Archive for November, 2011

As the fate of 13 Cataract Street is brewing, perhaps a step back to look at all of the possibilities is worth a moment. Join us for an afternoon stroll in our High Falls neighborhood.

The High Falls here, on the Genesee River. At the Falls on the left, the wonderful Gorsline Building in a much edited version, thankfully saved and reopened in 2000. It was once a much larger building, but between neglect, collapse, and fire, only the portion abutting the Falls remains. In the old days, during some spectacular weather, the building looked like this:

In the middle of the panorama, and in the distance, is Kodak Tower. Immediately right of the tower, and on the riverfront, is the RG&E Beebee Station, where the last turbine will take its last whirl in February. The station will then be shuttered pending some future redevelopment. Something will happen here.

That’s the Pont de Rennes bridge (nee Platt Street bridge) crossing the river in the middle of the view. This is the bridge that a group here wants to convert to a Rochester version of Manhattan’s High Line. They call it the GardenAerial, and you can learn more at www.gardenaerial.org.

It once looked like this in 1917 (note the Gorsline building behind the bridge next to the Falls):

And at the right in the panorama below is the Genesee Brewery, and the historic structures at the foot of the Pont de Rennes bridge. 13 Cataract Street – threatened with demolition – is the ochre colored, taller building.

Here’s a view of the brewery from the bridge.

The masonry building on the left is proposed to be the new brewery visitors center. On the right is the threatened 13 Cataract Street. Please note that the brewery folks say that they selected the building on the left  for their center because it has views of the Falls. Hmm. Stay with me on this one.

It’s hard to see 13 Cataract because of the much more recent metal buildings which surround it to the west and south, and which should be removed. But the original building is pretty spectacular, and dates from the late 1880s.

Remember what 13 Cataract looked like once upon a time. Yes, there are windows at the gable end at the right side of the building that look right out on the High Falls.

The Library image was printed backwards. Thanks to a reader, now corrected.


On the left of the image above is another building on the brewery campus, also designated as historic, built probably in the 1930s, and also slated for demolition. “Cataract” is carved in the limestone portion of its parapet.

So let’s recap. First there is the spectacular High Falls themselves – a place we Rochesterians take visitors for a stroll, and stroll ourselves. Then there is the High Falls district, with its offices and restaurants and residences in all the old restored mill buildings and new construction:

Just further west of the district (a couple of blocks) is Kodak HQ, and Frontier Field, home to our AAA Red Wings.

Then there is the RG&E campus, now no longer used for power generation and to be redeveloped for….?

Then there is the bridge, which may yet become Rochester’s Hanging
Gardens, with its attendant proposed trail around the gorge at the High Falls.

Then there are the precedents set by the Potosi Brewing Company in Potosi Wisconsin, the American Brewery in Baltimore, Maryland, the Pearl Brewing Company in San Antonio Texas, the Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Tivoli-Union Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado, the Brooklyn Brewing Company in Brooklyn, New York, and others. Some of these historic breweries still make beer. Some don’t. But all have been restored, and are playing important roles in each of their locales. Look them up.

So let’s not tear anything down here. Let’s figure out how to make the whole big picture work. So much energy and vision and money has been spent in this part of our town, and so much more will be spent. Tearing buildings down – especially really significant ones – is worse than a damaging, destructive waste. Demolition now robs us of our history, it’s true, but robs us of real future value as well. We are awash in the heady foam of possibility.

Perhaps we can recall the now banned watchwords of British brewer Courage and Company (the Brits banned the motto because they were worried about the implied connection between drinking beer and having courage – you decide):

I’ll have another, now, I think.

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I’ll keep this short. Honest. (Stop laughing).

But I do want to offer an update on the ongoing conversation here about the fate of the landmark 13 Cataract Street building.

From Albert Stone, 1917. To the left of center, with the steam, is 13 Cataract Street. On the right, immediately adjacent to the railroad tracks, is the former packaging center.

I have been in an email exchange with the staff of the building’s owner, North American Breweries (NAB). They have indicated that they have for some time intended to restore one building on their beer campus, that they assessed various possibilities based on size, space, cost, and location, and they did not select 13 Cataract Street, but instead chose another old building, the former packaging center. I am not sure why they decided to select just one building to save, but they did. NAB, the 8th largest brewing company in the U.S., decided that they would only preserve one of the historic structures on their campus. Seems a bit parsimonious at first inspection. But onward.

The lovely old packaging building.

13 Cataract Street, a historic landmark.

Having made their selection, they put 13 Cataract up for sale, and “dozens” of developers toured the hapless building.

They tell me that “serious” buyers concluded that the rehab costs were prohibitive. They peg these costs at $2 million to stabilize and $5m to $8m to adaptively reuse. I have not seen estimates or drawings of any kind, so I can’t assess whether this is right or wrong. But remember, there is a 40% tax credit for rehabbing historic properties. This would certainly reduce the project costs, by millions.

