Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report Vol. 7

The Main Street right of way is billed as the common public realm space that ties all of center city together. It is hard to argue with this assessment. This focus area which overlaps many others uniquely folds in the Cascade District in the northwest corner of downtown as well as the West Broad Street corridor formed by the original Erie Canal path. Also addressed is the stretch of North Chestnut street that was ostensibly created "to create a more regular street grid" (read: move more cars). This stretch actually undermined the old grid and it may come as no surprise, but there has been no new construction along North Chestnut since the extension.

Main Street was once the bustling major avenue of commerce in Rochester in the heyday of all comparably sized traditional cities. For a long period of time, it spanned the entire downtown with so much building frontage that its vibrancy precluded a gap for the Genesee River. The lazy desire for surface parking near everything has robbed each end of Main Street within the loop of such architectural and functional gems as the Hotel Rochester. The overwhelming presence of pedestrian traffic today is owed to Main Street's primary function, a mile long open-air bus transfer "terminal."

Explicit challenges identified by the various panels include:
  • Making Main Street a vibrant 24/7 regional destination;
  • Correcting architectural and urban design flaws that detract from the face of Main Street;
  • Involving Monroe County as an active partner in the planning process for downtown;
  • Build up each end of Main Street with dense new development so as to extend the powerful public realm character of the corridor to each gateway;
  • Engage the river corridor in a stronger manner;
  • Implement a parking strategy that includes on-street parking on Main Street and strategically locates structured parking designed to generate pedestrian traffic on Main Street;
  • Enhance the Main Street corridor to make it more attractive for pedestrians;
  • Develop dense mixed-use/residential neighborhoods connected to the Main Street corridor;
  • Design and implement new transit systems on Main Street and adjacent streets to address the energy and lifestyle challenges ahead;
  • Recognize that Main Street and Center City are transitioning from one era to another and
    our planning and revitalization efforts need to reflect this fact.

The first set of recommendations don't focus on a particular area of Main Street, but rather are overarching considerations to promote unity of design along its entire length. One very interesting suggestion would return on-street parking to the boulevard by eliminating all turning lanes and allowing only four travel lanes. A periodic planting strip to create a sidewalk canopy, regulated sidewalk widths, curb extensions (bump-outs), and paved pedestrian crosswalks all add to the pedestrian experience.

The saplings of a more attractive transit system for Rochester are planted in this section as the recommendation is made to allow for the main line of a streetcar system to share the outermost travel lanes with regular traffic, utilizing certain extended curbs at intersections as boarding areas. Other upgrades would refurbish existing shelters with electronic scheduling systems.

There are many, many more recommendations that I won't have time to cover here, but some that earn serious merit in my book are the following.

"Build out Main Street in its entirety from end to end with dense construction that creates a continuous, almost canyon-like, unusually powerful outdoor room; Re-evaluate current downtown design guidelines. Move toward a form-based code with “Design Standards” and a more powerful Project Review Committee to encourage architectural excellence in street frontages of new and remodeled buildings. Review and revise the current sign regulations to improve building signage; Create effective incentives to encourage first floor retail zones and second floor commercial zones along the entire length (or at designated areas) of the corridor. Provide incentives for current buildings to enhance their first floor transparencies (as well as second floor if appropriate)"

I shouldn't even have to expound on how absurd zoning is in a downtown district, but it leads directly to the alternative, that of form-based codes (SmartCode is possibly the best example of this). For roughly 50 years, the built environment was a complete afterthought to inhuman functionalism and auto convenience factors. It is high time, as long as there is energy left to build with, that we get serious about 'building to last' and ditching the baffling architecture of modernism. The best streets in the world are long and continually retail fronted (see Yonge Street, Toronto). Designated forced 'destinations' often come off as gimmicks, whereas a Main Street lined with both necessity and entertainment becomes a de facto daily subconscious destination.

Main Street is so complex and contains so many micro and macro projects that I will split this focus area up further than the previously reviewed. This will also help me time-wise as I am only about 1/3 moved into the new place. I will still adhere to my regular summer schedule, so on Friday expect a comparison of new urban development news out of Syracuse, our close eastern neighbor, and the Western New York paralells previously discussed on the blog. On Monday I will continue the Main Street examination with the west side sites for intervention.

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