Thursday, February 7, 2008

Midtown Addendum

Consistency is something we all strive for in our daily lives. Part of being a U.S. American is being defensive about the hypocrite label and discounting the credibility of those who 'flip-flop' on the issues. I hope that readers can forgive my amateurism and approve of the critical writing process which enriches the author as well as his audience.

I think it appropriate today to qualify some of my Treatise on Midtown and augment it with knowledge/opinion internalized from the Urban Land Institute's report of recommendations for the redevelopment of downtown Rochester.

This effort to clarify is driven by a minor spike in traffic to the blog not inherently generated by the Digg machine or erroneous counts (Eg. me doublechecking formatting). It would appear that the topic of Midtown is searchable and that people are landing here, only to find one of my more emotional, yet sadly misinformed in some respects, pieces of work.

While I would never apologize to the D&C for calling their articles fanatical journalism or to Wegman's for accusing them of discriminating against the lower class, I'd like to amend my opinions about Main St. retail, classes of office space, and the skyway system.

In my previous entry I argued against the energy and dollars expended to demolish any retail structure. I was also non-commital, yet provincially supportive of the Skyway System linking downtown office towers. I suppose I didn't fully appreciate true tenets of new urbanism before reading Chapter 6 of Kunstler (Beyond Seaside) and the ULI's Report.

On page 30 of that report, the panel of esteemed city planners, developers, and architects states, "The first-floor retail space [of the Sibley Building] might be used to accommodate relocation of some current Midtown Plaza tenants onto the street." This is of course fundamentally what we want in any vibrant downtown. The Skyway does not serve this purpose either. While convenient for businessmen, especially in a city with harsh winters, the skyway system is described as "confusing to use...and is inaccessible during off-peak hours." All this does is to reinforce the notion that the street is not a desirable place to walk and spend time.

In a competition between the Sibley Building and Midtown for development dollars, who wins? The Sibley Building hands down. Its iconic department store/tower configuration with significant architectural features framing the Liberty Pole is space with excellent potential, deserving of refurbishment compared to what has been described as a Soviet Skyscraper. Going from a strictly original-use hardcore urbanist viewpoint, the Sibley Building is the logical choice to absorb as much former Midtown retail as possible and I failed to see these more honorable possibilities sooner.

On to the realities of office space demand. Despite having previously read the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation's May 2007 Survey of Downtown Office Space, and having an understanding of the glut of Class B and non-traditional office space still vacant downtown, I held out hope that there was use for the Midtown Tower. As the ULI panel states on Page 23, "...and very costly redevelopment would be required to upgrade the Midtown Tower to a Class A building...the panel recommends a plan of asbestos remediation, followed by an extensive market study to determine whether the tower should be reused or demolished."

The PAETEC proposal would guarantee new Class A office space with a "guaranteed" tenant. While still conscious of the possible impacts of impending recession, this course of action likely presents the most worthy use of the tower footprint, especially from the standpoint of providing a development spark to raise land values. I do however maintain that this is an acceptable solution if and only if the following conditions are adhered to.

  • The building must be 17 stories tall or an equivalent height to the Midtown Tower (with more distinguishable archtitectural features) so as not to subtract from the Rochester skyline
  • The building must have some service/retail space fronting the exterior, not in an enclosed lobby or underground. Possibilities include a breakfast diner for all downtown workers as seen in the former Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh
  • As noted on Page 24 of the ULI Report: "At the corner of Main Street and Clinton Avenue, a large park or plaza should be constructed. This park could be used for outdoor performances, festivals, and other community gatherings."
  • The rest of the site should host midrises with a residential above retail formula as seen in the Sagamore or East Avenue Commons. Retail should face the entire plaza area and be visible from Main or Clinton.

Having largely reconciled myself with the impracticalities of Midtown and its requisite demise to advance a greater good, I'd like to address two more things while I have 'the floor' (It's my blog, right?) I now see as crucial that were outlined in the report.

The first involves the much maligned and now inadequately funded Renaissance Square project and more specifically the bus terminal feature. On Page 27 of the ULI report, the panel asserts, "Heavy use of Main Street as the central transfer point for the regional bus routes creates a further “iron curtain” of buses at certain times, barring pedestrian and even visual access along Main Street. These conditions present a lack of pedestrian scale and comfort, making this area of Main Street uninviting and unattractive." This is an excellent characterization of the problem and much more cerebral and attentive way of viewing it compared to the standard race/safety refrain. Thus I support move than ever an at grade terminal tucked inside/behind the performing arts center and collegiate satellite campus.

The second topic of note is curious and at least shows I'm capable of thinking and speaking critically of the ULI's doctrine. They advise modifying the Euclid Building (home of many local radio stations) to be standalone and cite an "important underground service tunnel [that] complicates the demolition..." Perhaps I'm taking modernist bias too far when I say that the Euclid Building may be the least desirable building on site. I don't understand at all why a four story Class B space built in 1962 is worth retaining. I believe it is currently the most occupied of Midtown Properties, but I fail to see the overarching importance of a service tunnel when all things to potentially service are being sacrificed.

Tomorrow I leave for Ottawa to Skate the Canal, catch the 67's, and the Royal Canadian Mint. I hope to find some time this weekend to blog the latest downtown developments regarding High Falls and ESL. Until then, I leave you with the 25th and final Merry Tuba Christmas at Midtown.

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