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The Main Street Bridge over the Genesee, 1922.

The “Let’s Pretend” Czar has been reading our blog, and based on suggestions from our other readers, has made a decree about one aspect of our urbanism that Rochester should now focus attention on – our riverfront. Great waterfronts have proven to be major economic factors in many cities: the Czar is resolute in his belief that ours is an asset in need of attention.

Rochester is a river city – the Genesee runs through it on its way to Lake Ontario. The city began at the High Falls,

where Ebenezer “Indian” Allen built a flour mill in 1789. Not long after, the Erie Canal arrived, and the two formed important economic engines for our early city.

As in most river cities, the river spent most of its life as a highway for commerce, and a sewer. No longer. Now we here, like Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Singapore, Shanghai, Portland, Providence, and a nearly endless number of other cities, have the opportunity to capitalize on the waterfront, converting a mostly forgotten asset into something wonderful, something memorable, something valuable.

A Rochester icon – Main Street Bridge, by Colin Campbell Cooper, 1908. The bridge was destroyed in 1969 – it blocked the views of the river….

And today, from the same spot:

Here’s another view of the old bridge, from a series of nine murals that used to hang in the Cafe Deluxe, a downtown eatery that closed in 1927.

Main Street Bridge, by Edward Selmar Siebert, painted sometime in the 19-teens.

Call me daft, and many have lately, but the buildings on the bridge were pretty wonderful, I think. Bridges with structures atop them are memorable in at least two other cities: the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence, and the Pulteney in Bath.

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

The Pulteney Bridge, Bath, England.

Anyway, as in many cities, we have wasted money and time and energy wrecking, or simply ignoring, the river. Now it’s time to make amends.

So. Here we go. The Genesee and the city from the south, in 1930.

      

And today.

There is a walkway and bike path on the east bank leading towards downtown, but it never quite gets there. On the west bank is a relatively new development called Corn Hill Landing (thank you, Roger), with apartments and shops and a nice walk along the river. Not long, but nice.

The arched bridge in the distance, carrying I-490, is fairly new, and has become a local icon. It’s the Frederick Douglass – Susan B. Anthony Bridge.

If you turned around from where Mr. Stone made his 1930 panorama and looked south, this would be your view up the Genesee (the river flows north).

And here’s a view looking south from the Court Street bridge. Please note that a percentage, albeit a very small percentage, of our local power is generated here (about 3 megawatts).

Downtown, the river is a mixed bag as well. Here’s a view looking north from the Main Street bridge.

Walkway on the west, no walkway on the east, but at least some greenery next to the hotel’s driveway.

Two blocks north of the photograph above is the High Falls (8.5 megawatts), which descends into a gorge and then flows seven or eight miles north past the Lower Falls (45 megawatts) into Lake Ontario. With the High Falls at your back, here is a view as the river heads to the Lake.

So there you have it. A look at the river south, through, and north of downtown. Access is discontinuous, patchy in places, non-existent in other spots, with plenty of bridges and falls as obstacles. Now what? Let’s compare and contrast.

Downtown we need to reclaim the river as an important feature of the public and civic realm, as has been done in other places.

Wacker Drive, Chicago. Full disclosure – I had a hand in this one. Chicago has a huge number of bridges, but it now has a continuous riverwalk on at least one bank. There are small plazas, memorials, statues, and places to sit and gather along the length of the river downtown.

Or here, in Milwaukee, years in the making (I worked a bit on this in Milwaukee’s Third Ward in the 1980s).

Or here, in Providence.

It would be great to see this many folks enjoying the Genesee in our downtown.

The Czar suggests that so many cities have reclaimed their waterfronts, and so now we must do the same. The river will now become a lively, continuous, attractive, bustling aspect of our city, allowing us to traverse the distance from the University of Rochester to the Lake, and through downtown, in one lovely, long experience.

If we were really ambitious, we could try to compete with some of the category-killers, or at least steal a lesson or two. Take a look.

BPC – photo by Wayne Chasan for EE&K.

Battery Park City waterfront, in New York, designed by EE&K.

Or this:

The Bund, in Shanghai.

Or this:

The poster child for urban river reclamation – San Antonio. A great model for creating intimate places downtown.

Or this:

Paris and the Seine. Photo by Beth Whitman.

I know, I know, that’s Paris, and we’re not. But there are lessons to be learned anyway, about establishing continuity – even under bridges and around obstacles.

We have our work in front of us, and our marching orders from the Czar. Waterfronts in many cities are major generators of economic, cultural and social value. Lots of folks here have spent time and energy working to improve the Genesee riverfront. Some work has been completed, but much work remains, especially downtown. Let’s get this done, people.

