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Friday, January 28, 2011

Getting It Right? UPDATED 10-2011

I moved to Rochester from my hometown of Syracuse in 2000 because I was looking for a change of scenery. Rochester was the perfect place to live. I had friends to room with, a new job and a new city to explore.

I noticed when I visited Rochester in the past that it seemed to be a place where projects downtown had a better chance of being built and turning out right than was the case in Syracuse.

- Rochester had a downtown mall since the 1960's...Syracuse built theirs twenty years later, after most of the retail businesses had already left downtown.

- Rochester built a Postmodern skyscraper, a new downtown library that incorporated the original central library building from the 1930's and a high rise downtown hotel in the 1990's...Syracuse moved their central branch to the downtown mall -abandoning their majestic "Carnegie" library (the most opulent library built through the steel baron's philanthropy) and the many proposals for new high rises throughout downtown (hotels, corporate headquarters, high end apartments and shops and a tower to complete the downtown mall complex, among them) resulted in a mixture of parking lots, modestly scaled low-rise office buildings and, best of all, a major expansion of the downtown jail in the place of that luxury apartment tower!

- Rochester built their baseball stadium with a view of the lovely downtown skyline...Syracuse could have done the same but instead built theirs at the northern edge of town, with a much less attractive view.

- Rochester redesigned, renovated AND expanded their existing War Memorial Arena...Syracuse argued about building a new, larger War Memorial for years but instead renovated the current building with no real expansion to seating capacity.

And on and on and on...

Time passes and perspectives change.

Having lived in Rochester for the past ten years and knowing more about the contentious nature of political and social discourse in this town than I wish to know, it is amazing to me that ANYTHING was built in Rochester in the last fifty years.

I now know about the controversy of the Hyatt Hotel and how its structure stood "naked" while local leaders figured out who would fix the mess and how.

How about the public subsides that the baseball stadium, convention center and the "new" Blue Cross Arena/War Memorial require?

Let's not get started about the many failed redevelopment plans for Midtown Plaza or the financial disasters of the soccer stadium and the Fast Ferry.

A few years after arriving in Rochester I started to think I brought the "Syracuse bad luck" with me!

I knew things were really getting weird when Rochester suburb Irondequoit bought into the "mega-mall and hotel complex" scheme of Syracuse's own Scott Congel.

When I left Syracuse in 2000  Bob Congel, Scott's father, was trying to sell a much larger version of that scheme, a major expansion of the very successful mega-mall at the northern edge of the city known as Carousel Center and the creation of a "Disney" styled resort and hotel complex along with a gigantic science park that would develop the green technologies needed for the massive project to be sustainable.

As much as I loved my hometown and wanted it to do well I just knew that this complex would never be built.

Friends laughed when I told them that I could come back in ten years and nothing would have changed at Carousel except for the aging of the original building and its being in need of a major renovation.

I was wrong...it turned out even worse.

The economy tanked and the initial expansion of the mall building was halted when the developer could not secure a single new tenant to justify its loan to the bank. What is left is an empty box of concrete connected to a stained and aging mega-mall whose fortunes have turned for the worse. A court recently told the bank to resume disbursement of the loan to Congel but the future of the expansion is uncertain.

No Hotels.
No Technology Park.
No "Disney."

Both Congel boys are dreamers...they dream of being the Walt Disney of retail but with no  property tax burden.
Daddy did it in the early 1990's (the tax burden, that is) and sonny boy was trying to do the same over a decade later in Rochester.
Us Syracusans have known for years that, for the Congels, PILOT stands for "less skin in the game, more change in the pocket."

It was becoming clear that although I initially felt that Rochester more often "got it right" time has shown that there are many things that Syracuse did better than Rochester..

Rochester's "planned" development of High Falls into an entertainment district failed while the "organic" beginning and growth of the thriving Armory Square neighborhood in downtown Syracuse continues.

Salina Street, Syracuse's "Main Street," is much more intact architecturally and its retail area is in better health than Rochester's string of long-vacant buildings along Main Street

I also now see that the renovations to the Rochester Community War Memorial Arena, while giving the city a larger and more up to date facility than Syracuse, did more harm to the original mission of the building as a living memorial to fallen soldiers (by tucking the memorial in an obscure corner of the new, glassed-walled entrance lobby) than it gained in seating capacity and amenities. In the end, the renovation and expansion was severely restricted by the original structure's limitations, limitations a completely new building would have overcome.

