Feeds:
Posts
Comments

parcel5aerial

There is an empty site in our downtown. It is called Parcel 5. It has resulted from the slow but steady redevelopment of an area once occupied by an enclosed but long gone shopping mall called Midtown Plaza. New buildings are to the west, and an older and ugly existing building is to the east. To the south is an old slug of a tower building which is being nicely redone. To the north is our Main Street. This part of our city is coming around – it will take a while but there is a pretty strong pulse – the patient will most definitely survive.

Except there is a small problem. Parcel 5. A few years ago the Jazz Festival here decided to stage their closing act, Trombone Shorty, on the empty lot which is Parcel 5. Tens of thousands came to the evening performance, and the magic of a summer evening in the city hit each of them like an opiate. “Wow, what a city, what a great place, how wonderful to be with tens of thousand of people in a city, ooh, the skyline, the stars, the city, wow! Awesome!” Problem.

jazz_fest_crowd

Now there is a movement, gaining strength, to leave parcel 5 empty, so that an endless procession of Trombone Shortys (or is that Shorties?) will have a place in our downtown.

Meanwhile our hapless Mayor has decided to back a plan to construct a 3,000 seat theater on Parcel 5, with a tower above it. The chances of this project actually being funded and constructed seem microscopic, and there are a handful of sane and smart alternative proposals for the site in the wings, so to speak, waiting for the big project to collapse.

parcel_5_3-7-18

Beyond the infeasible character of the theater proposal for Parcel 5, it represents something we really don’t need here. The main advocate, a staunch mayoral supporter, heads up an organization that imports shows from Broadway, and he insists – as he has for years – that we MUST have this facility. No, we don’t must. And certainly we don’t need something we can’t afford, that will be used only sporadically, and that will cater to lots of folks for whom downtown is a rare and spooky destination only to be visited in a car locked safely inside yet another unnecessary parking garage.

So that’s the Parcel 5 dilemma. An empty lot with gravel in a holding pattern for Trombone Shorty, or a gigantic theater that represents the latest legacy mistake in our downtown. What a tasty choice!

I have given a bit of thought to this – mostly to teach myself some Photoshop techniques…. – and I have come up with this:

Midtown parcel 5 San Marco

I actually figured out how to make this look presentable. Shocking….

We’re all focused on the river at the moment – the Governor has offered 50 million reasons to do so – but Parcel 5 is right around the corner. In a city with some pretty terrific and almost forgotten open spaces in our downtown. Like this:

Washington Square Park 1919

Washington Square Park, long our city’s centerpiece, and now the site of a murder of crows.

As the Evil Witch said, “What a world, what a world!”

Ugh. Somehow, we seem incapable of naming any important planning or design initiative anything other than ROC. ROC is the airport code for Rochester.

roc_the_riverway

Must we really persist in this ROC title for our restaurants, bars, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, home inspectors, car repair shops, bagel shops, theaters, barber shops, moving companies?… And urban design plans?

Anyway, the Governor of New York has threatened to provide our city with tens of millions of dollars ($50 million) to transform the Genesee River, which runs through our city, into the asset that it should be, and could be. The City’s ‘plan’ for the money involves spending most of it on maintenance that should be undertaken anyway, like repairing and redesigning very bad riverside plazas (with parking underneath: let’s get rid of all parking along the river – all of it) created during “urban renewal”, fixing terraces and paving at public facilities alongside the river, or repairing the now pedestrian-only Pont de Rennes bridge, which crosses the river at High Falls and offers sensational views of the city’s greatest natural asset (it needs to be fixed – it’s rusting!).

Pont de Rennes bridge

Oh, and there is a plan to re-water the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal through our downtown. Really expensive ($35 million?!?). This is, for me, way down the list of things we need to do right away.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to create a real plan. This would include tasks and costs, as in the city’s shopping list, and then move on to priorities, phases, and methods of implementation. Our river runs through downtown, and the return on investment there could be quite substantial. But our river runs through the rest of the city as well, past University and neighborhoods, parks and other waterfalls, wetlands and marshes, marinas and boat clubs, all the way out to Lake Ontario.

What we really need to do is just three really important things. If it takes $50 million, fine. If not, call me: I could go on…. Here’s my list:

  • Connect both sides of the river continuously for public use, from Lake Ontario some 8 miles to the north, to as far south as money and jurisdictional power will take us. (I am told that the only way to do this is to redo the aqueduct. I say Nuts to that).
  • Invest in the waterfall and its High Falls District, which lies at the heart of our city, and our city’s history, and support programs which educate, celebrate and redevelop this central stage of our community. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Greentopia, and we are proposing that this place, and our first-in-New-York-State Eco-District, get some help in this ROC thing).

