Monday, July 21, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report Vol. 4

It's time to begin looking at each of the focus areas from the downtown charrette report. The five areas are the Center Core, River North, Southeast Loop, Main Street, and the River South. The Center Core is the area containing the Midtown Plaza redevelopment site, the Sibley Building, and St. Joseph's Square.

A combination of the migration of city population to the suburbs, national chain department store prominence, blatantly prejudiced (and wrong) conceptions of safety, and a general lack of physical plant updates since 1962 have rendered the Midtown Plaza shopping mall obsolete. The city has undertaken a program since December of squeezing the remaining merchants to expedite a demolition process using state funds in order to pass over part of the parcel to Paetec Communications.

The Sibley Building was once the iconic home to the Sibley, Lindsay & Curr department store's flagship location. Currently the Sibley Building is a multi-use facility with a Monroe Community College satellite campus occupying the upper floors. Very little retail currently exists, though some former Midtown tenants are expected to move across the street within the next two weeks.

St. Joseph's Square is the fireproof facade and grounds of the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church which was destroyed in a 1974 fire. The site is bounded by Andrews, Pleasant, Clinton, and Franklin.

Challenges for this unique but integral core of downtown include:

  • Improving connectivity among parcels/buildings, especially around the Midtown superblock
  • Increasing the residential population to improve neighborhood sustainability
  • Creating comfortable and accessible public spaces
  • Maximizing infill opportunities to improve the street edge and define the urban realm
  • Making the St. Joseph's shell a focal point

Very quickly, one thing about Midtown that has shifted my opinion of its forsaking is that even if vibrant economically, it actually has a negative effect on exterior public space. Between physically facing inward and presenting blank walls to the outside (notable exceptions being the Euclid Building and Peebles) and the people it takes off the streets due to its skyway connections, Midtown has been a net drainer of downtown vitality. There is a huge opportunity to "get it right" here as long as the city resists the urge to engage developers for the sake of development as they recently did at Monroe and Goodman.

The aggregate recommendation of the citizen-architect teams focusing on this area retains a significant amount of the existing Midtown Plaza structure. The City, State, and Paetec would not announce their intentions for over a calendar year after the workshop itself was held. The presentations and document were completed shortly after the announcement and had to be altered.

The recommendation did efficitively break up the super block through demolition of all but the mall and tower portions of Midtown. As seen in the graphic, new streets named Forman and McCurdy (a little bit of embedded site history) create a more appropriately scaled blocks. The careful layout of these new streets would have huge implications on the public realm. The new Forman St. would be terminated by the significant vista of the Chase Tower. Likewise, McCurdy St. would provide instant orientation clues through its Liberty Pole termination.

The demolition of the structures at the northern end of the complex would allow for a new public space. The proposal would have the old mall atrium fronting the south end of this great lawn or cobbled square with a 30 foot glass wall. Small one ways with on street parking could serve this space which could be used for public concerts.

Added to the site would be over 150,000 square feet of retail space on the first two floors of proposed new structures. Residential units on the upper floors of these structures would be preferred for the newly created corners of the former super block.

Inital recommendations would have seen the Midtown tower converted to housing. In light of the Paetec decision, some revised plans of action were presented including reuse of the midtown tower structural skeleton. None of these are likely to be heeded though all indicators point to the Paetec footprint only taking up space on the southern edge of the development site.

The Sibley building is a far less complex proposition (identifiable owner, better office occupancy). The biggest concern for large-scale redevelopment are the immense interior spaces which present challenges. The plan reiterates the single-use mantra that parking is somehow an issue despite an existing dedicated parking structure for this building.

The recommendations would certainly attack the vitality problem by fashioning out retail spaces along the entire ground floor. They endeavor to attack the office space dilemma through an interesting selective demolition plan, creating light wells and a public accessible outdoor courtyard. They would develop apartments in the tower portion of the building through a similar process, the feasibility of which I can't begin to comment on.

St. Joseph's Square is identified as a prime townhouse development area in an attempt to synergize the St. Paul Quarter with the Sibley/Midtown district. Using the old church as a focal point, a mix of rental and owner occupied townhouses are proposed, built to the street wherever possible, creating a cohesive street edge.

According to the report, a pedestrian walk would extend through the the development connecting the existing, little known, Franklin Square Park (at Andrews and Franklin) directly to the church and the church shell itself would be programmed as a seasonal coffee shop.

In conclusion, the major thing to take out of this is that, in a perfect world, devoid of financiers or feasibility studies, we as a community have a say in the shaping of the public realm. The Midtown superblock would be disassembled and redeveloped with a large housing component while improving public access to interior and exterior public space. The Sibley Building would undergo extensive physical changes to accomodate comtemporary offices and living spaces. And St. Joseph's square would be the focus of some small-scale traditional neighborhood development with an emphasis on useful green space.

If all goes well in lawyer-land, I'll be a city homeowner by the end of the week. This may affect the posting schedule somewhat. In any event, I hope to have some news stories compiled to comment on by Friday mid-morning. The next post in this series will look at the River North area consisting of High Falls, City Hall, and the horribly conceived Genesee Crossroads Park(ing Garage).

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