Monday, July 28, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report Vol. 5

The River North is a focus area created by combining High Falls with the Governmental and Business quadrant north of the Four Corners. The primary public realm improvement opportunities include City Hall and an adjacent surface parking lot, a vacant RG&E site on the river north of Andrews, Genesee Crossroads Plaza, the former IBM building at State and Andrews, and the entire High Falls area.

One of the main themes of this development area is the need to integrate and capitalize on the riverfront as a natural resource. Previously (and Rochester is far from alone in this activity), the river has been met with the backs of buildings or brownfields. The reality is that the river and the accompanying 96 foot waterfall (in the middle of downtown!) is an attraction in and of itself when it comes to urban living.

The challenges in this double district are myriad as the sites south of the inner loop could have qualified as its own area compared to the High Falls area which has already had a redevelopment pass (albeit an unbalanced one). It seems to me that there is a common thread in each of the bulleted challenges on page 64, the challenge of connectivity. Connecting downtown to High Falls (dealing with a double set of elevated bridges), connecting City Hall to the rest of downtown, connecting the streets and neighborhoods to the river.

Rochester's City Hall was previously a federal building while the original City Hall backed up to the canal and was fronted by the original courthouse square which has since been filled in with additions to the county building. Its location on Church Street does not make it visible to the surrounding area and a surface parking lot at Church and State compounds the lack of suitable civic space to highlight such and important building.

The aforementioned RG&E site at the old Front Street and Andrews is classified as a brownfield and will require an environmental cleanup. As far as Crossroads Plaza is concerned, I've sniped at it previously ass ill-conceived and poorly executed without much elaboration. It would appear the participants and writers of this report couldn't agree more. The following paragraph encapsulates a lot of my feeling about this "park" which ruthlessly displaced an entire city street in the name of "urban renewal" (the entire park is just a facade for convenient parking).

"Crossroads Plaza is currently an underdeveloped space that fails to capitalize on its location along the riverfront. The design of the park is outdated with poor lighting, seating areas that create security issues, hardscape features that have little meaning to the overall space and overgrown, poorly maintained plantings. There is a lack of pedestrian connection to the river north of the Andrews Street Bridge. Moreover, the pedestrian connection from the park to Main Street is weak."

Still on the topic of challenges, the former IBM building is constructed in modernist fashion so much so that a "parking moat" precludes appropriate pedestrian connection to both State and Andrews, a poor corner anchor. Despite the addition of lighting and gateway features to the double underpass (highway and rail), the pedestrian experience of walking to High Falls from the rest of downtown is tolerable at best.

High Falls presents a hearty list of concern areas largely oriented around its industrial past. The Beebe Station environmental cleanup is number one on this list as a completion date is far from being understood. Steep terrain, river connections to the south, concerns of overdevelopment of the lower gorge, impeded falls views from certain plazas, lack of identity/signage, and a lack of sustainability services also factor into the ensuing design.

*Already, High Falls is seeing a sort of reinvention period. Residential developments are beginning to augment the shift toward commercial office utilization, making the area not an entertainment center as was originally envisioned, but a more balanced urban neighborhood. In addition, radio stations have been migrating toward that area. There is an opportunity here to create a more lively environment by "opening up" the studio to the street with soundproof glass as seen in other cities.

Back to the programmed material, with regard to City Hall, the solutions are simple, yet effective. The recommendation is to turn the surface lot at State and Church into a pocket park. This accomplishes many things including a stronger pedestrian connection, a maximized view of City Hall from State Street, and the creation of an outdoor gathering space for civic events. Design elements would include an outdoor stage for mayoral addresses, a mural on the commercial building to the north to soften the blank facade, and a renovation of the corner eatery to blend in with and serve the park.

A mixed use structure is recommended for the RG&E site off of Andrews Street consisting of street level retail, 2nd floor office space, and loft housing that architecturally complements the re-use on the Water Street side. An emphasis is placed on sustainable site design, energy efficiency, reduced water usage, and a green roof.

In order to lower the grade of Crossroads plaza to make it actually engage the river, an ambitious proposal to add another level of parking below ground while removing the two uppermost layers is proposed. 60% of the precious parking would be retained and access from State Street would become virtually level as opposed to the complicated network of concrete stairs and ramps that cling to the Crowne Plaza and make the pedestrian feel as though he or she is trespassing, not enjoying the public realm.

The proposed IBM solution is as simple and effective as the City Hall solution, though it acknowledges that you can't turn pure garbage into an architectural marvel. Creating an at-grade street level plaza would at least cover the parking area which could continue accomodating happy motoring (though to the best of my knowledge, the building has limited tenants).

The High Falls solution is split into a short and long range plan. It would seem one of the focus groups was a bit overzealous and overstepped the focus area. Their ideas were certainly good and addressed Kodak's asphalt wasteland in order to integrate the ballpark into the greater High Falls area. One of their proposals, the Genesee Brewery Beer Garden/Tasting Tour has become a reality this summer. I won't go into greater detail here, but they are located on pages 74-78.

The short range plan focuses on circulation, building re-use, streetscapes, signage, and sustainability. A small tram would connect attractions on both sides of the river with parking facilities. The road texture and streetscape of Brown's Race would be replicated on other streets in the area to create a recognizable and well-defined High Falls Village.

The Center at High Falls would install an elevator for lower gorge access for different falls viewing options. The upstairs gallery could house an energy history museum. A study would be undertaken to see whether an obstructing concrete wall can be lowered to improve the view of the fallscrest from an adjacent platform. Infill would take on the same architectural characteristics of the mill buildings. Signage along Lake Avenue would guide visitors to High Falls while historic signage would highlight landmarks throughout the district.

A nature preserve has been proposed for the lower plateau. This seemingly conflicts with desires to promote access. A careful balance would have to be determined to create the desired level of human interaction. Additional signage could highlight wildlife indigenous to the gorge.

To finish up, the River North focus area has tremendous potential to add a desired natural element to downtown while simultaneously respecting history and adding vibrancy.

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