Archive for March, 2010

Photo by David Mohney, City Hall Photo Lab, from the Monroe County Library Collection, c-0001910.

Rochester’s green grade: F. F for Fail. Failing. Failed.

I went looking around this morning at what cities are doing to become more sustainable. I went to a bunch of .gov web sites from a selection of municipalities to see how they talked about sustainability, and what they were doing about the subject.

On Rochester’s website, the city says that our recycling program, our graffiti removal program, and a clean up program called Rochester Clean Sweep are helping us to have a better environment. That’s it. Thus the grade.

Cleveland’s Mayor, Frank Jackson, has announced his intention to make that city a model of sustainability, through a city-wide program called Sustainable Cleveland 2019. There is broad support for the initiative, and they are using the catch phrase “Green City Blue Lake.” They see this initiative both as a way to construct a better city, and as a way to compete with other cities for jobs, young people, and economic development.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory has created the Green Cincinnati Plan, for similar purposes, and the City is planning for a new streetcar system to enhance transit options there.

In Washington, Mayor Fenty has a program called Green DC. The city has been very active in working with citizens to provide tax credits for updating residential water, heat and cooling systems. And DC is currently constructing a streetcar to enhance the Metro, bus, and circulator systems that make DC one of the most walkable cities in nation: 34% of residents do not own a car.

Monroe County, in which Rochester sits, has something they call Green Monroe. You can see what’s up in sustainable projects and initiatives – it’s pretty pathetic. But at least they talk about the issues a bit. Grade: D-. At least it’s not an F.

Here in municipal politics: silence. No word from leadership on green subjects.

End of story. Or worse.

Locals: tell me if I am missing something.

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Downtown Rochester in 2005. Have a parking space.

Like most American cities, our city has been very badly damaged by the car. Not only do we have a wickedly unhelpful transit system, but we have the Inner Loop, half of downtown is used for parking lots, we have expressways all over the place throughout the region, we tore out our streetcars in the 1940s, we abandoned our subway system in the 50s, and the population of the city proper has dropped by one-third since its peak in 1950. As I have said here over and over, car mobility has come at an almost incalculable price.

Downtown in 1956. Have a parking space.

The car has proven to be Rochester’s iceberg, and we are taking on cold sea water at an alarming rate. Strike up the band.

So has this blatantly obvious circumstance led to progressive thinking about our urban future? Has city and county leadership decided to act quickly to construct a regional network of multiple modes of mobility to minimize car use? Are we facing huge increases in downtown parking rates (now averaging only $5.77 a day) to discourage cars?

Nope. This city doesn’t even have a bike plan, much less any sense about what we need to do to construct and inhabit a useable, durable urban future. In fact, the City has just embarked on a truly groundbreaking study aimed at answering a burning question in our region: how can we make it even easier to use our cars to get downtown.

Mayday, Mayday! We’re going down!

Here’s some facts. In 2008, the City of Rochester did a study of downtown parking capacity. The results: 26,306 parking spaces downtown (about 200 acres of parking). During the week, this massive amount of parking is 57% occupied. On the weekend, this parking is 43% occupied. But the fact that the city is undertaking a study aimed at improving downtown parking must mean there’s a problem.

There is. Not all of the 55,000 or so downtown workers can park within 50 yards of their places of employment. So this new study is aimed at creating a downtown circulator of some kind – bus, van, jitney – even the “S” word has been used (yes, streetcar), that will shuttle from parking lot to parking lot, passing by major employment spots on its path. So now you will be able to even more easily use your car – leave it in one corner of the giant sea of parking, catch the ferry to the office, and avoid walking more than 2 minutes to and from work. Just great.

Downtown is circumscribed by the Inner Loop. And downtown is roughly a mile wide and a mile long – a little less, but let’s not quibble. Walk about 15 minutes in any direction and you will have walked out of downtown. As it is today, you could park at the always-empty-except-game-days surface parking at Frontier Field, where our minor league baseball team holds court, and walk smack into the middle of downtown in about 10 minutes.

Parking, the stadium, and downtown. Have a parking space.