Syracuse, on the other hand, did a wonderful job of restoring their landmark of thin-shell concrete roof construction and late-Moderne municipal architecture. The limestone slabs and the raised lettering throughout the facade remain as does the under appreciated but majestic "Memorial Hall" located at one end of the building. It is never used as an entrance lobby and serves only to commemorate the two world wars and those who fought in them. In fact, the only thing that was expanded in the Syracuse facility was the memorial space. It now extends into the main circulation hall on the first floor and features informative glass-walled displays. If you attend an event there you will not be able to miss it.

For decades, both cities' mass transportation authorities have been in the process of planning and building downtown bus transfer hubs. These hubs would provide transferring riders to wait in comfort for their connecting bus to board. Also, it would remove the lines of buses waiting for transfer that clog both cities' main downtown intersections.

You can read in my entry below - Comment On The Bus Shed - about the controversy surrounding the placement, design, cost and impact of the Rochester facility.

In short, I could not find one facility in any of the 60 U.S. cities of similar size I examined that could act as precedent for the Rochester hub.

The only project that resembled Rochester's was in Boise, Id as it was similar in plan and placement to the Rochester plan, was not yet built and was raising the same concerns amongst their local developers who, like Rochester developers, insisted that the hub should not be placed in the center of a growing downtown residential and office district.

I did not pay much attention to the Syracuse hub and was not aware of their plan until this past week when a wealth of information was discovered on the planning, design and construction of the new transfer station.

Well, it seems that my old hometown is once again showing us in the "Flower City" how to do it right...or less wrong!

Click on this link - Syracuse Bus Station - to see their plan.

Click on this link - Rochester Bus Station - to see their plan.

The cities are similar in size and economic situation yet the two plans are very different in their physical and economic impacts on their respective downtown areas.

Syracuse Plan:

- 22 Bus bays arranged along the edges and at the center of a canopied/open air terminal
- Above compact arrangement allows the terminal to fit on 3/4 of an already existing city block
- Built at the edge of downtown in a underdeveloped area
- Construction underway with a target completion date of fall 2011
- Estimated Cost: $20 Million

Rochester Plan:

- 26 Bus bays arranged in a block long "cigar" shaped terminal with a closed roof, necessitating ventilation equipment for Diesel fumes
- Street is being demapped to allow terminal to fit between two main downtown streets (Clinton and Main)
- To be built in a fast growing downtown residential neighborhood of market rate converted industrial lofts
- Canceled October 2010 design workshop yet to be rescheduled, January 2011 deadline for presentation of initial desgin is slipping away, as is the target completion date of 2013
- Estimated cost: $47 Million

Let's review...
Rochester will spend over twice as much as Syracuse for a terminal with FOUR more bus bays that will not be finished for at least another two years and will be built where it will not improve the surrounding area and may well do damage to the residential market in that neighborhood.


It should also be noted that right about the time that the October workshop was canceled there was an announcement in Rochester of federal funds being allotted for the design and construction of a new Greyhound/Trailways and Amtrak station near the site of the current train station.

This new station is expected to be a monument to travel that will recall the glory days of Rochester's rail stations while preparing Rochester for the future of travel: a high speed railway across the U.S.

Many in the community feel that the bus terminal should be moved to the site of the new station as it would make the new train station a truly inter-modal facility.

The train station is located at the edge of Rochester's downtown in an area that is underdeveloped and could see restaurants and retail spring up to serve all of those folks arriving at the station.

The main argument against putting the bus station at the edge of Rochester's CBD is that it is too far from the main intersection downtown and that people would have to walk all that way to transfer buses.

Once again, I turn to my old hometown for the solution...

Syracuse buses will still pick up and drop off throughout downtown, including the transfer hub at the edge of the CBD.

No one will have to walk the four or five city blocks from the main downtown intersection at Salina and Fayette Streets to the transfer hub.

They will simply board the bus at their normal stop and depart at the transfer terminal and on from there.

The only difference will be the lack of buses lining Syracuse's "Main Street."

Back in the early 1950's the planners of Rochester's War Memorial visited with the builders of the already completed Onondaga County War Memorial to see what they could learn from the experiences of the Syracuse team.

Perhaps the folks at RTS should follow suit and dial up their counterparts at Centro.

Just a thought.


Since I wrote this post much has happened in Syracuse while the Rochester Bus Shed slogs along on its mission to ruin the St.Paul Quarter's chances at full revitalization.

Link to Syracuse plan: http://www.centro.org/TransferHub.aspx

And here's the RTS website for the Rochester Bus Shed: http://www.rtstransitcenter.com/
Nice to see how the newest press story sited is from a year ago...

And their promotional video: http://www.rtstransitcenter.com/events.html

Good luck, Roc City!

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