Wednesday, February 13, 2008

An Evening with Bruce Katz

On our ride to Ottawa this weekend, around Watertown and the North Country, Tia came across a half page advertisement in City Newspaper. It advertised a lecture series about redeveloping and revitalizing our community run by the Rochester Regional Community Design Center. The next lecture would be given by Bruce Katz and would be Tuesday night from 7 to 9. As luck would have it, my hockey game tonight was scheduled at 10:20PM, so I decided to try to squeeze it in despite the slow driving conditions brought on by snow. It ranked up there among the best $15 I've ever spent (could have been $10 if I had made a decision more than 1 hour before the event...). My biggest regret was not bringing a notebook.

The RRCDC is a group of not only design professionals, but also city planners and concerned citizens whose common goal is to promote design excellence and by extension, sustainable urban living. Their 2008 lecture series is entitled "Reshaping Rochester! Planning for the Public Realm." Each lecture is held in a historically significant building with a short history of the structure provided at the beginning of the meeting. This one was held at St. Mary's Church across the street from Washington Square Park where we filmed the bulk of my first short film last March (shameless plug?).

Mr. Katz, the Vice President and Founding Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution and former Chief of Staff for a HUD Cabinet Secretary, grouped his oration around a central theme, "The 2% Solution." The major premise behind the solution, taken directly from the title of the lecture, is that drawing a critical mass of residents downtown is key to urban revival. According to Mr. Katz, this figure (2% of the metro population) living downtown can create an unstoppable cycle of smart economic development if guided properly. In Rochester's case, he posited that 20,000 downtown residents would be exceptional critical mass, but an attainable goal.

The address contained some informed, Rochester-specific, praise and detraction. Among the kudos included a figure that 33% of employment in the Rochester Metro Area was within 3 miles of the center of the city, far exceeding the 22% national average. Among the criticisms were complaints about the scale of sprawl despite lack of population growth. General comments included a thorough trashing of 1990's Pennsylvania state government policy and the appropos comparison to recent New York policy. He also acclaimed the turnaround in the Keystone State of the city and borough core under Governor Rendell of Philadelphia and said the Spitzer administration is on the right track to follow that path. Photo by Paige Miller (CC A-N-NDW 2.0)

The real guts of the talk were his four discrete recommendations to Rochester planners for continued downtown development success. I can only remember three unfortunately. Of course I may be lumping two together.
  • Continue what you (Rochester) are doing with respect to downtown development (PaeTec, ESL), but work with a foundation/philantropy/government to accelerate the rate of new developments, especially housing.
  • Reclaim the riverfront. Mr. Katz said many cities would die to have something as dramatic as High Falls in their downtowns. There is a lot of potential all along the river for quality urban space.
  • Facilitate cooperation between city and suburbs to maintain and create modern infrastructure, share services, and compete for industry against international markets, not each other. For instance, with City-County cooperation, a plan can be set in motion to deal with the Inner Loop (which he promised he would get into, but strangely didn't).

An overarching point is that socially conscious citizens need to effect change by demanding (of their legislators) choices in the downtown housing market. Those same citizens would be staying ahead of the competitive economic curve in an economy driven by innovation and entrepreneurship and that lawmakers will be forced to lean toward recentralization concerns.

The highlight of the event for me was the question and answer period. I was able to use a wireless microphone to ask Mr. Katz a question about transit. I said, "One of the things that inclines me to travel to Baltimore is the light rail service to the airport, so you never have step foot in a car. Do you have an opinion on the importance and/or the viability of a light rail system for a city like Rochester?"

Mr. Katz proffered several salient points that addressed not only the question, but a thoughtful expansion on the topic of transit. Four really stood out so much that they survived a miserable 7-1 hockey defeat and all the mind poison that goes with it.

  • Rochester is a Top 50 Metro Market and should have commensurate mass transit.
  • To build an extensive system as Denver is doing is to make a wager on a prosperous future growth-wise for your metro area.
  • Transit should not be built to serve existing purely residential areas, that if done properly, it will channel growth and density into desired corridors.
  • Most important, some ZONING REFORM should take place along the routes to facilitate densification along the route. To built transit for other reasons or without these stipulations is a waste of money.

One of Kunstler's pet peeves and a key contributor to sprawl is the concept of single-use zoning. It has effectively legislated the personal automobile (and SUV/Minivan) into existence.

Needless to say, I'm extremely glad I attended this event despite getting pwned by the final question of the Q&A session. A woman decided to ask the audience how many people lived in the city. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die temporarily, though 'Plan A' of our city housing search brought back some encouraging news today.

Greenwood Bookstore was present selling urban themed non-fiction including the Jacobsian Bible found in the Urban Resources sidebar. If you are able to attend the next lecture by Architecture critic Robert Campbell, you can pick it up from an independent bookseller. Even more importantly, I was able to find out that the Downtown Design Charrette initiated by RRCDC will be presented tomorrow (actually, today, it's that late...) at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church at 121 North Fitzhugh Street at 6:30PM. We will try to make time for that after we go see a 'Plan B' townhouse in Corn Hill. Also, on Friday there will be a charrette exhibit at the RRCDC's Design Gallery on East Main Street in the Hungerford Building from 6 to 9PM.

Big week for my Rochester Urban Experience to say the least. Till next time...

1 comment:

thethirdcoast said...

It sounds like Katz raised or reaffirmed a lot of good points.

One item in this state that people have really over looked is the Erie Canal.

Everyone complains about the taxes we pay to maintain it, but I think the Erie Canal becomes HUGELY useful in an energy crunch.

It requires very little input energy to load things on a barge and float them down a canal!