But the car has a strong grip on us here. Sadly, most Rochesterians seem content to continue to allow the automobile to define our urban life. So let’s do the study, let’s get the shuttle, let’s keep the price of parking as low as we can, let’s continue to see 86% of all downtown workers drive alone to the office, let’s continue to have 73% of all employers offer no incentives for using a car alternate. Just great.

I guess I’ll head to the pool – sounds like I better get in shape for a long, cold swim.

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A procession begins in White City, in the summer of 1909.

We speed through the spaces of our lives as quickly as we can – rushing through the city, rushing to the mall, rushing 20 or 30 miles without blinking an eye. We have to, after all – we have spread out all over the place.

But stop rushing for just a minute. Think with me about how changes in our perceptions of time, speed, and distance have radically altered this urban place we call home.

Sooner and faster and further have wrecked us. Our cities are increasingly empty ruins. The countryside is filled with what’s left. None of this is good, none of this is our future, none of this is sustainable.

In Rochester, this shift in our perceptions of space and pace, and the physical places that are a result, has led to what I call the 40 mile life: 20 minutes in any direction, on an expressway, is the diameter of our daily existence. We all lead 40 mile lives. O, to lead a 4 mile life!

But the 40 mile life wasn’t always so, and it shouldn’t be so today. I want to explore a special place in our city, because I think this place can teach us lessons about our perceptions and our cities, lessons that we need to learn, or should I say relearn. Take a moment, please.

On the shore of Lake Ontario is a place we know even today as White City. You can find it on the 1912 map – a few streets and a dense cluster of buildings where the map reads “Windsor Beach.” 

In those days, the lakeshore was a distant 8 miles or so from downtown Rochester – about a three-hour walk. The city then was much more dense than today – at least twice as dense, and occupied much less land than the city today – about a third less. As the map will show you, there was a six mile gap between the most northerly street of the city, then Norton Street, and the beaches at the lake.

Take a closer look. Those rows of buildings along the tiny streets at Windsor beach? A canvas city, and thus a White City. And in the gap between the city and the lake? Farms. One of the city’s breadbaskets.

During the fall and winter and spring, you lived in the city. In your neighborhood. In 1910 or so, it’s pretty unlikely that you had a car. A bike, perhaps, or a horse and wagon. But the scale of this mobility, and the pace of this mobility, guaranteed that you led a local life. Close to neighbors, close to work, close to the market, the schools, the churches.

A local life. Let’s say a 4 mile life.

In the summer, it was time to get out of the city so you could enjoy the nature of the city’s wonderful larger setting, the good weather, and your friends and family. So you used the only means it was likely you had – the streetcar – and you headed to the lakeshore, and White City.

White City was filled with tiny shotgun cottages, with roofs of canvas. In reality, the tent cottages were quite dense on the six or so lanes they occupied.

It was, in fact, like being at camp. Maybe the family left at the end of school in June, and Dad commuted by streetcar from the city on weekends. Or maybe you just came out for a couple of times a summer for a week or two to enjoy the water and the solace of family and friends.

Near Windsor Beach was a range of resort  hotels – eleven in all. By the middle of the 20th century they were all gone – most burned to the ground for one reason or another. But while they were there, there were fun times….

Check these two out, at the beach at nearby Sea Breeze (great name, yes?). I love the look on his face – barely concealed smugness: “I am not at work, I am with people I care about, and I am wet. Yippee!”

Resort hotels bloomed in these times. Here is the massive Hotel Ontario.

And here the more intimate Hotel Windsor. Everybody is hanging out on the porch.

Or the Hotel Bartholmay – a giant resort complex. This is a view from 1888 – this business of going to the lakeshore went on for quite a while. Please do note the trains.

In 1910, how did you get out there? One guess – streetcars. And even when the weather turned its back on vacations.

Interestingly, the street car companies were the real heavy lifters of this story – they paid, for example, for all the electricity and water at all the hotels and resorts. All aboard!

If you were fortunate to own an early car, you could drive north on Culver Road to the beach. The road, in 1917, looked like this. Orchards on the left, farms on the right. Pretty nice drive, I guess.

And today, the view on the road to Sea Breeze looks like this. Ah, the 40 mile life. Better, right? Progress, right?

And White City today looks like this, at a point very, very near where Albert Stone took that picture of the procession of children in 1909.