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Hong Kong.

In the last few months, we have been wandering around, and wondering at, some memorable places in some amazing cities. Here are a few more highlights.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai.

Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Cochin, India.

Dubai, UAE.

Your author at lunch, in the Botanic Gardens, Wellington, NZ.

As I have been reflecting on all that we have seen, I have had an idea: I have invented a new game that should be played in our town, or perhaps in yours. It goes like this.

By decree of the Czar, our towns must now retool their economic engines. Whatever drives the economy of your city, of our city, must be changed. Here in Rochester, our economy is driven by health care, educational institutions, the optics industry, the grocery business, and innovation and skills in high-technology processes and manufacturing. But no longer.

The Czar requires that now our economy must be driven principally by tourism. Visitors – lots of them.

In my new game, your city will receive higher and higher points for generating more and more of your tax revenues from tourism. Your city will receive bonus points for each hour that a visitor stays with you.

Perhaps this game will invite us to see our cities differently. What will attract visitors? What will they come to see and do, where will they want to stroll, to linger, to shop for local authenticity, to experience unique Rochester delights? What architecture will they admire, photograph, upload to Flickr? How will they describe the rich urbanism of our place to their friends and family upon their return home? Will our history, and the quirky but extraordinary contributions to our city life by people such as the deservedly revered Albert Stone, be made vivid and accessible?

For us here to stay in this game, we have our work cut out for us. Much of what would easily attract visitors to our place is gone. And many of our best assets are under-utilized, or ignored. So we need a fix-this list, and a make-something-out-of-this list. Get rid of the huge parking lots downtown, and create great places instead. Grab onto the riverfront and make it fabulous. Make it easy for folks to get around. Finally blow up the Inner Loop and make great streets and streetscapes. The list goes on. 

Anyway, we have great stuff here, as you must in your city, and we have enormous challenges. Maybe if we put out-of-towner glasses on for a bit, we might see what we already have differently, and find it easier to fix what’s broken.

Our town – Rochester.

Want to buy a “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free” card?

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Despite the bad news about cars and the cities they have ruined, we can report that we saw some amazing transit systems during our recent walkabout. Okay fellow transit nerds, herewith, three examples.

In Hong Kong, we delighted in riding the double-decker streetcars. The system, now over 100 years old, is wholly owned by a private entity: Veolia Transport. Fare is HK$1 for us gray hairs, HK$2 for others. The system has 161 cars, 30km of track and 118 stops in its entirety. Heavily used (80,000,000 riders annually), the system runs on 1.5 minute headways at peak operating hours (no, that’s not a typo – 1.5 minute headways. Practically a moving sidewalk of trams !!).

The tram looked like this not too long ago:

And today, with its new cars and wrap-around advertising, it looks like this:

This is true no-frills transport. Enter at the rear of the car, sit if you can find a seat, plug a $1 coin in the box as you leave up front. Oh, and pick up your feet – they ain’t kiddin’ about the tight schedules. Downtown stops have shelters – it rained and rained on us – but elsewhere not. There is absolutely nothing fancy about this system, but it really works.

In Singapore, we rode the subway, and we can report that while we have not ridden every subway system on the planet, this is the best we have ever seen by some distance.

During planning for this system in the 70s, a bus-only system was considered, but planners concluded that the requisite flood of additional buses would fill roadways already groaning with traffic. So in the 80s Parliament opted for a subway. Good choice, Parliament. Even as the basic system opened, Parliament understood the need to continue the expansion of the system, and this expansion continues today.

Today, the system comprises 130 kilometers of track, and carries about 2 million people a day, or 744.8 million people a year, making it the 15th busiest subway in the world (Singapore is the world’s 33rd largest city – folks there like their transit).

We can report that, as any good system must be, the MRT in Singapore is completely intuitive to use. Really clear, really simple. We found ourselves easily upgrading and exchanging our credit card-like tickets –  piece of cake.

And the system is gorgeous, spotless, quiet, and comfortable. Anybody know of a better system?

In Dubai, we rode the subway all over the place, on its runs both above and below grade.

And guess what? It is a direct and complete knock-off of one of the best systems that exists: Singapore’s.

But for the station tile patterns and a few other quite minor variations, they are interchangeable.

We rode the Dubai system one afternoon when it was absolutely packed – jammed to the limits – and it was still remarkable in every way.

How could you go and see this, without a terrific subway system?

Skiing, Mall of the Emirates. Completely goofy, but then so is Dubai.

