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Reader feedback - 4.12.06

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FOR DOWNTOWN: COMMON-SENSE GOALS

More residential development. Cultural and entertainment activity as an important revitalization component. Clubs, bars and unique retail offerings to strengthen consumer attraction.

As reported in Urban Journal ("Real Hope for Downtown?"March 22), Rochester hopes to finally achieve a renaissance (not to be confused with that other flawed distraction: Renaissance Square) in its urban core. The fact that $100,000 was spent to fund yet another study, even by the Urban Land Institute, illustrates a real problem of our area: we fail to produce strategic plans, supported by government and the private sector, and to pursue the goals of those plans to achieve results.

After all, many cities worldwide have reinvented their urban centers based on these same land uses. Having returned to the Rochester area after a 30-year absence, it was disheartening to see the urban decline and suburban sprawl that had enveloped a once thriving community. Balkanized municipal governments in MonroeCounty embraced the decline of the city to further their own economies without thought to the costs of sprawl and duplicative layers of local bureaucracy.

What we lack seems to be enlightened regional planning and the political and public will to pursue the future. My own experience includes involvement with a true public-private partnership that transformed a rundown section of Arlington, Virginia, into a thriving, walkable, mixed-use "new town in town" with 15,000 residential units, 11 million square feet of office space, and 1.5 million square feet of retail and entertainment activity, all built adjacent to two Metro stations that offered easy access to the entire Washington, DC, region.

Certainly that is a much different market than Rochester, but once a good reuse plan was adopted by local government, we built the necessary momentum with civic groups, investors, and businesses and aggressively went after developers and tenant prospects to realize success over 10 years.

I might add that this "new downtown" in Arlington has received ULI recognition for good urban planning. So what is the application to Rochester? Again, forget the distraction of Renaissance Square, which has the significant potential to become another albatross around the neck of local taxpayers.

The millions of dollars attached to that scheme could have subsidized the retail revival of MidtownPlaza and transformed the SibleyBuilding into ground-floor retail with housing on upper floors. It could have created incentives for appropriate office clusters such as attorneys, accountants, marketing and media firms in downtown office space.

It could have supported a targeted investment strategy for Main Street --- both east and west. And it could have reinforced our discovery of the GeneseeRiver-ErieCanal waterfront as a major amenity, adding value to development and quality of life for all our citizens. These are all common-sense, realistic goals for downtown Rochester. We only need the urban smarts and public resolve to act now.

Will Condo, DeMeter Drive, Greece


WHAT ABOUT SHOPPING?

I unfortunately never had the privilege of seeing downtown buzzing with people, or MidtownPlaza filled with shops ("Real Hope for Downtown?" Urban Journal, March 22). Talk about a revival thrills me, because I see so much potential in Rochester. That is the reason for calling it my home for five years. I find myself surrounded with interesting people, small businesses with attention to detail and great service, a variety of restaurants, fabulous options for viewing art in small galleries and larger museums. There is the preservation of films and historical buildings, the variety in architecture in the homes all over the city, the different feel you get from walking down Monroe, Park, East, University, through the South Wedge and downtown.

I agree about new housing being a driving force, but is too much emphasis being placed on housing? If everything is turned into lofts and apartments, where is the place for a thriving unique business section?

Why not leave MidtownPlaza as a shopping experience, with stores that we don't already have in the five malls within 20 minutes of each other? Why not make Rochester a destination point? How about stores that are a rarity in these parts, like IKEA or Anthropologie? If bigger retailers like these thrived in a central location, it would draw people to come downtown and spend, which would draw smaller businesses and restaurants.

I've heard enough about new parks, more galleries, more theaters for downtown. We have all that already. Why not try for something different, something bigger?

Melissa Jackson, Rochester


RETAIL COULD SUCCEED

Mary Anna Towler's fine article (Urban Journal, March 22) covering the Urban Land Institute's report on downtown revitalization contained one statement that I would have instantly accepted, until recently. She wrote that downtown will "never be the site of a major department store again."

I can see everybody nodding. But that modern certainty may now be old-fashioned. Two speakers in the excellent series of talks presented by the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter have said just the opposite and provided solid evidence.

One speaker should know a thing or two about retail. Educated as a landscape architect, Robert Gibbs spent years working for shopping-mall developers, gaining inside insight into the minds of retailers and their customers. He surprised many of us by showing pictures of a two-story Target and a Wal-Mart in urban places.

It's a new movement; the concepts are still taking shape. But the least sentimental players in the business are looking for opportunities in city centers.

How? Why? Simple. Gibbs said wryly: "We've already paved over all the wetlands." The growth opportunities are pretty much exhausted in the 'burbs, and the traditional shopping mall is a dead concept. Where are the under-served markets? In the cities.

This was underscored by the next speaker in the series, former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist. Talking to a developer of suburban Starbucks shops, he said, "Did you know African-Americans drink coffee?"

Please think about that for a moment. (Some readers won't have to). Just because many urban residents don't have the kind of buying power suburbanites enjoy doesn't mean they don't have the same needs and desires, or the resources to afford them. And retailers are starting to realize this. Some retailers.

And this is where some folks might need a shift of paradigm. Both speakers talked about how resistant some people are to these big-box stores, how offensive the idea is to the sensibilities of planners and revitalizers. We tend to think in idealized ways, and in our determination to reverse the scourge of everything suburban, we might want to make Main StreetRochester into Main Street Mayberry.

But how can that work? A shopping district of nothing but twee shops and upscale specialty stores is not going to make it. As Gibbs told us, you can't base a retail economy solely on things people don't need. But plunking down one Walgreens and a Dollar Store sells the market way short.

I would think that the safest, surest way to reestablish retail in the city is to properly serve the needs of the diverse population that's already near by. And it's the biggest retailers that are best able to do that.

By the way, Gibbs disagreed with the idea that we have to have thousands living in the business district to support a good mix of retail. When asked how to overcome the resistance some people have to venturing downtown, he replied that you have to offer the same stuff, with the same quality and value, as the malls do. The vitality of a good urban environment will do the rest. It's not 1990 anymore.

Both speakers said we have to decide, in an informed and coherent way, what kind of downtown we want, in order to be prepared to act on opportunities.

The mall might be dead, but the concept of the anchor store is very much alive, and the new urban retail pioneers may be the big discounters, who have the power to bring all the rest along for the ride. They are applying and sometimes extending urbanist concepts and trying to change with the times. They are willing to serve everybody, a thumb in the eye of gentrification.

Personally, I despise Wal-Mart, and I won't shop there until they change many of their practices. But time plays funny tricks on us. If the forces that almost destroyed the city are now willing to help bring it back to glory, wouldn't we be crazy to say no?

Carl Pultz, Redfern Drive, Rochester


Mary Anna Towler's response: As much as I would like strong retail to come back downtown tomorrow, my own eyes tell me there's yet not enough critical mass to support it. The malls and big-box stores have been strategically located so that they're more convenient for suburban residents than downtown Rochester. In a region where the population is not growing and is moving outward, that makes it hard to entice retail downtown. Not impossible, but difficult.

I was hearing 10 years ago that the suburban mall concept was dead. Eastview doesn't look dead to me. And as for Gibbs' contention that we've already paved over all the available land in the outlying areas: maybe in other parts of the US, but there's still plenty of land left in the Greater Rochester area. And developers are continuing to gobble it up.


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