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Metro ink - 11-08-06

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CHANGES AT THE D&C

The local Gannett operation may be bolstering penetration by adding new publications every few months, but that doesn't seem to be steering readers back to its core product.

The most recent circulation figures are out and the Democrat and Chronicle followed the national trend, circulating 214,908 papers on Sundays compared to 222,627 a year ago --- a drop of about 3.5 percent. For weekdays, the slide was slightly less pronounced: 156,128 in September of this year compared to 161,314 in September of 2005 (down 3.2 percent).

But steering readers back to the daily paper may not be what 21st-century media companies want, anyway. Here's how D&C spokesperson Tom O'Connor spins the declining figures: "Our strategy focuses on growing our audience," he says. "We've done just that."

And according to O'Connor, that growth can happen "across any platform," not necessarily with the daily newspaper, just so long as it keeps happening. In this case, "any platform" might mean Insider, Rochester Magazine, or the company's websites.

It's against this backdrop that the Newspaper Guild of Rochester's 14-year contract battle may be winding to a conclusion, though not the one the editorial staff had hoped for.

According to union officials, Gannett's negotiators have handed its newsroom union a contract offer they say is their "firm, final, and best."

O'Connor's only comment was to read a prepared statement:

"We have negotiated in good faith and presented a firm, final, and best contract offer to the Guild last week," he said. "Beyond that, we don't comment out of respect for our employees."

The Guild trashed the offer in an e-mail to Rochester media, saying it "guts protections for hourly workers." For example, it changes overtime from being figured on a daily basis to weekly. And the offer does not include a 401(k) plan, which other local Gannett employees have and which has been a major sticking point.

"It's disappointing that Gannett has chosen to push contract talks to the brink of impasse," Local 17 President Steve Orr said in a statement. "The Guild continues to believe that a fair and equitable contract agreement can be reached, but only if the company shows a willingness to negotiate honestly. Despite a steady exodus of journalists from the newspaper, many of whom have not been replaced, the company does not seem interested in providing a contract that encourages workers to stay."

Still, the union is planning to hold a vote on the offer after conducting meetings with its members to discuss the plan. If the union votes down the plan, Gannett could declare an impasse and impose it unilaterally. That's something union members fear may be in the offing, since the company described the offer as final. The union may still have some options, however, even if the company takes that route. It could try to convince the National Labor Relations Board that the company wasn't negotiating in good faith before it declared an impasse. But that's tough to prove.

The company's sudden eagerness to settle the issue may work against them, says Guild Secretary Gary Craig.

"It was almost an artificial deadline," he says of Gannett's goal to reach a resolution by year's end, "which doesn't imply good faith bargaining."

Privately, Guild members say they wonder why the company chose to play the impasse card now, after 14 years without a contract and after six months of more productive talks that included a federal mediator.

"We were making headway on a number of issues right before they pulled the plug," says Craig. "It's a mystery."

--- Krestia DeGeorge


HOSPITAL PLANS NEW GARAGE

Plans to build a five-story parking garage on the west side of South Avenue between Manor Parkway and Linden Street have raised eyebrows and hackles among some neighbors.

The would-be owner of the garage is nearby HighlandHospital. Currently, says Highland spokesperson John Turner, about 220 employees park their cars at a lot at the former RochesterPsychiatricCenter and are shuttled to the hospital. But redevelopment of the PsychCenter will eventually force Highland to stop using the lot, with as little as a month's notice. To prepare for that, the hospital purchased an option on the South Avenue property and has started planning a new, 400-car garage. The additional capacity will also take 75 to 100 hospital employees' vehicles off the streets around the hospital. And it will free up extra room for patients in the hospital's existing garage, says Turner.

Not everybody is happy about it. A group, calling itself SAVE --- South Avenue Visionary Efforts --- published an unsigned letter to the editor of the Wedge newspaper predicting that the project's impact will be "deleterious."

Also opposing the hospital's plan: the area's neighborhood organization, the South Wedge Planning Committee. In an October 13 letter to City Zoning Director Art Ientelucci, SWPC Executive Director Dan Buyer spelled out the group's concerns.

For starters, there's traffic. The ramp's entrance will be on a short stretch of South Avenue between two traffic lights. In his letter, Buyer says that's a recipe for disaster, "creating the potential for traffic jams and car accidents." There are also an elementary school (School 12) and a nursery (the Rochester ChildFirst Network) in the immediate vicinity. The vehicle and foot traffic twice a day from the children and their parents would create a safety nightmare, Buyer writes.

