A Different View: Rochester’s Genesee Riverway Promenade

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I remember the feeling of wonder the first time I entered Rochester’s abandoned subway tunnel. I remember walking from the South Avenue entrance, dropping down into the catacombs of graffiti and under-realized history. I recall seeing the old station platform and the stairs leading to the ceiling. I remember making the turn under the library and around the corner under Broad Street and across the Genesee River.

I remember seeing the sun pour in from the portals on either side, casting an orange glow on a structure that I thought might be a unique piece of Rochester’s revitalized future. I imagined a developer with vision embracing the space’s truly unique history and re-imagining it as a park, a restaurant, housing, or a combination of the above.

And then I remember seeing it… the first mechanical earth movers, destroying the entrance to what I still believe could have been one of the most unique development opportunities in our city. I remember seeing the apartments go up, sealing off one of the most interesting places in Rochester’s rich history forever.

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I felt anger, resentment and loss. I felt like a mistake was made, an opportunity missed.

Flash forward to this week. On a sunny Fall evening, I took the bus downtown, armed with my electric skateboard to traverse the new Genesee Riverway Promenade for the first time. I walked around the famed Dinosaur Barbecue to the Court Street entrance of the newly constructed walkway and reveled at the sight in front of me. Beneath the towering Nathaniel apartment complex, now in the final stages of construction, a wide, High Line-like promenade hovered over the mighty Genesee, opening up views of Rochester I had never before seen. Long benches, steps down to a closer viewing platform, and potted plants completed the ensemble that courted the new walkway.

And it’s not just visually stirring. The promenade provides a long-overdue connector between the Genesee Riverway Trail and the city’s center via Court Street. This new piece of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is as practical as it is beautiful.

The new promenade connects the Genesee Riverway Trail to Court Street downtown

And the new apartments? Soon they will be ready to feed Downtown Rochester’s meteoric growth with more residents.

Mind you, not all is lost for the old subway space… there may still be a future opportunity for the half-mile or so that’s left from State Street to Broad Street on the west side of the river.

But for now it looks like the final remnants of our old subway infrastructure are, at best, facing their final chapter. A sad statement, considering Rochester is likely the smallest city in the country to have this form of transit. It will always make me sad, the potential to re-imagine something unique that might activate the city AND pay homage to an interesting part of our history.

But as I walked along the promenade the other day, gazing at the new view and watching bikers, walkers and runners pass by, I was reminded that every urban addition has its subtractions. Every change has its passionate detractors fixated on the past, unable to realize that we don’t always have to preserve our past to create something new, beautiful and powerful for the next generation.

I will always love our subway space, until the last piece of it is filled in. I will fight to develop it in a way that fuels our city’s future. But in the end, if the space is negated for something that adds a different dimension to our city’s future, I can’t really argue. After all, I’d rather see Rochester, and all of our cities thrive with new residents, beautiful additions, and powerful ways to experience our communities than quibble over whether or not to keep or discard infrastructure that’s been dormant for decades. It’s not ideal for those of us who love our history and hate to see it destroyed, but it’s not all bad, and sometimes it can be JUST as good as what we had in mind.

When you’re passionate about what I’m passionate about, it’s easy to get into the rut of opposing everything that threatens our vision. But cities are, naturally, very fluid concepts that evolve from a plethora of sources. No one idea is good or bad. We’re all going to win and lose, and each of those wins and losses have elements of both.

For me, the key is to fight for your vision, but be open to seeing the possibility of other “views” for the future. As I stared at the new “view” of our city (physically and metaphorically) on the promenade I was reminded of this principle, a powerful pinch of our skin that takes us out of our daydream and forces us to continue to look forward to the next challenge, the next initiative, and the big picture… that are our revivals are more than one project. Keep moving forward, there’s still a lot of victories to be had as we re-envision our urban futures.