Yes, the tents became cottages, the cottages homes. Go and take a stroll there if you can, and capture the slower sense of time and speed and distance that once made a city a city, and a vacation a vacation, year after year, summer after summer.

We need again to find local lives – 4 mile lives. We need to transfer our mobility from our cars to something else – like streetcars for example. And we need to take the time to see our home places building by building, block by block, in the best way possible – on foot.

The stories of our lives, and the lives that came before us, are impossible to discern at 40 miles an hour. But if we slow down a bit, the things we see can astound us. Our future is close at hand – go for a walk.

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In my never-ending search for images that will help me understand Rochester and its changes over the last century, I went back this afternoon to look at a collection of aerial photographs taken by the Army School of Aerial Photography, encamped here in Kodak Park, in 1918 and 1919.

And I found another photo that shows the intersection of University and Main, where Anderson Park is located – one of the parks I wrote about in my most recent post. 

Then I went to Google Earth to get as close an approximation of the same view as I could. So here is the comparison – the first is from 1918.


Main runs diagonally from upper right to lower left. Anderson Park is that triangle of open space in the lower middle of the image.

Here it is in 2005. I say that because it actually has gotten worse since the 2005 Google image. Anyway, here you go.

It took me almost an hour to figure out the comparison. I looked for quite a while before I could find enough survivors to get the orientation correct.

While I am at it, two more comparisons that may be of interest.

First, here is the intersection of West and Chili, in 1918.

West and Chili diverge near the bottom of the image, with West running up and Chili running out. There is a wonderful church at the intersection – that large building on the left of the diagonal divergence – and somehow it has survived. Take a look.

When you are down on the street, it’s actually worse today than it looks. Not that it looks all that great.

And finally, the intersection of Alexander and South, in a neighborhood here called the South Wedge. First from 1918.

South is running up diagonally at the bottom of this image. Alexander is one of the last streets running up and down in this image, at the right.

And today:

The South Wedge is really a pretty nice neighborhood, and seems to be the most intact in this group of comparisons.

No additional commentary from me, this evening. Talk amongst yourselves.

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With a bit of nosing around, we can learn all sorts of things about the cities we call home. Often the stories we unearth bring us to a sad present, but just as often that sad present suggests a happier future. What in the world am I talking about? Let me explain.

Recently, colleague Bob Williams suggested that I get to know a bit about a lost place in the Rochester cityscape: Franklin Square. Since I have been getting to know some of these Rochester stories, and places, I have learned much about how extraordinary this place once was – really, really terrific – and how low it has fallen, mostly due to cars and sprawl. And, I think, some fairly immeasurable stupidity. The story of Franklin Square, and the bonus story I discovered in the process, is a perfect example of what afflicts us here, and in so many like cities now overrun with wide streets, too few residents, and too many cars. Pull up a chair. Herein lies the tale of two city places.

First, this is Franklin Square in a 1919 photo taken by the Army School of Aerial Photography, which was located here, at Kodak Park, during WWI.

Look how dense the city was then! No surface parking lots, buildings jammed in all over the place, and a really lovely city square as counterpoint to the surrounding density. Now this is a real city. North is to the upper left.

To get  a better view of Franklin Square, take a look at this, from the City Plat books of 1925.

Here are some undated views of what the Square looked like in its heyday. I note that the hand coloring and gauzy photography really help, but nonetheless the Square looks pretty wonderful.

And from Albert Stone, another view. He took this photo in 1919.
The crowds had formed in front of the Jewish Young Men’s Association, on the western side of the square, to protest the pogroms underway in Russia.

Clearly, Franklin Square (even though it wasn’t square, but ovoid instead) played an important part in the life of the city – as green relief  in the dense urban fabric, as gathering place for events, as shady relief from the heat, as recreation space for children.

But here’s what I found curious. I know where Franklin Square is – all I had to do was look at the aerials and the plats. But there is nothing there today called Franklin Square. What’s there today is called Schiller Park.

Here’s a view of the Square/Park today, from Google Earth.

Pretty awful, I’d say. Looks like a bomb went off. Which of course is what happened. What’s left of Franklin Square/Schiller Park is just beneath the expressway, the Inner Loop.

And here are a couple of views I made yesterday of what’s left of Franklin Square/Schiller Park.

