Monday, August 4, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report Vol. 6

The Southeast Loop is a fairly sizable focus area that includes two parks (Manhattan and Wadsworth Squares), a museum (Strong National Museum of Play), a movie theater (The Little), and numerous restaurants, nightclubs, and bars. As a focus area, these lands are sharply divided by the worst facets of 1960's urban renewal, a limited access expressway which deleted streets from the grid and surface parking lots where viable buildings once stood.


Due to a wholesale clearance of the southeast quadrant of downtown and a rebuilding strategy that was abandoned with the death of a state agency in the mid 1970's, this area was large-scale parceled and sold to developers who failed to engage the street with stand alone modernist structures and their prerequisite parking. Neighborhoods outside of the inner loop were compartmentalized and forgotten about, their traditional public squares paved over. Even vibrant areas were made to sacrifice connectivity for an underutilized expressway. Charlotte and Richmond Streets became Downtown and East End anomalies.

The challenges faced by those who would initiate meaningful action are indimiating in this focus area. Overcoming the Inner Loop as a barrier to neighborhood connectivity has really only one very expensive option. Narrowing streets conceived as downtown thoroughfares would require the herculean effort of convincing traffic engineers that "less is more." Breaking up superblocks requires seizing land from somebody unlikely to be amused by the prospect. Maximizing development potential of underutilized and vacant land is a tough sell to today's demanding 'shovel ready' development crowd. But think of the possibilities realized by addressing these challenges head on:
  • A major gateway at the east end of the Main Street corridor coupled with historic park restoration
  • A center for the East End providing new civic space and possibly a complement marketplace to the wildly popular public market
  • South Union street functioning as a real street instead of an on/off ramp with infill opportunities that would complement the historic housing stock on the east side
  • Monroe Avenue reconnected to downtown through continuous street frontage
  • Restoration of Wadsworth Square to a position of prominence and a reintegration of that neighborhood with downtown
  • A narrowed Chestnut Street enabling expansion of Manhattan Square Park and enabling Strong Museum to engage the public realm
  • Extensive new infill development creating a built-in population base for Manhattan Square Park and other destinations

The first site for intervention is the Inner Loop itself. Recommendations include removing the section from East Main Street to I-490, replacing it with a two-way city street. Recognizing the importance of the northern stretch of the inner loop as a major capacity carrier, its eventual conversion to an urban boulevard should be the goal.

The existing and previously existing streets and alleways deserve a lot of attention if efforts carried out in the name of urbanism are to be taken seriously. Dropping suburban superblocks into the urban grid has been proven time and time again to be destructive rather than catalytic. Reconfigurations recommended by the charrette team would narrow Chestnut Street to the width of Monroe Avenue, create new frontages via a diagonal street from Chestnut to Howell, extend Woodbury Boulevard to South Union to break up the largest superblock, narrow Broad Street east of Broadway to facilitate liner building construction in front of the Corporate Place parking garage, extend and create new service alleys to provide rear access to properties for trash removal etc.

Manhattan Square Park is a very curious space. Elements of Olmsted Parks were mimicked in its limited rolling hills, something that works better on hundred acre sites compared to urban squares. Incredible amounts of concrete create a pit that was home to many concerts in the 1970's and 80's (remnants of a restaurant entombed in the concrete still remain on Chestnut Street). Above this pit is something called a spacewalk that was originally meant to be an observation deck and flagpole bearing vista. As long as I've been in Rochester, it has been closed to the public, no doubt a liability insurance issue.

The park is currently undergoing a major reconstruction that has greatly improved the ice skating rink on the east side of the park (which doubles as multiple fountains in the summer). The playground at the southern edge of the park integrates well into the Strong Museum sphere of influence.

A narrowing of Chestnut discussed earlier and a removal of the 'pork chop' intersection would buy back additional land to construct an ABOVE GRADE restaurant building connected to the catacombs, improving its chances of success. A grand staircase would be an upgrade to the park as far as improving access to its concourse from the bordering major streets. An ancillary improvement that would accentuate the park's place in the southeast cityscape involves the creation of a Grand Promenade which would change the frontage of Strong Museum from a suburban lawn to a premier civic space.

Wadsworth Square, another of Rochester's Olmsted Squares, once framed the neighborhood school. Now its main contribution to the city is that half of it is a parking lot with a pedestrian ramp to downtown. Removal of the inner loop would allow Wadsworth Square to regain its importance. The square should be redesigned as a formal urban square complete with square defining buildings. A central lawn should be preserved surrounded formally by grape arbors or a similar structure to provide a sense of enclosure.

The area immediately surrounding North Union Street stands to benefit as much as the others discussed despite the presence of the already successful East End district on either side of the expressway. A large scale civic space to function as the central square of the East End could transform this current section of Inner Loop into an exciting festival site. An arcaded market building, such as those seen in multiple section of Baltimore, would anchor the new and improved district.

I'll close today with the recommendations for new construction in the area:

  • Low rise resedential along South Union south of Broad
  • 10-15 story triangular building at Chestnut and the proposed diagonal to terminate the Monroe Avenue vista
  • Requirements for the ESL Building and Parking garage that enhance the pedestrian experience
  • Expansion of existing buildings within the study area to improve sidewalk frontages

2 comments:

mikros said...

Any news on whether the ESL building will have storefronts? Or is it going to be another fortress of solitude, like the BCBS building?

Bob and Tia said...

mikros,

As far as I know, all that is planned is a full service ESL Branch on the first floor, which I suppose is better than nothing. Though, when you think about the B&L building, does anyone actually know there's a Key Bank branch in there? It's extremely confusing to get to.

The Blue Cross building is a real downer. An otherwise very attractive building of proper scale that fronts the sidewalk, it presents VERY long stretches of blank wall to a street that already has plenty (Convention Center, Clarion Parking). So much more could have been done there...

The only meaningful official I can find on the ESL can be found here: https://www.esl.org/whatsnew/headquarters.html