Monday, February 22, 2010

Urban News Vol. 58

The Democrat and Chronicle released a special report on the state of downtown in yesterday's print and online editions.

Downtown: Despite Recession, City Gears for Big Plans
by Brian Sharp and Jim Stinson

Article Key Points:

  • Recession compromising speed of downtown redevelopment
  • 220 workers inside Midtown prepping for demolition
  • $200 million deal in negotiation for Sibley Building
  • 11 corporate HQs have either expanded, moved, or plan to move downtown
  • Scope of development could rise if Cultural Center Commission acts on $20M, 74 housing unit project near Eastman
  • Half of the $752M worth of projects in process or in planning are private
  • Today's downtown includes 2,700 residential units (4,000 people), 600+ units in the pipeline
  • Downtown population has doubled in the past 20 years, 21 structures renovated for apartments in the past 10
  • Today 15 renovations are proposed or underway, with Midtown Tower accounting for roughly half of the 45 For-Sale units
  • 97% of downtown housing is currently rental
  • Patrick Dutton has sold 6 of 19 Capron Lofts, needs one more to satisfy lenders and proceed with further construction
  • Lending from banks has largely ceased for less endowed developers such the Wood's Chestnut St. effort.
  • $4M overhaul of the Kirstein building will add 191 apartments to the north side of downtown
  • Experts claim retail will follow a critical mass of residents and offices

There is an awful lot here, and an awful lot that speaks for itself (The Kirstein Development is within WALKING distance of the Amtrak station! A pedestrian gateway to Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York). I will focus on a couple of themes I noticed that are troubling and reflect some dangerous attitudes with respect to downtown development.

The first is with respect to the quote, "In five years, if you walk to Main and Clinton, you won't recognize the landscape." This is the kind of potentially misguided exuberance that saw heads of goverment smiling as they laid the first blow of a sledgehammer into opulent movie houses in the name of "progress." The same thing could have been said 50 years ago at the corner of Clinton and Broad and look how that turned out. Yes, Midtown turned its back to the street, but some of its constituent components, namely the former B. Forman Building, represented the last fully functioning retail on all of Clinton Avenue as recently as two years ago. That original street treatment is worth saving or at least emulating going forward. It's important to break up that block, but some selective diligence (as was seen in the decision to save the tower) should be done to ensure what we are looking for doesn't already exist. To finish with a 'green' cliche, the greenest building is the one that is already built.

This brings me to my second minor criticism. Twice in the piece, the phrase "tired storefronts" is used to describe those on the northwest corner of Main and Clinton and extending westward on Main. Where some see a tired storefront, others see a redevelopment opportunity. Phase 2 of the Mills at High Falls project seeks historic designation for pre-1900 buildings lining State Street directly across from Kodak Headquarters. An 83 year old building on Arnett Blvd. in the 19th Ward was the renovation target of a Perinton entrepreneur. The once deteriorated Harry Foreman Building at 116 St. Paul is now a shining example of the original mixed-use paradigm. Its owners reside on the 3rd floor, rent out apartments on the 2nd, and commercial space at street level. I once slammed a man named Andrew Stainton regarding Renaissance Square and its transit implications. Part of Mr. Stainton's anti-RenSquare platform was historical preservation and he was 100% correct in that area. To quote a planner friend of mine, "Nobody does superblock projects anymore." These buildings aren't just an important piece of our city's past, they possess that elusive 'character' that loft developers can never duplicate with today's building materials or designs. Hell these buildings already are residential/office over retail (pictured, above left)!

On the streetcar front, Mike of is attempting to arrange a meeting of interested stakeholders in the comment thread immediately following his wonderfully crafted "Rochester's Case for a Streetcar Line." In the meantime, I've been working on some artwork in support of the project. Embedded to the right is an early sketch of what a Rochester Streetcar might look like plying Main Street. I've obviously got a lot left to do. Will post the finished version in the near future.

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