Last month, The City of Rochester unveiled plans and renderings of several projects that, when (and if) completed, will “reconnect” our city with the Genesee River. One of the most frequent questions I get from visitors and even Rochester area residents is why we haven’t worked harder to develop the banks of the river already. The answer lies deep in Rochester’s history.
In the past, running water was a tremendous resource, used to drive mills and generate power. Rochester flourished initially due to the industrial capacity of the Genesee River. Today we think of our urban waterfalls and bisecting waterway as attractive and majestic, but it’s “purpose” with regard to early development was almost strictly utilitarian. As a result, opportunities for residents to “connect” with the river in more personal way are presently limited.The city’s plan to remove some of the barriers that separate the coveted waterway from Rochester is an ambitious one, and one that has great promise. However, I believe Rochester’s most imposing barrier to reconnecting us with the Genesee isn’t how close we can get to it, rather it is that we cannot traverse most of it by boat.
Large urban waterways like The Chicago River, as well as more intimate city settings like The San Antonio Riverwalk can be navigated by boat, giving life to the shores and adding a “human” dimension to the water itself.
Not only does the ability to navigate these waters add an additional element of vibrancy to its shores, it changes our view of the waterway from a potential barrier to welcoming “blue carpet” of approachability and fun.
With the exception Corn Hill Landing south of downtown, Rochester’s Center City will likely never see boat traffic due to the Court Street Dam on the south end and High Falls on the north side. In between is a swiftly moving, often raging flow of rapids-like water, further blighted by remnants of industrial skeletons within the water itself.
The City of Rochester plans to reconnect us to our river, but the connection will never quite be complete without the ability for people and boats to physically navigate it. Our vision of The Genesee as a place where people want to gather will continue to be tainted by the simple knowledge that it is a natural feature we cannot enter. For this reason, I believe The Genesee will lack connective appeal and continue to be seen more as a barrier than a uniting element of our downtown. Any creative and ambitious future plan to change this dynamic will truly be the key to the future of our Center City.