When A Space Tells A City What It Wants To Be

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“This is one of those nights I’m never gonna forget,” said my mother as we stood up during the intermission. I watched as she slowly spun around, taking in the gorgeous summer night in the heart of Rochester’s downtown. It was a look I had seen before, almost as if in disbelief of the space, the colorfully lit skyline, the moment, and the awe-inspiring energy of the crowd.

Memories are made in spaces that inspire. Watching my mother, a former concert violist, enjoy the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for an outdoor performance at the iconic public space known simply as “Parcel 5,” was validation of years of advocacy for this amazing piece of city land. The previous administration’s attempts to envision this space as a performing arts center were flawed at best. And when this idea fell through, the same administration pursued the potential to turn Parcel 5 into a Kansas City-style “Power and Light” entertainment district.

Neither idea materialized and as a result, center city’s most central piece of real estate lay vacant as a rocky lot, sadly echoing its former life as Midtown Mall, the source of so many Rochester memories. Opening in 1962, Midtown Mall fed off of the employment machines that were Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. But as downtown jobs diminished in part due to one of the most horrific business decisions in American history, Midtown struggled to compete with subsidized suburban malls and was demolished in 2010. In fairness to Kodak, nearly every urban mall in the U.S. saw an untimely end, as sprawl continued to surge, leaving city centers with fractions of their former populations.

I remember the first time I stepped upon this abandoned lot. I kicked some rocks under my feet as I looked upward at the repurposing of the massive building, now known as “Tower280,” Rochester’s premier downtown residential paradise. A sleepy city center was about to wake up, as developers began realizing the Flower City’s potential as a hotbed for new downtown residents looking for the mid-sized city experience.

Tower280 looks upon the once empty, rocky space in the middle of Downtown Rochester

For years I was one of thousands of voices who relentlessly advocated for this rocky lot to become a lush center city park. “Free Parcel 5” became a rallying cry (there were bumper stickers and t-shirts), as proponents fought to keep the space free for the people.

But then-Mayor Lovely Warren had visions of a shiny new Auditorium Theater in the empty space, pairing with a developer to make it so. However, stalled funding and legal troubles incurred by the developer meant that the once doomed vision of P5 as public space was reborn and re-energized.

Fast forward a few years… Tower280 became a massive success. Furthermore, the former Chase Manhattan Bank skyscraper was retrofitted and repurposed by Gallina Development, a locally-based company with a deep social commitment to the future of Rochester. “The Metropolitan,” as the reimagined building was dubbed, was the resoundingly successful result.

The Metropolitan

And these projects represented the upper crust of dozens of new downtown residential additions, not to mention the historic Sibley building adjacent to the Liberty Pole, and nearby construction of residences on the reclaimed Inner Loop Expressway infill.

The re-imagined Sibley Building next to the Liberty Pole anchors the north end of Parcel 5
A once sunken, underused expressway encircling Downtown Rochester is new host to a series of massive apartment buildings that welcome new residents to a growing center city

Downtown Rochester’s population has more than doubled from 2000-2018, and the city as a whole had a slight uptick in population from 2020 to 2021, which is a welcomed sign for a city that has seen population decline from its 1950s best of 330,000. To its now 211,000.

In the center of this is Parcel 5, which the city finally decided to sod and add initial amenities like picnic benches and a light-up “ROC” sign for iconic selfies.

Parcel 5 played host to the downtown main stage during Jazz Fest of this year. In previous years, Fringe Fest has held its most iconic events at this undeniable location, even when it was just a rocky lot.

Even when P5 was a rocky lot, it begged to be activated as public space
Thousands attend Fringe Fest’s iconic main event years ago, when the space was still covered in harsh stone

Parcel 5’s future as public space is still uncertain. There is no guarantee that a major developer won’t someday swallow up the lot. Many people still would prefer to see it developed in the hopes of adding to Rochester’s density after decades of sprawl and Urban Renewal. And for the record, this is a perfectly logical and understandable vision.

But at least for now, this central piece of urban land is in the infancy of its full potential. If I were to dream, I would envision P5 as a future public space that mimics Bryant Park. Until then, this controversial plot is a tremendously flexible space that is no stranger to dog walkers, families and strollers, a sign that downtown is once again becoming a place where people live and thrive.

I’ll leave you with a short true story. When P5 was just a rocky lot, I hosted some friends from out of town, and took them to Parcel 5. As they spun around and gazed at the beautiful city that surrounded them, they both said the same thing.

“We didn’t get what you were talking about until we were here. Now we understand.”

People advocate for places like Parcel 5 because of how they feel when they step into the space. Sometimes, when we lift our gaze to the cityscape that rises above us, a space tells us what it wants to be instead of the other way around.