And then we came home to our humble, mostly unusable bus system. Maybe if we built a giant indoor Hawaiian surfing park at Eastview Mall, we could get better transit….

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We live in a city quite totally dominated by the automobile. It has taken us 100 years to ruin what was once a beautiful and urbane metropolis, but by God, we’ve done it! These pages are littered with the evidence of that ruination, but in case you needed a bit more proof:

Albert Stone shows us West Main and Brown, in 1908. And I show you West Main and Brown, today:

It’s the American way, really. Our city is certainly not the only city that has paid an inestimable price for what we think of as mobility and freedom.

But guess what? We have imported the madness! You knew this, didn’t you? But we have just spent a couple of months as witnesses, looking up close at what’s happened, and will happen, in far away places, thanks to our unending infatuation with the car. It’s ugly out there, and will get worse than anything we can imagine. Just a couple of examples should suffice.

I grew up with images of China that were filled with bicycles – millions and millions of bicycles.

Even in the 1980s, 80% of all Beijingers used a bicycle as their means of transportation.

Today: bicycle ridership is down to 19.7% of the population, and cars, added to the streets at the rate of about 10,000 a week, are king.

Beijing – 22 lanes of traffic.

Beijing – 18 lanes of traffic.

All the older urban forms are being destroyed – I encourage readers to find a copy of an extraordinary and very sad work by Michael Meyer: “The Last Days of Old Beijing” – and the city, now of over 22,000,000, is on its 10th ring road. Wrecked.

And then there’s Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok is worse than anything we have ever witnessed. Breathtaking, literally and otherwise.

Some places have passed tax laws to try to slow the auto-growth – Hong Kong has a 100% tax on auto purchases, and in Vietnam it’s 200%. The results of the tax are pretty predictable, though: two-wheeled mayhem, as here, at the Cho Dam market in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Right behind these examples are Shanghai and Singapore, and yes, Sydney and Auckland.

And then when one begins to contemplate India, with its almost non-existent highway infrastructure, and one speculates about what’s to come, the possibilities are truly nightmarish.

Not one city we visited has any hope of keeping the car, and high velocity mobility, from doing radical, limitless damage. In Beijing, the state is doing what it can to increase bicycle ridership back into the high 20% range. But it’s really way too little, and way too late.

We saw so much that was extraordinary, beautiful, proud, alive, and wonderful. But the underlying theme of death-by-auto was everywhere we went. Faster comes the destruction. Faster, Faster.

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As we walked the city of Wellington, New Zealand the other day, we crossed a pedestrian bridge over a main motorway. On both sides of the highway were gravestones – a cemetery. A nearby historic marker informed us that when the highway was constructed, it cut through the cemetery, necessitating the removal of thousands of graves. Here you can see the gravestones at either side of the pavement.
 
 
It makes the whole world kin….

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In the never-ending process of building and rebuilding our cities, we make choices about what’s important – where we live, where we work, how we get from place to place. Every choice we make is accompanied by consequences, some intended, some not. And some of the nastiest consequences of our rottenest choices stay with us in our marred urban places for a very, very long time. 

Our city, Rochester, has made some really bad choices in the last half century. Every city has done similarly. Not every city has torn itself down, built an expressway moat, paved all of downtown for parking, moved every bit of retail to the suburbs (with a few notable exceptions, thankfully), and ignored its best natural assets, it’s true, but every city does have a few lulus.

Our beloved Inner Loop.

And now our city is about to spend $132,000,000 on a couple more stinkers. A bus barn downtown for our lamest kind of bus system, and a huge subsidy for about 750 jobs in a new corporate headquarters downtown. I have written about both these projects here, and so I won’t revisit those discussions again.

Instead, I want to think for a moment about what would happen if we took that money and made a few different choices.

A recent visitor to our city, urbanist and Brookings Fellow Christopher Leinberger, observed that Rochester is being “lapped” by many other cities of similar size, and many with fewer assets. We fall further behind in assuring the vitality, value, and usefulness of our city, and region, with every passing day. Our priorities are really screwed up.

And what does Mr. Leinberger say is the most powerful tool in transforming cities, and in creating new value and vitality downtown? Transit. He calls transit, and transit tools, the rudder that steers the ship that is the city, and region.

So how could the $132m be put to better use here, creating greater value and reinvigorating our urbanism? Just two examples are amazing, and instructive.

First, Cincinnati. Population of the city: 335,000. Population of the region: 2.2 million. Bigger than Rochester, but not so much bigger: about a third larger in the city, and about twice the size in the region.