Schiller Park nee Franklin Square, looking northwest.

Schiller Park nee Franklin Square, looking north.

Only about half of the old Square remains. The northern half – at least – has now become the moat – the Inner Loop – beyond the tall chain link fence, between the Park and the old Post Office (that long two-story building, now abandoned, of course, by the USPS). The lovely oval shape is a goner, as are the surrounding roads, the big trees, the surrounding buildings but one or two, and the people. Would anyone really want to go to this place and listen to the traffic on the sunken expressway?

Well, maybe. The old Square has a secret. And here is where things get pretty interesting.

As I searched for Franklin Square, I saw on maps that it is now called Schiller Park. Here’s why.

Yes, that’s a bust of Friedrich von Schiller, one of the greatest of  German literary giants. It turns out that the setting for the bust (sculpted by Carl Augustus Heber) was designed in 1908 by the very noted architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings. You might be familiar with another one of their designs: the New York Public Library.

So that’s how Franklin Square got to be Schiller Park. Schiller is there. And now the story takes an interesting turn, again thanks to Albert Stone.

When I went to search the Stone archive for images of Franklin Square, I only found the one above, the 1919 protest. But when I typed Schiller Park into the archive to my complete astonishment, I got this:

Yes, there stands Schiller. But in this image from about 1930, he is standing in what was then called Anderson Park, just a few blocks away from where he would later end up, in Franklin Square/Schiller Park. Schiller originally stood in what was called Anderson Park.

It turns out that when the Inner Loop was constructed, they moved Schiller from Anderson Park to what was left of Franklin Square, and renamed the fragmented space Schiller Park. That was in August of 1964 or so. I know this because there is now a plaque saying that the bust was rededicated on August 23, 1964.

But back to Anderson Park. In the 1930s, Anderson Park was a nice urban space. Here are a couple more of Albert Stone’s views of the space.

And then I found a really nice image, clearly indicating how important the little Park, at the intersection today of two busy streets, was to the life of the city. Take a look.

Christmas, 1913. That’s the Rochester Christmas tree, lavishly lit with the latest of devices, the electric light bulb. The Park is jammed – must have been a pretty fun place that evening. Love the hats.

And now – sorry but I have to do this – and now, here is Anderson Park today. Do not look away.

Though the geometry of the place has been substantially altered to make way for roads and the on/off ramps for the Inner Loop, I think Schiller would originally have stood just beyond and to the right of the sign, looking to the left. More views of the space today:

The bus in the middle of the picture is passing over a viaduct above the Inner Loop. Good, wide roads, don’t you think?

I am not sure how to use this space today – it’s worth one’s life to get across the traffic just to even stand there, much less to enjoy the lighting of the City’s Christmas tree.

So what have we discovered? Two once terrific urban places, in the fabric of a once lovely city. Two spaces absolutely savaged by cars and roads. Two places where memorable things once happened, events that didn’t save them from savagery, but events still worth recalling, and preserving.

Cities hold our memories, our stories, in all of the places where we gather and stroll. And those places in turn tell us what we care about and what we think counts most.

Clearly these two spaces today tell us that we no longer care about walking our city streets – we’d rather drive. These spaces today tell us that we no longer want to gather alone, or in groups – we’d rather move on, and out of the city. Passing through trumps being there.

But if we should ever change our minds – and I pray we do, and soon – we don’t have to look far to find out how to remake things. The old city which has passed away is made of an urbanism, made of a way of shaping and making urban places, that is now nearly extinct. But it sure was fabulous while it lasted.

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Downtown Rochester today, from Google Earth.

The Rochester Regional Community Design Center’s (RRCDC’s) Vision Plan for downtown, 2008.

Pogo, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Talk about a city that is shovel-ready – yikes!

As a counterweight to the desolation and destruction of downtown, the RRCDC here has created a Vision Plan, a kind of roadmap that illustrates some of the steps that should be taken to return the central city to something like it was once. This city is very lucky to have this wonderful group of urbanists at work. Without their substantial contributions, there would be no guide to proper city making, and no yardstick by which to measure the sorry state of our downtown – it’s a mess.

