Saturday, June 28, 2008

Broad Street Aqueduct Visioning Workshop

Today I participated in my first charrette, the archetype of the citizen involvement methodology inherent in new urbanism. The topic was the much debated future function of the aqueduct originally built to carry the Erie Canal across the Genesee River. The predecessor of this aqueduct, dating back to 1825, is responsible for creating a water-to-water crossroads that drove mill machinery and moved goods on the nation's first 'highway.' This culmination made Rochester the first boom town of the 'west' when George Eastman's father was in diapers.

The process had a certain corporate team building vibe to it where all participants were asked to state wishes for the entire district (essentially everything west of the river and south of Main Street, the canal zone along with what was predominantly RIT before 1970). Quality suggestions in the spirit of the exercise (meaning thinking about the whole district) included bicycle lanes, wiping out gaps in the urban fabric, and impromptu performance space on a small public square. This brainstorming process would not be interesting in and of itself if everyone stuck to the format. In practice, many stakeholders came to the table with an agenda and a life story. It really set the stage for a factionalized charette pitting canal proponents versus light rail advocates due to its de facto focus on such a relatively small focal point.

Continuing on, a vote was conducted in a qualitative way. We were each given four stickers to place next to what we considered the most important things on the wall. You could 'spend' your 'money' as you wished as a form of backing up your belief structure with currency. For the record, I placed one token next to a desire for design excellence as part of a program to respect the public realm, two in the very generic light rail transportation row, and I honestly can't recall exactly what I did with my last tally, but I'm fairly certain it was something having to do with less kowtowing to parking interests and slanted toward increased pedestrianism.

During and after lunch our table consisting of Ricardo (a Cooper Carry facilitator), a man who was actually alive the last time the aqueduct carried water, and an array of other involved citizens got down to attempting to reach a consensus plan for the district. To say we did this compared to other groups with architects and real estate professionals in their midst would be a stretch. We didn't exactly fail the exercise either. I think our mix of aesthetes and pragmatic engineers had some extremely relevant discussion and addressed some difficult realities while making a general mess of our sample map.

I've done my best to replicate Ricardo's markup on a slightly different map in the picture to the right. I have expanded the focus area seen between the red dotted lines to more accurately represent the discussion. As you can see, we never reached a group consensus on rewatering or light rail. What we did agree upon is that we can't give one credence over the other without a full understanding of ALL of the connection options. Actual ideas that made it to our final presentation include:

  • Completed riverwalk with more linear park style elements to steer skateboarders toward appropriate apparatus (since otherwise they will find inappropriate public property) in the process of getting somewhere
  • More pedestrian connections to western Corn Hill (I believe we were the only group to scheme this and I forgot to mention it in our presentation...)
  • Well defined public realm space at the barren corner of Main and Plymouth which included a pocket park on the northeast corner to incorporate the earlier described public performance space as well as gardens showcasing Rochester's floral reputation
  • Neighborhood oriented retail (meaning no shopping complexs, more practical things like markets, post offices, and pharmacies) along the Plymouth avenue spine from Corn Hill to Frontier Field
  • A potential greenway continuing along Broad Street's original path under 490 into northwest neighborhoods

Sketched and/or described abstractly were the thoughts that a canal and a rail line could co-exist side by side within the width of the bed, as well as some potential options for undoing the current network of one-way streets downtown. And this collaborative sharing marked the end of our team's part in the process as well as the end of my objective observations in this blog entry.

A portion of the group expressed reluctance (not just me, but I won't lie, I was vehemently opposed) to removing the upper deck of the Broad Street bridge. I suppose I had never considered all of the aspects of a rewatering project that links the Genesee to the canal. In my mind, even if a lift or lock could be designed upstream from the Court Street hydroelectric station/dam, this route would still be at least partially tunnelized beneath the Rundel library. Apparently, the most ardent canal enthusiasts would have the aqueduct bed daylighted once again and continue the route clear to Paetec park (nevermind how it would negotiate an intersection with Main Street).

I mentioned, at the very tail of our presentation, the reluctance to coalesce on the removal of a bridge level pending a review of the historical merit of the upper arches. A pro-canal supporter took this opportunity to plant seeds of degraded historical signifcance due to a refurbishment undertaken in the 1970's. I can only assume he is talking about the road deck itself, the support structures date to 1928 and are every bit as impressive as their 19th century platform. In the 2020's, the city may take the opportunity to refurbish the road deck in the style of the much lauded Main Street bridge downstream. (Photo by Rick Harris - CC A-SA 2.0 License)

It is with this in mind, along with my primary conviction that commuter rail, regardless of the logistics of route placement, should travel on a dedicated right-of-way, and my secondary conviction that American way of life is on its way to being dictated by market realities similar to those which spawned our great cities that I reaffirm my stance on maintaining the only remaining piece of suitable infrastructure in our city's core as a rail tunnel.

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