Cincy is planning a streetcar for its downtown. The alignment is set for the first phase, and the cost of the 5 mile system has been pegged at around $100 million. Already developers are investing in sites and projects along the route. The system is estimated to increase property values downtown by something like $380 million, and the system is estimated to spark $1.4 billion in development once it’s up and rolling. This is a return on investment of about $14 for every dollar in. Not bad.

The second example, Portland, is the poster child for investing in change that makes radical improvements to urban value, and quality. Their streetcar system, with a cost of $149 million, has now induced over $3.5 billion dollars in economic development. So the folks in Cincy are being conservative, as they should be, but realistic about the impact that fixed guideway rail transit (streetcars) can have on their urban future.

I have been doing transportation work across my entire career: I am a fully qualified transit geek. But I am not urging our City Council and leadership (three mayors in the last month – not bad, yes?) to swap the mistakes they are about to make for streetcars because I like to play with trains.

No, I am asking our leadership to change course because I have an abiding passion for cities, this one included, and a belief that this place can be so much better if we shift our thinking, realign our priorities, and start making good choices for our future.

Will the upcoming investment here of $132 million in our two downtown projects create value for our city? Yes. I’m not sure how to calculate what will happen, but will we see over $1.8 billion in new value created, at the rate of $14 out for every $1 in, as in Cincy? No. Will we see our downtown revitalized? No. Will we be making an investment that will change the course of our city and our region? No.   

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment, it’s an oncoming train. We can change that.

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I’ll make this short.

For years now, the City and Paetec, a major corporation here, have been wrangling with each other. Paetec has wanted to build a new headquarters, and the City has wanted to woo Paetec downtown, to the site of a former enclosed, and failed, mall called Midtown Plaza (worth much further discussion, but I am quite sure you can grasp the basic story line of a failed downtown enclosed mall).

Midtown is now being demolished to make way for new development. The site is what was once the 100% location in downtown – Main and Clinton. Today Main and Clinton, but for the hordes of buses, is pretty much a ghost town.

Main and Clinton, 1925.

Yesterday the Mayor and the CEO of Paetec held a news conference. Paetec is moving downtown: about 1,000 employees,  bringing the number of jobs downtown to about 56,000 or so. Even though the City has handed Paetec an almost unbelievably sweet deal (somehow at the last minute the City managed to avoid meeting the Paetec demand for free parking for all employees, but they are kicking in something over $80 million: for themselves, Paetec will spend $55 million, but only $5 million of that is their own money), this is good. I mean having more souls downtown is good. Expensive, but good.

Now comes the bad and the ugly.

An office building that is straight out of the 1970s. I know – we’re supposed to be grateful for the greenery on top and such. There will be shops at street level, thankfully, but that won’t overcome the truly pedestrian architecture. An alert reader sent me a more recent elevation of the building, featured in the press conference yesterday, and it has developed somewhat, but it still looks like something that belongs in the suburbs, not in a bustling and robust downtown. 

Nothing said about the rich tradition of wonderful buildings on Main Street, the big arch notwithstanding (you can browse through A Town Square and see dozens). Nothing said about sustainability – as in not a word, but for what is being called a rooftop garden. No discussion of building a building that is truly of mixed use, but for a few shops on the street. Oh, and maybe a police station (!). Paetec will give us a huge picture window into their operations center – oh boy. The only real public discussion has been about – you got it – cars.

One bright idea did surface yesterday – the idea of putting very large electronic screens on the building – ala Times Square they say. I wish I could feel good about this – here’s a recent view of the site kitty corner at Main and Clinton. Why am I not excited about the rich possibilities? I guess we’ll have endless Kodak moments flashing at us 24/7. Just what we need.

Oh, and Paetec did spend time telling us who they don’t want to have as neighbors – no students (students have been essential and key to the revival of Chicago’s Loop, I note), no clinic patients, no surface parking (how did that get in there?), no casinos. Ah Paetec – the corporation with the big heart.

Rochester, like every cash-strapped, shrinking, frightened city in the US, is dealing with a very, very tough question here. The City will spend 16 times more than the corporation, and in the end we stand to get 1,000 jobs.

But will downtown be better for all this? The building itself belongs in an office park, not our downtown. We get a few shops at the street, and a chance to look at Paetec employees engaged in the edgy drama of their work in electronic communications. We get giant LED screens blaring images at poor Main and Clinton. We may or may not get a building that represents a zero carbon footprint, or is even LEED rated.

Time will tell if any of this can be redeemed. Let us pray.

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