The urbanist principles of the Vision Plan are so simple: put streets back, build to hold street edges, erase surface parking, make boulevards not expressways, fill in at least part of the moat that is the Inner Loop, green up the public realm, create mixed use neighborhoods of varying character, create hierarchies, and enhance urban sequences. Simple. Really good stuff. For more, go to our link to RRCDC, below at the right, and check them out.

So as I look at the Vision Plan, and stroll through older images of this city, I am touched by the urban narratives I keep bumping into. Narratives like the one reader (and architect and RRCDCer) Tim Raymond offered in comments to our last post – a story about the resurrection of Wadsworth Square. Each of these stories has a common thread: lovely urban asset turns into dumpy urban squalor, is paved over for cars, and in a few lucky cases, thanks to the pluckiness of urban dwellers like Tim, is occasionally reborn to new/old life. 

Here’s another little narrative that I tripped over in my research. You’ll have to stick with me here – it will take a series of images to explain.

Once upon a time, there was a place in the city called Riley Triangle. The Triangle was just that – a triangle of land at the southeast corner of Monroe Avenue and Clinton Avenue, kitty-corner from one of Rochester’s most important public open spaces – Washington Square Park. Across the street from the Triangle was the Naval Armory and Convention Center, built in 1868 and now home to the Geva Theater Center. Here is Riley Triangle in 1908, thanks to photographer and hero Albert Stone.

On the Triangle in those days was a large Federal house, and the wonderful “Lunch Car.” Behind the lunch car is a shop selling tire repair for autos. (Foreshadowing).

Not long after that image, Stone returned to the site and took this picture.

The lunch car, front and center. And that pile of bricks to the left? The old Federal house – gone but not forgotten. (Foreshadowing).

The lunch car was controversial in those days, though I am not sure why. Maybe it was a squatter on the site.  And so a few years later, Stone returned again to the Triangle and took another picture.

Poof! No lunch car – in fact nothing. The Triangle has been transformed into a small urban park. Note that Monroe Avenue, on the left, and Clinton Avenue on the right, are and were important urban thoroughfares, and this intersection, adjacent to Washington Square Park, was a 100% urban location. Here’s what I mean.

Lincoln stands atop the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Washington Square Park. Riley Triangle is the open space just to the right of the monument, and just to the left of the Armory and Convention Center. You can just see the windows of the Italianate house that edges the Triangle in this photo.

Most important urban spaces are sites for recollecting or remembering important urban matters – stories, events, people. Riley Triangle was no exception, as Stone shows us in 1922.

A monument has been placed on the corner. I am not sure to what end, but something is marked here. Maybe Riley’s story. Stone must have really liked the place, because he kept taking pictures of it. Here’s another.

The light in the park is truly wonderful, I think. And that sweet little Italianate house – nice.

Now I bet you are wondering how all of what I am talking about here ties together. Well, take a look. Here is Riley Triangle today.

Yet another parking garage.

That’s Clinton Avenue on the right, now a thinly disguised expressway ramp. Monroe Avenue was hacked off years ago, and today it doesn’t come anywhere near this intersection. Somehow the city failed to ruin Washington Square Park, at my back in this photo (it would make a terrific parking lot). Nor did the Armory and Convention Center bite the dust – it’s Geva Theater Center, just to the right in this picture. But the rest is pretty clear. Here’s another view of the place today.

In this aerial it’s easy to see all the carnage. The arrow points to where Riley Triangle used to be. Here you can see Monroe Avenue disconnected and diverted, the parking garage in my picture and its surrounding surface parking, and Clinton Avenue as an expressway ramp. Oh, and by the way, that’s Wadsworth Square in the lower right – that small green square patch just south of the Inner Loop.

So – to return full circle, here is what the RRCDC recommends for Riley Triangle.

Now there’s new construction added to the face of the parking garage (lipstick on a pig, methinks, but better than it is today), and across the street. New construction on Clinton as you approach Washington Square Park from the south. Surface parking gone. And perhaps most momentous of all, no Inner Loop. Hurrah! And look at how nice Wadsworth Square has become – defined by buildings on all its edges.

As I said at the outset, we are truly surrounded by insurmountable opportunity. And thanks to the Vision Plan, we know what to do.

Can we make the Vision Plan into some kind of law, please?

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