back to street level puts passers-by more in touch with the city they are traveling through.  The site of the new shop on the corner or the restaurant down the street are far more visible by way of 30mph travel at grade.

The Buffalo Skyway and the I-81 elevated freeway that bisects Syracuse are both candidates for the same fate.  Without a doubt, both cities are watching to see what happens with Rochester’s Inner Loop East project.  Dozens of other cities from Dallas to Toronto are also paying close attention to Rochester’s next moves as the “in-fill” of their former freeway begins to explore the development phase.

Speaking development, the question for Rochester’s future now turns to what should be built on this newly created space.  Early plans show the Strong Museum of Play, home to the National Toy Hall of Fame, will likely expand into part of the area, along with high-end housing and a hotel.  Many believe this area should be used to provide affordable housing, while others believe it should become a vibrant entertainment district.  After all, the Inner Loop East project lies in close proximity to the “East and Alexander” area, Rochester’s weekend nightlife center for young people looking for an evening on the town.IMG_3877IMG_3882IMG_3887An arts and cultural area, greenspace, a family and community center  and countless other ideas hover around the gravity well of options for this enormous new plot of land.  Most likely, the space built upon these grounds will be expensive, and will cater to the upper-middle class city and suburban populations.

Whatever happens to The Inner Loop East, Rochester must move forward knowing they are under the microscope.  The city has a chance to be the model for other mid-sized cities as they tackle questions of density and the barriers that exacerbate the issues of poverty and access in urban centers in the U.S. and beyond. Without knowing, The Flower City has a leadership role to play, and a responsibility to set a quality, even-handed example for others to follow.

It’s game time Rochester.  Pressure’s on.