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Designers get their turn at downtown

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If you could overhaul downtown, what would it look like?

Think back to the last time you were in a thriving, vibrant urban environment. Maybe it was a neighborhood like Soho in New York, a waterfront area like San Antonio's Riverwalk, or a plaza in a European capital.

"What did you like about that place?" asks Heidi Zimmer-Meyer.

Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, is putting into words the question that participants in this weekend's downtown design charette will be asking themselves in a variety of ways.

As design professionals, they've already been asking --- and answering --- that question.

"Many of them have thought long and hard about that," says Zimmer-Meyer. "A lot of those folks see the built environment differently than most of the rest of us."

"Those folks" are architects, planners, landscapers, even graphic designers. They'll converge on downtown Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to try to answer questions like the one Zimmer-Meyer posed. What makes a downtown work? What would make you want to go there? Or better yet, return there, again and again?

This weekend's design charette has its genesis in a similar event in 2000. That year, says Joni Monroe, executive director of the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter (and the organizer of both downtown charettes), about 200 people showed up. That day's suggestions gave birth to a six-month study by the DesignCenter. Some of the results of that study, in turn, were incorporated into the City of Rochester's City Center Master Plan and into its new zoning code.

Monroe has more ambitious plans for this next charette, which has been in the works for two years. The public will be allowed to watch the charette unfold on Friday, and there will be a way for the public to submit comments, but this event is specifically meant to tap the expertise of design professionals. They'll be divided into teams and set to work on a specific area of downtown --- Main Street, for instance, or the East End --- although they'll also be encouraged to push the boundaries of their designated zone, if they feel they need to.

The goal, says Monroe, is "connecting and completing" the various good things that are going on in the different parts of the city's center.

"Rochester has a lot of special projects going on downtown," she says. "What we lack is a common vision."

Zimmer-Meyer puts it slightly differently.

"It's very much about creating an urban fabric," she says, building the right environment as opposed to relying on one or two marquee projects to transform entire districts.

To that end, there will be teams of another kind of professional on hand: investment professionals.

"Investors know what would fit with what," says Monroe. Their presence, she says, will help ensure that the designers' plans "create a development climate that has some consistency."

The investors, like the designers, will be clustered in teams that Monroe calls "resource groups." They'll be asked to react to the designers' ideas as they come up with them, so "that we have a basis in reality in terms of investment," says Monroe.

If the charette weren't structured that way, points out Zimmer-Meyer, "you could end up with a lot of pretty pictures that aren't achievable in the real world."

Including financial types is critically important to Bill Pritchard, a member of City Council and chair of its jobs, economic development, and center-city committee. Pritchard says he is excited about the charette, but is guarded in his optimism over how much it can achieve. That's true particularly because of the lackluster regional economy.

Ideas for reshaping and redeveloping downtown need to be "grounded in today's reality," he says. "One of the realities is limited funding."

"On the one hand, you want to dream big," says Pritchard. "But on the other hand, unless you've got a pot of gold, those dreams will never become a reality."

Bringing investors to the design table helps soothe that concern.

"Joni has worked very hard in her preparation to make sure that balance will be struck," says Pritchard.

If all goes according to plan, this weekend's event will result in a fairly specific set of design plans for downtown.

Monroe pulls out a thick book, professionally bound and printed on glossy paper. This is what resulted from a similar effort in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that was in substantially worse shape than Rochester when it undertook its project, says Monroe. The book contains page after page of crisp renderings --- specific, buildable projects, not concepts or master plans --- made by architects and landscapers of a city they envisioned imposed over the one they saw.

"The City of Providence has found this to be invaluable," she says.

Then Monroe pulls out another, newer Providence volume. This one contains before-and-after shots: the sketches magically brought to life.

That's what she's hoping to achieve here.

"None of the things that are going to come out of this are going to be like rocket science," Monroe says. "What's working with other cities that we could do here?"

Rochester has the ingredients for a great urban environment, says Monroe.

"Our infrastructure is great," she says. "We have a treasure trove of beautiful buildings. Most cities would give their eyeteeth to have what Rochester has."

Now it's just a matter of knitting it all together.

Should this charette succeed --- and Monroe believes it will --- "it's going to be a landmark in the history of the city."

Friday's planning sessions for the downtown charette, "Making Downtown Livable," are open to the public, from noon to 6 p.m. at MidtownPlaza. (The Saturday and Sunday sessions are not open to the public.) A week later, Friday, January 26, there will be a presentation to the public at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with the presentation from 7 to 8 p.m. The event is free.

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