Turner disagrees. A Bergmann traffic study commissioned by the hospital shows that the area can handle the traffic, he says. And few employees will be entering or exiting the garage when the school or the nursery lets out. As to concerns about criminal activity at the garage during evenings and weekends, when it would be mostly vacant, Turner responds that it'll be monitored by surveillance cameras. And he adds: "I'll tell you, we've got a pretty good security department."

But there's another set of concerns that have little or nothing to do with issues of safety. Call them neighborhood-character concerns. The hospital plans a five-story parking garage in an area where the next tallest thing will be the modest tower of a Greek Orthodox church. In addition to being "too tall and out of scale with the neighborhood," Buyer writes, the building will block the view of its neighbors and will "devalue their homes."

"The 24-hour security lighting from the ramp will also be a nuisance," he writes.

Finally, he charges, "The proposed building does not fit the character of South Avenue."

South Avenue is undergoing something of a renaissance these days, with retail, commercial, and entertainment businesses popping up a few blocks to the north. A parking garage, especially one of this size, could interrupt the streetscape style that groups like SWPC have worked hard to nurture in that area.

Turner doesn't directly address those questions, but he says the hospital has revisited the design in response to neighbors' displeasure with the initial plans.

Still, it's tough to see what could be subject to change. To put 400 cars (a number the hospital says is a firm one) on the property's footprint would require five stories. And putting some of those levels below ground would be expensive.

Despite all that, Turner remains optimistic that Highland and its neighbors can reach a satisfactory agreement.

"This process is just starting out," he says. "We think we can certainly develop that site to look better than it does now."

--- Krestia DeGeorge


THE PORT TAKES SHAPE

Port-o-rochester.jpg

A year and change later, plans for the Port of Rochester are final. Or at least as final as a master plan can be.

Last week VaroujanHagopian of Botson's Sasaki and Associates unveiled the last of a series of plans his firm has drawn up for the city since last September. Those plans are still subject to a state environmental quality review, the mayor's tweaking, and City Council's approval. But they represent the more or less final product of a year's worth of planning.

So what made the cut? For starters, many of the public's more grandiose ideas --- an aquarium, islands in LakeOntario --- didn't. Early on, Sasaki's planners decided that the port area's greatest potential is as a largely residential enclave --- a "harbor village" ---- rather than a national, or international, attraction.

The final design reflects that decision. It shows a compact grid of narrow streets framed by townhouses and apartment buildings in the 30 acres between the GeneseeRiver, Lake Avenue, and OntarioBeachPark. Exposed corners sport retail space (up to 80,000 square feet of it, depending on what developers choose to do.) There's a village green and a 100-slip marina. The plan keeps the ferry terminal building, which is proposed as the home of a Great LakesResearchCenter operated by SUNY Brockport.

The final plan is actually two plans, a move meant to give the city some flexibility, explained Hagopian. The main difference between the two options is the density of residential units. Plan A incorporates 395 housing units, Plan B about 700. The larger number of units wouldn't change the project's footprint; individual buildings would be built higher. Hagopian estimates that Plan A would require $33.7 million in additional public infrastructure and $92.4 million in private investment. For Plan B: $34.1 million public and $145.7 million private.

The biggest change from previous versions of the plan was to not build a parking garage across from the RogerRobachCommunity Center. Instead, some of that parking space was placed underground, beneath the village green and one of the residential blocks. The changes were made in response to neighbors' objections to the proposed garage at public hearings.

The underground parking coupled with on-street parking will provide a total of 970 spaces. That doesn't include parking for the apartments, which will be incorporated into the buildings in this plan. That's less there parking than is available on the surface lot now, but the Sasaki's planners say that it will be adequate. Besides, adds Hagopian, "The highest and best use of this land is not surface parking."

So what now? By the time the plan goes through the two to three-month environmental-review process and is vetted by the mayor's staff, says city Economic Development Director Julio Vasquez, it could be five months before it lands before City Council. Plenty --- or nothing --- could change along the way.

"None of this is cast in stone," Vasquez reminded reporters at a preview last week. After the environmental review and the mayor and council's input, the project will need to be built by a private developer.

"We've had a few developers that have shown interest," said Vasquez.

But City Hall seems satisfied with Sasaki's work. "I'm not sure that we will change much because we believe that it's a really good plan," Vasquez said.

--- Krestia DeGeorge


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