Friday, April 25, 2008

An Evening with David Boehlke & Urban News Vol. 16

I have a lot of things to cover after an extremely busy day yesterday. This weekend promises to be no less busy so I'll do a marathon post today.

Last night, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Chestnut Street hosted the 4th in a series of six lectures hosted by the RRCDC in their Reshaping Rochester! Planning for the Public Realm series. The speaker this time was David Boehlke, the founding member of the Healthy Neighborhoods group.

Mr. Boehlke is a nationally recognized expert in neighborhood revitalization and our country’s leading authority on healthy neighborhoods. He has worked with over 100 cities and towns, emphasizing older neighborhoods with declining or stagnant populations. The focus of his speech was in building social fabric rather than what I characterize as urban fabric.

Again I failed to take notes, but the general spirit of the movement is to promote trust and pride in neighborhoods while accentuating positives rather than spending a lot of time in formal meetings harping on what isn't working. For instance, in one neighborhood, the non-profit promised to fund a very simple neighborhood-wide home upgrade of deadbolt replacement. The only stipulation was that you had to provide a key to at least one neighbor to receive the service. While the improvement was largely unnoticed and could hardly qualify as an equity driver, social equity and opinion of the neighborhood was forced to improve as a result.

Three other anecdotes (to the best of my memory) from the address and Q&A:

  • In Baltimore, while in college at Johns Hopkins, David noticed much negative news in the paper coming from Peabody Heights bordering the school and much positive press eminating from Charles Village. Initially not sure where Charles Village was, he learned that an editor at the newspaper and a Peabody Heights resident reserved festival information and the like for the newer Charles Village designation while grouping crime events in Peabody Heights, effectively changing the name of the neighborhood and the perception that went with it.
  • A group of elderly angrily protested a drughouse in their neighborhood and received excellent media coverage. A good thing, right? Wrong. Now people who didn't originally know the location of a drughouse now knew. What was suggested was an event where the same elderly park on lawn chairs in front of the house, give out balloon animals, paint faces, and bill it as "Neighborhood Hosts Mini-Festival in Front of Historic Structure," again shifting the emphasis of image.
  • While walking his dog in a park known colloquially as Fremont Park in Battle Creek, Michigan, by accident he unearthed a plaque proclaiming the site dedicated as Quaker Park in 1927 to honor the quaker meetinghouse where Sojourner Truth sang in the 1870's. Renaming the neighborhood from Emmett-Calhoun to Quaker Park and giving it a historic slant providing another impetus for renewed image and perception of a geographic area.

If nothing else, Mr. Boehlke gave the sizable audience a greater appreciation for their neighbors and the role everyone plays in maintaining health neighborhoods through social fabric that is becoming harder and harder to generate in an age of greater diversity and overemployment.

Anyway the RRCDC is still showing their Downtown Design Charette results from 8:30-5:30 (I think) over on E. Main St. Posters of the core drawing are $10. The next speech promises to be another good one as Richard Bernhardt, executive planning director in Nashville and high ranking member of the CNU will focus on sustainable community and traditional design. Check out the Rochester New Urbanist Meetup for more details and sign up if interested in attending it with me and others.

Next I'd like to talk about the RGRTA town meeting that I attended from roughly 6:05 to 6:45 (should have stayed 9 more minutes, I budgeted 15 minutes to walk to the lecture and only used 6!).

In the same vein as the proverbial "unless you've walked a mile in another's shoes," many of the complaints and comments were issues I'd never have arrived at as a matter of course. For example, multiple wheelchair-bound customers voiced displeasure at boarding policies and instances of bus overcrowding that left them waiting many minutes, sometimes hours for the next bus.

One thing I am acutely aware of that was brought up was the lack of weekend service to Webster. While I hope I can solve this issue through my next move, right now it presents a barrier of sorts and lets some inefficiency creep into the cost of a monthly pass. The general response for elimination of certain routes (the examples presented were weekends in Palmyra and general service to Bergen, Riga, and parts of Chili) was that even reduction in vehicle size would not serve to cut out over 80% of the expense of serving 1-5 interested residents, that the overhead associated with paying a bus driver is the overwhelming cost for any route.

Points that I either brought up or added to the discussion included the status of the system map (it is being bid out to a new company, won't be ready for 1-2 months), and the incidence of busses arriving and leaving early during low traffic weekdays such as New York's asinine week-long spring break. I will certainly be attending the next one to gather more feedback and hopefully help fine tune the service.

One last thing about the buses that deserves mention. The #30 that I board at 7:12AM was more than half-full yesterday for the first time since I started riding. Imagine my surprise today when we were relegated to the back of an almost full bus! Overheard was an older woman stating, "that bus hasn't been filled like that since 1995." Well done Webster, no sarcasm, no shame.

Finally, the one meeting I wasn't able to make to last night was the Renaissance Square public input on four scaled-back revised designs. Running short of time, I'll post the New Urbanist slanted comments I posted in the viper pit (the D&C message boards) along with the link to individual pictures of each proposal.

Brooks to Roll Out New Ideas for Ren Square
by Jill Terreri, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Count me among the group unsure about the merit of such a large theater pending more information on the Auditorium Center (though I have been at sold out shows there). A few things though from a planning perspective:

  • I think Concept #2 is the best of what we see here though a cross between 1 and 2 would be what I would put forward.

What's wrong with 3 and 4? They are trying to get too cute with angling the theater and have created retail spaces too specialized and ambitious compared to what is a better low level economic and safety driver. 3 and 4 also really marginalize MCC. 3 and 4 also create not well attended public space by breaking the sidewalk wall with no fronting retail, only the entrance to the less commonly used theater.

I have issues with public space right there in all of these plans for a few reasons, but what proposals 1 and 2 do is keep eyes on it with both retail and the college campus. #1 does the best job of adaptive reuse with the Edwards building and of creating a reasonable expectation of the open space, a campus courtyard. #2 does the best job of dispersing the retail to improve not only Main, but also Clinton.

So, in conclusion, I like #2 the best, but adding some Edwards space into the MCC equation on that one would be even better.

Don't forget Clean Sweep tomorrow! It's easy to be tough from behind a keyboard, get involved!


CWhittaker said...

Just my luck, all of this went on when I was getting back into town and just wanted to pass out. Maybe next time.

CWhittaker said...

About #1, in Rochester some of this is going on now, as the former Atlantic University Neighborhood is now the Neighborhood of the Arts. Seems to have been effective, despite some of the old Atlantic University signs still being around, when you realize that property values have gone up more than anywhere else in the city.