Then their explanations get a bit problematic, I think. They say that the reuse of the former packaging center “hinges on the abandoned buildings being removed.” Hmm. Not sure why – I suppose to make way for a parking lot. Why does their project “hinge” on the demolition of 13 Cataract? Have they asked the city about using a bit of the adjacent park to help them with their plans?

And the use of the word abandoned is odd. They are the ones who abandoned 13 Cataract. It’s their building, not an absentee landlord’s. If they think of the “abandoned” building as a liability, they might consider donating it. In an instant, the building would be saved, their liability would disappear, and the costs associated with stabilizing and reusing 13 Cataract Street would vanish.

And finally they tell me that they have a budget of $2.6 million, and that is the end of that. Okay, then.

They have also let me know that the brewery staff are folks of good will, trying to do a good thing for themselves and the larger community.

Okay again. Even people I admire enormously have made wayward decisions. I don’t know the beer folks at all, and I have no reason to doubt that they are good citizens. But I say again – tearing down 13 Cataract Street is not a good idea.

Another reason demolition, instead of the creation of a broader beer campus and area plan, is not a good idea surfaced Tuesday morning in our newspaper, when we learned that our gas and electric utility, RG&E,  is decommissioning their facility immediately across the river, in preparation for some as yet unspecified future redevelopment. For this entire portion of our city, this is a moment rich with possibilities.

Finally, NAB suggests that we should not think that they are rushing to get this done, rushing to demolish 13 Cataract Street. Well, I wonder.

They filed an application Monday to tear down 13 Cataract. In the Tuesday paper was the usual threat: if we don’t get immediate approvals, “then it’s a different question altogether.”

But I have a solution, I think. I invite NAB to really reach out to the entire community, the city, the county, RG&E , and others for help in shaping a larger vision for the beer campus and High Falls. And let them ask us all for help in finding funding for a phased stabilization and adaptive reuse of both buildings.

And to find immediate extra dollars to get this done I propose something simple. They seem quite set on a budget of $2.6m. But if we could help them raise a few million more, we might be able to assist in saving 13 Cataract too. You know, a kind of beer version of a region-wide pass-the-hat bake sale for NAB and their landmarks.

All of you go along to your local pub this long weekend. Have a Genny or a Labatt’s Blue or a Magic Hat (NAB owns all of these). No, have several (designated drivers, please). The increased revenue from all this jovial beer drinking goes to the 13 Cataract Street Fund. We should be able to raise a pile of dough with just a little effort – bend an elbow or two, or three.

Save the Cataract. No, save both Cataracts. This blindness is curable.

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“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Albert Einstein.

As if to conclusively prove Professor Einstein correct, we stand to lose yet another wonderful part of our particular urban narrative here in favor of  – wait for it – another parking lot.

I will be brief. I simply want to say yet again that one of the surest foundations for our best urban future lies in our rich, textured, and meaningful past. Tearing buildings down has rarely made any place better, and especially when the razed building is replaced by asphalt and yet more cars. We really must stop doing this.

Here’s the potential next victim in Rochester’s sad but ongoing effort to erase its past:


The library’s print was backwards. Now corrected.

The building, at 13 Cataract Street here, is part of the Genesee Brewing campus. Its owners, who say the building is in bad shape (they own it of course, so why are their problems now our problems? Take care of your damn assets, already) want to demolish it so that they can build a visitors center and tasting room in another of the old buildings on their beer campus.

The building, and the campus, are immediately adjacent to one of our most astonishing physical assets – the High Falls of the Genesee River, seen here in 1925.

This is High Falls. The brewery campus is to the left of the falls, adjacent to the horseshoe in the river.

Another view, this time from 1917.

13 Cataract Street, our endangered subject, is the building at the far right of the picture, with steam emanating from its roof.

To get a better idea of the High Falls, take a look at this:

The brewery is out of the picture to the left. I invite you to go and look for other images. This is an amazing place, freighted with the origins of this city.

This is where our city began, in the 18th century. Ebenezer “Indian” Allen built a mill not far from the High Falls in 1789, on what was known as the 100 acre Tract. It looked like this:

Later the High Falls themselves would run an assortment of mills as the growth of the city began in earnest.

And much more recently, the city and private developers have worked diligently in the 100 acre tract to restore and revitalize the High Falls area as a kind of campus – not just one building, but a collection of landmarks.  Like this:

Restorations, new infrastructure, streetscaping. It worked at first, sagged for a while, and now is reviving. The buildings pictured above look across the river at the brewery, and our endangered subject. Lots of public and private money has gone into this place. Leverage that investment? I guess not.

