Parcel 5 in Rochester: Here We Go Again

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Google “Parcel 5 Rochester” and you will be privy to one of the most interesting debates over a small portion of land in the middle of a mid-sized American city. From its history as an urban mall, to its decimation after decades of the mall’s decline, to an empty lot ready for development, to the proposal of a performing arts center and THAT idea’s subsequent decline… all the while, a resounding voice from the community seeking its incarnation as a center for public space… through the winds of change, high and low, and at times really low, Parcel 5 has seen a whirlwind of opinion unlike any swatch of land in Greater Rochester and maybe urban Upstate New York.

It’s no coincidence that Mayor Lovely Warren’s office announced that the city is anxious to build a year-round concert and entertainment venue, light retail space and green space on the P5 lot, just days after the empty lot played host to an estimated 20,000 people for Jazz Festival performances. Details are vague, but the city is looking to develop a space similar to Kansas City’s Power And Light District. This is what we know from the city right now right now…

“Parcel 5 is a shovel-ready site that will complement NYS investments in the Downtown Innovation Zone like Sibley Square and ROC the Riverway. The vision is to create a vibrant downtown public space on Main Street in Rochester’s Center City. Funds will be used for planning, design, and construction of Phase 1 of the Parcel 5 Public Space. This phase may include, but is not limited to, a visitor center with restrooms, a large structural overhead canopy, site and stage lighting, a marquee, greenspace, hardscape and digital infrastructure.”

Many are thrilled that the city has opened its eyes to the right size and kind of development for this space, which will include green space, restaurant and retail possibilities. Others are worried that the nearly $24 million price tag and a hefty annual maintenance costs will place an unnecessary burden on a city that’s still seeing red. And yes, parallels to the apocalyptic crash-and-burn failures that crisscross Rochester’s recent past, like the Fast Ferry and High Falls Entertainment District are being made in abundance too.

So here we are again. Caught somewhere in between a city that wants to re-establish fiscal responsibility, and a city that has dreams of a starry-eyed past, Parcel 5 finds itself in the middle once more. The land of a dozen incarnations, the acre of The Flower City’s salvation, or so it seems, finds itself at the center of downtown’s most fervent conversations.

The thrust is simple. With some Rochesterians pleading for more public space, and others who have the memory of when P5’s footprint housed Midtown Mall in its prime, and still more who believe we should have a performance venue at the heart of the city, this new plan appears to try to fill all desires. While traditional retail doesn’t activate space anymore, the food and drink scene does. The idea in place will allow for plenty of that. Green space will appease those who’ve wanted Rochester’s version of Bryant Park… maybe. And finally, for those who want a year round additive to Rochester’s downtown, an indoor performance venue seems to be part of the initial idea.

So everyone’s happy right? Well, the jury’s still out, but initially, the skepticism has been palpable, from city council members to community leaders and residents.

Rochester will forever be burdened by memories of its most spectacular planning disasters. Truthfully, this is the case in most cities… populations will always remember the worst manifestations of civic vision, citing these calamities every time we are about to tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole of a new idea. Natural hesitation to pet the dog that bit you last week is a human condition, and one we can all understand.

A YouTube review of Kansas City’s Power and Light district initially made me excited. Then I came to my senses and realized it would take a lot for a city our size, with a downtown that still lacks significant density, to provide the consistent financial support for something of that magnitude. I would sincerely hope that Rochester’s vision might be scaled down significantly in the interest of sustainability and a greater devotion to green space instead of simply pre-portioned entertainment space. If there’s one major danger with regard to this new vision for P5, it’s that we might focus too much on permanent structures and not enough on flexible space that can be utilized at any time by the average downtown worker looking for lunch space, the family seeking an urban picnic, a couple friends throwing a frisbee, a summer concert, a winter festival and a customizable, programmable space for any occasion.

But honestly… and I know a lot of people will stop taking anything I say seriously when I say this (not that they did before)… I am starting to believe the powers that be in Rochester are doing their homework. I’m starting to see a vision that transcends the surface and digs deeper to find answers and solutions. It’s not perfect, and it will take time… but I’m seeing good things from a city that’s become famous for a lot of bad ideas. This isn’t a staunch endorsement of the vague new plans for Parcel 5, it is simply a statement one might make about a sports team with some bright young stars coming into a new season… “watch out for this club, they might surprise you.”

The new vision for Parcel 5 is a gamble. And while trying to make everyone happy may result in no one being happy, I think the scale of this project reflects a “porridge is just right” approach to what could be a very powerful additive to the heart of Rochester’s downtown. This has the stirrings of a project that could entice further private investment and create a social center in our city’s core. At the end of the day, whatever happens, this space should do three things…

  • Create a space that is attractive, open, free and enjoyable for people of all ages, walks of life and socioeconomic statuses.
  • Provide a very flexible platform for festivals and performances of all sizes, as well as a bevy of other programmable events.
  • Entice private investment in the surrounding area from Rochester based/outside investors looking to get in on the ground floor of a growing downtown. The space should send a clear message that Rochester is the place to build and expand your business.

There are other key elements any space in Parcel 5 should employ, but let’s keep it simple and basic for now. With the first whispers of this idea, it appears possible to address all three of these needs, but only time will tell if that actually happens.

Speaking of time, we need to also ensure that this project can withstand the test of time, unlike many other Rochester entertainment initiatives. That’s why it’s so important that we focus on keeping the overhead cost of this project to a minimum, and more importantly, it’s vital that this project doesn’t end up being a long term economic burden on The City of Rochester.

Do I like this new idea that Rochester is initially exploring for Parcel 5? Sure, why not. I think we all just want to see something beneficial to the city in that space. The idea is more in line with what might actually work to activate downtown than previous concepts. But we need to understand two things… One (and this is one I had to learn), there is a lot of Rochester that can still be developed and revitalized. This is simply one parcel of land in a key location, nothing more. As a good friend reminded me, this 1.2 acre plot of land has received such a massive portion of our attention, much to the detriment of so many other areas we have collectively ignored. It is far from the last piece in Rochester’s evolving puzzle.

Second, we have to be mindful of the scale and the ability for this space to be flexible and usable for a multitude of different activities and occasions, one of which is simply sitting in green grass or reading on a park bench. Let’s look for less emphasis on a specific vision, and more on the ability for everyone to easily utilize the space formally or informally, depending on need. An extensive public financial investment with a narrow vision is a high risk, and one we cannot afford to make.

Let’s support the strong possibilities that this new idea brings, while cautiously sifting through the information as it comes in. It’s too early to be truly supportive or skeptical, so let’s do what we can to see the big picture and see where the story takes us. Breathe Rochester, just breathe. No idea will be the Golden Ticket, nor will it be the gates of Hell. Rochester has plenty of decisions left before this train can move forward, so we’ll wait a bit longer and see where we’re going.

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