IMG_20180403_101614189_HDR

  • Make the river in our downtown the magnet for citizens, businesses and adjacent redevelopment that other cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Grand Rapids, others – have succeeded in achieving. This would mean $100s of millions in increased value, jobs, and tax revenues if done properly. Downtown river development has worked real wonders in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina.

High Falls aerialPhoto from Greentopia.

That’s it. Three tasks. If we did these three, perhaps we could go from ROC to Rochester. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

 

The Alley in History, Part II

Or the History of Alleys, if you would prefer. It turns out that there are many who have made passing reference to alleys in their urban histories, or urban critiques. But there is, in fact, no definitive history of the alley in North American city making.

23_alleys_as_mechanism_of_the_extra_ordinary_04

Thanks to Linda Just for this alley image.

I have gratefully received suggested readings and sources from many readers, and many colleagues. I have enjoyed such texts as Grady Clay’s wonderful little pamphlet, “Alleys: A Hidden Resource,” from 1975. Mr. Clay makes a number of wonderful suggestions about the redesign of a handful of Louisville’s alleys, which, alas, were never implemented.

louisville alley brook and oak 02

Mr. Clay’s Louisville alley, behind Brook and Oak, sadly unimproved.

I have re-read old favorites, such as Witold Rybczynski’s “City Life,” from 1995. I have pored over “Civic Art” and “The New Civic Art.” I have thumbed through my well worn John Reps volumes about the making of urban America. It has been a most enjoyable search through old and new volumes.

And I am recalling the work we did in Washington DC to re-curate an exhibition, now gone, at the National Building Museum entitled “Washington Symbol and City.” We looked in great detail at alleys in that city: DC’s alleys are a central element of the city’s narratives of race, poverty, and segregation.

HEC/42900/42920a.tif

Blagden Alley, Washington, DC, 1923.

So alleys are rich places, filled with all kinds of stories about who we were, how we dealt with one another, what we cared about, and where we are headed. Today, in a handful of American and Canadian cities, alleys are being reevaluated, redesigned, revalued, and conserved as the substantial urban assets that they are.

toolkitheader2

From the Portland Alley Project, a design guide.

My brother, Doug Decker, has written wonderfully about alleys in his neighborhood in NE Portland, Oregon. You can find his work here:

https://alamedahistory.org/2017/11/28/in-praise-of-alleys/

Concordia alley, portland

An alley in Portland. Thanks, Doug.

Graduate students, this is it!! A thesis that could easily place you high in the urban history firmament! An overview of alley facts and alley history as a foundation from which to begin might include:

  • Probably you begin with William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682. (Oh, and note: there is almost no worthwhile alley material to be found outside North America. You should look, but I think you will not find much at all). Anyway, in Philly the alleys were not for service, which is the use that most comes to mind when the word alley arises. Instead, as a prelude to places like Washington DC much later, the alleys were for the poor. Perhaps this was the beginning of the clich├ęd impression that alleys were scary, often dirty and filthy places, where smart citizens were wary of entry.
  • Next you might want to head to James Oglethorpe’s plan of Savannah, Georgia, from 1733. Here, the alley was in fact used to service the “big house.”
  • Rybczynski suggests moving next to Ebenezer Zane’s plan for Zanesville, Ohio, of 1799.
  • After Zanesville alleys show up in short order in places like Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, and in 1830, Chicago.

Panama Street, Philadelphia

Panama Street, Philadelphia.

harris-macon-savannah_0002-adjusted-02.jpg

An alley in Savannah.

Zanesville alley

An alley in Zanesville, Ohio.

Chicago Hunter Alley 1901

Hunter Alley, Chicago, 1901.

After that, who knows. Alleys faded from the urban design repertoire by 1920 or so. You can tell us why.

And then you can tell us what happens next. Some of us have found all kinds of interesting developments underway. But what should we do, for example, in a place like Rochester New York, with its endless 1,500 foot long blocks with no alleys?

My hearty thanks to all those who offered suggestions about sources. Onward!

 

 

My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

Decker Typical Block (3).jpg

But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

salt-lake-block

Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

American_Grid_Comparison

By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

The Village


Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.

 

Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.

 

Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.