So here are a few reasons why demolishing 13 Cataract Street is kind of stupid:

1. The building’s owners know nothing about preservation and reuse, or repairing neglected buildings. They make beer.

But if they did know anything about preservation, they would not be able, with a straight face, to say this building is too far gone to save. Hah. Many of us who have saved buildings in so much worse shape know that their claims are just laughable, and a perfect illustration of their ignorance. Take a look at this:

Interior of 13 Cataract Street, photo by thecolorblindphotographer.com.

Dirty? Yes. Needs attention? Yes? About to fall down? Emphatically no.

2. There are people who want to save and reuse 13 Cataract Street. The Landmark Society of Western New York has stepped in to offer help, and to offer expertise in saving old landmarks. They stand ready to help further, given a chance.

There is a group working to create an Aerial Garden, (www.gardenaerial.org/) a kind of local version of Manhattan’s wildly successful High Line project (you can look it up) on the pedestrian bridge across the river at the High Falls. They would be happy to get involved. Their plan connects the High Falls neighborhood with the beer campus. It makes clear sense that the two sides of the river will increasingly work together.

There are others. But with the announcement on Friday that the brewery is moving forward with their very flawed plan, it looks like the time to talk to them in reasoned tones about real alternatives is over. They make beer.

3. If their plan was part of a redevelopment that included the brewery tasting building in another old part of the campus, offices, residences, a visitor’s center for the Aerial Garden, and other uses, would the brewery benefit? Yes. In fact, drawings of this better possibility have been made, some time ago, and they are really pretty wonderful.

Would the city benefit? Yes. Would the redevelopment act as a balancing counterweight to the work on the other side of the river? Yes. Would the brewery need to find partners? Yes. Have they reached out to find such partners? They say yes, I say no.

They’ve tried to sell the building, it’s true. But have they really dug in to figure out how to make something better really work? No. They make beer. They don’t do historic preservation. But some here do, and I guess since the owners have said they are moving ahead with plans for demolition, our collective ability to help will go unused.

There are folks here who understand that the key to these kinds of redevelopments lies in utilizing the tax credits available for saving and adapting historic structures. Have they been invited to help get this done? Nope. On we go, rushing towards another legacy mistake, in this city filled with legacy mistakes.

4. In Chicago, where I grew up, one of the most enlightened of all of that city’s citizens was a beer baron, Charles Wacker. It was Wacker who was charged with building Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. And he did. He reached out to every corner of the city for support, got it, and built much of the plan, making Chicago great then, and greater now. He made beer, he made sense, and he made a great city.

Enough. Any of you who visits us here often knows by now that this was once an incredible city, crafted by the enlightened and otherwise, filled with character and texture and a particular kind of vitality. And now, again, we are doing what we can to wreck our legacy, our heritage. This is happening in every city in this nation, but less in some places than others. And every time we lose yet another landmark, we sadly prove Dr. Einstein right.

Alas. God save the Cataract.

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Almost every day as I wander around this place in images of times gone by, I find signs of who we once were. Perhaps these signs also point to what we may hope to become.

Witness this:

July 13th, 1913. The automobile is a Franklin. That’s Jimmy Feeney at the wheel – service manager for Franklin. City Sealer John Stephenson is about to pour a measured gallon into a glass container. Officials look on – after all, it’s a National Efficiency Demonstration.

And the answer: 57.2 miles on one gallon of gasoline.

Franklin Automobiles went out of business in 1934.

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Staib’s Saloon, Blossom and Winton, 1913.

Of course it was an imperfect arrangement. Streetcars in cities were an important, even critical, part of early 20th century urban life, but like any human conception, not without the occasional flaw.

Like the one above, when a streetcar crashed through the front door of Staib’s Saloon. Perhaps the motorman was thirsty….

One of the biggest challenges was keeping autos and streetcars separated. As on Main Street, below in 1919, officials experimented with a variety of controls to assure that the transit modes stayed clear of each other.

Which of course they didn’t.

Parsells Avenue, 1915.

Monroe and Crosman, 1923.

And often the sudden presence of a car or truck on the tracks would induce various kinds of mayhem.

On St. Paul in 1922, a truck bumped a streetcar off the tracks, and it promptly hit a fire hydrant, causing a small tidal wave.

Not sure how this next one  happened right downtown, but it sure drew a crowd.


Methinks somehow a rubber-tired vehicle was involved….

Streetcar workers occasionally went on strike (as railway companies found ways to operate the trolleys with fewer employees, for example), but the show had to go on. And it did.

I can hear OSHA inspectors nationwide groaning at this image. But hey – it worked.

Judging by all the smiles, everyone was having a pretty good time in spite of the work stoppage.

Main and Fitzhugh, 1910.

So mishaps and hiccups notwithstanding, the streetcar city worked pretty well.

Moral of the tale: cities are for feet, then rails, then cars.

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