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Archive for February, 2012

Some of you may be wondering how we are doing in our efforts here to try to save two historic brewery buildings on Cataract Street. Herewith, an update.

The matter went before the Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on January 19th. After almost three hours of testimony, the Board retired to consider and vote. At dinner time, we learned that the vote was 5 – 1 in favor of the proposed variance, thus allowing demolition. But read on.

The barrels roll out?

Here’s how the struggle unfolded. Preceding the ZBA deliberations came a report, required by New York state law, from the city’s Director of Zoning. The Director was required to examine the environmental impact of the proposed demolition. Astonishingly, amazingly, pathetically, unbelievably, the Director decided that there would be no impact. Let ‘er rip….

This in spite of the fact that the city’s Environmental Commission, in a non-binding finding, ruled exactly the other way, saying that the impact was not sufficiently mitigated by the applicant.

Of course the testimony and the deliberations on the 19th had almost nothing to do with the zoning ordinance governing the application. One ZBA member did note that she thought the brewers were looking for relief from a self-created hardship (neglect of the poor old buildings, and then a claim that they were “abandoned” and too far gone to save). But otherwise, their vote was remarkably free of meeting the letter(s) of the law.

Just so that you have a sense of how ridiculous these proceedings have become, the beer guys got a bunch of neighbors (legitimately concerned about the neighborhood) and a couple of brewery employees to testify that crime, drugs, lurking, and illicit sex takes place near these buildings. Of course, as we all know, buildings do cause all sorts of misbehavior, so tear them down and poof! No more crime. Right?

The ZBA did rule that the demolition must be postponed for 30 days, in the hope that some kind of deal to sell and save the buildings could yet be arranged. At the 11th hour, before the hearing, we were close to having something put together that could work. But by the time of the hearing, the dollar gap between a local developer and the brewery could not be closed. As I write, the work of trying to secure a willing partner in the preservation and reuse of these buildings goes on.

But here’s the mystery: the fact that a deal here is so difficult is because the beer guys would rather pay nearly a million dollars to demolish the historic landmarks than sell them at a lesser cost and get out from under the liability they seem to represent. Now this really seems like self-created hardship. Can they do math?

Anyway, a bunch of folks are still toiling away trying to forge some kind of alliance that can salvage this mess. The clock ticks – the work goes on.

But let’s back up a minute. Nobody is opposed to having the beer guys create an Ale House and Visitor’s Center in the one landmark building they propose to reuse. Great idea – full speed ahead.

BUT THIS IS A CITY WITH A BEAUTIFUL WATERFALL AND CANYON IN ITS MIDST!

The Cataract Street buildings should join all of the other works near the gorge – the preservation of what’s left of the Gorsline Building adjacent to the Falls, the redeveloped High Falls Neighborhood on the river’s western banks (near where our city began), the soon to be reused Beebee power plant, and GardenAerial’s redesign of the old Platt Street Bridge (now called the Pont de Rennes), slated to become a local version of Chelsea’s High Line, as pieces of a redeveloping and reviving central city.

A simple rule in city life: build on value, capitalize value, capture value. Do not demolish value.

The High Line in Chelsea, which we visited last weekend, has created a tidal wave of economic development in that west side Manhattan neighborhood, and recaptured miles of public realm in the process. And it all started with a simple idea – reuse a 20 block long segment of elevated tracks as a public promenade. The Saturday morning we visited, the place was packed and the views were astonishing. Equally astonishing were all the new galleries, businesses, and residential buildings popping up all over the place, and the restorations of slews of wonderful old adjacent landmarks. The High Line has become an armature of economic development generating hundreds of millions of dollars in value (the NY Times says $2 billion in economic impact, 8,000 construction jobs, and 12,000 permanent jobs – not bad). Look and learn.

The High Line, Chelsea.

Rochester has a couple of real legacy mistakes in the works at the moment (such as a $50m bus barn that will allow us to avoid fixing our transit system, and a $100m expressway interchange that is at best a sad band-aid). But we may be awakening from a long and dangerous era of plundering our city for all sorts of regrettable and indefensible reasons.

Neighbors and friends: support the beer guys and their plans, but do not destroy the value that sits right in front of us. We will instantly regret missing this opportunity.

Save the Cataracts!

Postscript: Perhaps the most pathetic of all in the ZBA determination was a negotiated deal with the beer guys requiring them, as “mitigation,” to save part of the bottom 5 feet of one of the building’s stone base, and then adorn it with steel outlines of a portion of the building’s windows. Like this:

Better nothing, we think. This does not mitigate a thing. Even though the beer guys have promised us they will build a model of the landmark buildings for their new Ale House (isn’t that just terrific?), and take lots of pictures before wrecking the place, we think the leftovers are cynical and rude. Basta. 

Onward, ever onward.

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