Monday, June 30, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report Vol. 3

Before I jump into the next installment, I'd like to clean up some things from Saturday that were omitted. An idea that we co-opted from the wishing wall portion was a Sister Cities themed cafe district that we thought would be better suited to a redesigned Civic Center Plaza than inside the aqueduct. I also failed to mention that a website has been launched to provide continuous updates on the development of the master plan at

Interestingly, there is a stakeholder presentation from a Rochester Rail Transit Committee whose existence as far as I could tell is spotty at best. Their website has not had a substantial update since 2003 and my attempts to E-mail them were fruitless as the mailbox no longer exists. If, by chance, any members of this committee come across this blog, please contact me.

Two more tidbits before we get serious. RGRTA recently received a state grant to purchase five brand new hybrid buses and the Kunstler web presence has been made more interactive with the launch of the KunstlerCast internet forum.

Today's charrette report breakdown deals with the Guiding Principles section of the document. In the past I have touched on the built environment aspects of many news stories without ever making clear the basis for these statements. This section categorizes a framework for future development into eight worthy goals. In doing so, most principles of good urbanism float to the forefront of the pages. All of the photography included that was lifted from the report PDF is of locations in Rochester. The eight guiding principles are as follows:
  • ENHANCE the pedestrian experience
  • CONNECT distinctive districts, neighborhoods, and key sites
  • GREEN the downtown
  • FOCUS on Main Street
  • DEVELOP the river as a central featue
  • CREATE mixed use neighborhoods
  • CONSTRUCT major and minor gateways
  • IMPLEMENT a strategic planning effort

In order to enhance the pedestrian experience, the report advocates modifying existing streets and sidewalks to better serve the needs of all transportation modes with the focus on making pedestrians the highest priority. These efforts include narrowing of streets, traffic calming measures, less one-way streets, breaking up super blocks with new streets, and the installation of more civic equipment such as bike racks and benches.

In the same breath the report strives to recognize parking as critical downtown infrastructure and pushes for better design. The most important suggestion to come out of this is to allow on street parking everywhere in the downtown. I can get behind this because it accomplishes many functions. In addition to improving the pick up/drop off business of many merchants, cars lining the street create physical and psychological buffers for pedestrians. The report advocates for the design of new parking garages with liner buildings as seen in the Nashville planning documents. While I appreciate what they are trying to do, I don't believe that parking is a real problem downtown (and now I'm about to make some new friends). I believe we have general nationwide problem with 'convenience demand (that was as nice as I could put it).'

Another point of contention in this mini-section is what passes for a screened surface lot. Pictured is their example between East and Euclid downtown. I maintain that any screenage seen here is a function of the camera angle and of the photographer being across the street. Surface parking lots are the lowest of low uses for downtown real estate as they indict the tax structure in place as well as create uncomfortable dead zones in the urban fabric. This portion, lumped into a discussion of ENHANCING the pedestrian experience, sets the tone for a leaning on a 'one parking structure per development' attitude seen in the indvidual focus areas.

The preceeding (verbose) paragraph is about as critical as I am going to be about this document that I'm quite fond of. They redeem themselves nicely by subsequently emphasising the transition from automobile dependency to a balanced transportation system. First tier ideas are thrown around such as downtown streetcar circulators, light rail to regional centers, and a new inter-city rail station.

Connecting districts builds upon the idea that the pedestrian is the preferred customer of downtown. Essentially one can connect a number of popular, viable downtown areas by improving the streetscape and underutilized pedestrian connections. Focal points are created for these districts through the careful design of unique green space as well as the removal of de facto segregation barriers such as the Inner Loop. The third component of this effort is the identification of signature anchor structures and the pursuit of continuity of architecture that frames the public realm.

Once again, greening the downtown has an interlocking relationship with district connection. A complete redesign of Genesee Crossroads Park is called for (that is Corn Hill pictured) and I couldn't agree more. If you happened to attend the Taste of Rochester this weekend, Genesee Crossroads Park was the largely concrete zone fronting the river. The issues stem from its built in infrastructure limitations due to being the roof of a parking structure. It also suffers from poorly defined access to river level and multiple view obstructions and modernist designed seating introversions. A place to start in any redesign of riverfront park would be Pennsylvania's Point State Park in Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. They've got the right mix of green space, terraced concrete sidewalks, and river views.

In addition to creating a large park for real civic gathering, a green plan can include a street tree planting and maintenance program, increase the number of planting beds, and the encouragment of LEED certification (Medical Arts Building adaptive reuse pictured at right, one of the region's first LEED buildings).

Any focus on Main Street starts with the fact that Main is the historical and current heart of the city. Any infill architecture must be designed with excellence in mind. Major cross streets and intersections should be enhanced as the building scale is continuously maintained from end to end. The significant width of Main Street belies an opportunity for a mixed mode transit street such as Howard Street in Baltimore. All other guiding principles should be followed along the length of Main Street in order to realize its economic potential.

Many of the popular plans for developing the river as a central feature (just about every speaker invited by the RRCDC is flabbergasted by the way we've generally turned our backs on the river and falls) involve a continuous walkway on either side of the river. In some locations walkways would need to be cantilevered over the river along the sides of buildings (Library, Thomson). The report also encourages mixed-use/residential along the river whenever possible in addition to easier access to the falls gorge for a unique and exciting viewing angle. Programmed activities would continue to be held at riverfront sites to help activate these sites.

Creating mixed use neighborhoods is an idea that has been regaining currency and occuring in some shape or form for the last 10-15 years. In reality, most existing neighborhoods gravitated to mixed use by default during the original rise of American cities. A look at Monroe Avenue or Park Avenue should give one the impression that this type of development makes more intuitive sense than the sharp contrast that is the ruthless segregation of suburbia. The report keys in on a neighborhood environment's 'sense of place' that makes it more desirable than a housing project. It also makes note that opportunities are extensive downtown, especially on the large vacant sites abutting the Cascade District.

It is important to distinguish between gateways and gated communities. As far as I am concerned, any gated community is inherently anti-social and can actually degrade the surrounding area rather than upgrade through the visual delineation of the haves and the have-nots. Is it a similar class relationship as the failed public housing compounds which undermined their immediate middle class neighborhoods. Gateways, on the other hand, announce arrival, give a first impression, and establish personality. Numerous locations on the periphery of downtown are prime candidates for gateways which should be distinct in design while incorporating local flavor and information.

Finally, a strategic planning effort is important for a number of reasons. The first order of business is to get the Center City Plan amended. From there, we as a community can move closer to a form based design code rather than the apocryphal zoning laws. We can engage citizens and stakeholders in the process. We can merge Community Development offices with Economic Development offices in the pursuit of common goals. Priority development areas can be indentified and incentives offered. These strategies are essential for the preparation of compelling marketing presentations as well as the determination of priorities for development.

These principles need to always be in the back of our minds as we attempt to coordinate a vast, complex vision for the future. The next posts in this series will cover each of the five focus areas individually.

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