If you question the value of design in urban planning, take a spin through Irondequoit. That northeastern MonroeCounty suburb offers some of the area's best examples of what happens in the absence of a master plan. The result, say urban planners, is mass development without cohesion.
It's the absence of that synergy that best characterizes sprawl: a string of missed opportunities to not only facilitate home, work, and play, but to uplift the spirit in the process. Last week, the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter hosted "Design Matters 2," a three-day conference on community revitalization. The program focused on three Rochester communities: Rochester's downtown, the city's South Wedge neighborhood, and a proposed town center for Irondequoit. Participants toured one of the three areas, heard discussions by planners from Chattanooga and Pittsburgh, and took part in a workshop to exchange ideas about the design challenges of the three areas.
A "town center" for Irondequoit sounds like an oxymoron. There's East Ridge Road, with its barrage of cars and strip malls. There's the odd little intersection at Titus and Cooper, home to House of Guitars, certainly not an architectural treasure, but one of the area's best known landmarks. And, of course, there's Irondequoit Mall, the giant retail shopping center that later became the community's albatross.
But there's also the other Irondequoit: grand homes lining St. Paul, the quaint lakeside neighborhood of Summerville, and the town's good fortune of having water on three sides.
After spending much of the '80s and '90s in a slump, Irondequoit could be ready to shake its old image. This suburb by the sea has taken big steps to make itself more appealing to developers by targeting five key areas for redevelopment. In each, a design and engineering team surveyed residents, business owners, and government officials and came up with a plan that includes architectural standards and new zoning regulations. And the town board has already approved the plan.
The vision for Seabreeze, one of the five target areas, includes a 20-story condo-hotel-entertainment complex and a boat harbor: "a world class experience," predicts Town Supervisor David Schantz. "Our model," says Schantz, "is Niagara-on-the-Lake."
The Titus-Cooper-Hudson target area, envisioned as the future town center, currently includes a disjointed stretch of retail that includes IrondequoitPlaza. As a town center, the new zoning regulations would allow commercial, recreational, residential, and public uses to "coexist in very creative ways," says Schantz. That vision had the team at Design Matters examining everything from condos to a bistro-style remake of the plaza, to encourage fewer cars and more foot traffic.
Schantz was a key participant in the Design Matters 2 conference. In an interview later last week, Schantz talked about the development of Irondequoit --- a town he says is poised to be the new gateway to the region. An edited version of that conversation follows.
City: Can you explain what you mean by a "town center" for Irondequoit?
Schantz: We have always had a loyal group of residents who care about this community. Many of them have been here for a very long time. And this is an interactive town. People get out and talk to one another.
At the same time, we had become a community lacking a vision. We had kind of a bad rap, and I don't know, maybe we brought some of that on ourselves. But we didn't have a cheerleader. And that's one of the roles of the town supervisor.
There was also some instability. So we went about identifying the areas for redevelopment that we thought would give the most payback for our investment in time and resources. We identified fives areas: the Seabreeze area, Irondequoit Mall, the Stutson-Summerville area near the ferry, the Cooper-Titus-Hudson corridor, and Ridge Road, which is our only commercial corridor.
As you know, we have very little industrial and little commercial, and Ridge Road had become such a mess. No vision, no architectural themes, just a hodgepodge of different types of development. So we immediately went about establishing a vision.
One of the major components of the job was to be a cheerleader for the town, to begin to turn around that negative image. That was around 1998. And the area has historically been very parochial, resistant to change. When people come up with visionary ideas, the community sometimes right away is going to say: Why would anyone come to Rochester? Or: The weather is so bad. They will immediately find something wrong with that vision. One of our biggest impediments is the negative attitude we have about ourselves.
So to better answer the question, the town center is not the center of town. We see it as a center of community activities. It is the place where people can get out of their car and feel they have arrived. We are trying to create a people-friendly area where the businesses and the atmosphere and experience are pleasing and uplifting to people. That's a "town center."
City:Was there ever a traditional downtown, a main street or town center?
Schantz: Never. Irondequoit was really several of these little centers. We had Seabreeze. There was Summerville. The area of Cooper-Titus was a major center of activity, which is densely populated with quite a bit of activity and a school, but it was blighted. It is not appealing, and it stopped drawing people as a result. And people didn't think of it for any one thing in particular. Nothing came to mind.
City: When you surveyed people, what do you think they meant when they said they hope to see more small businesses like bakeries, coffee shops, gifts shops, and so forth?
Schantz: That we want to feel closer and be more connected. Our pace is so rapid today, and these small businesses are part of an experience we want to have, where we get to talk to one another, and we get to know the people around us just a little more. Technology is great, but it has a way of pushing us farther away from one another.
City: Irondequoit covers such a huge swath of development. Do you think a "town center" matters to people in Seabreeze?
Schantz: Yes, because these projects are all interconnected. Every project relates to the other projects, so in a way, what we are doing is weaving a fabric. We are remaking the town.
When you have a town that is put together with no planning and no vision of what it wants to be, you end up with things happening by chance. And these towns end up being a bunch of neighborhoods, not being very people friendly, and they don't work. You end up creating an environment that is really detrimental to the human spirit and human life.
You know, you walk into Starbucks and it's not about the coffee, it's about the experience. I went to Disneyland, and I thought, What's an old fart like me doing here? But you walk in the gates, and it doesn't matter if you're 90 or 9: There's something for everyone. That experience doesn't just happen by chance. It is very careful planning around a vision. And that is what we are trying to do here.
City: Who would this town center serve? Only a couple of nearby neighborhoods?
Schantz: It is this whole region of the state of New York, because I predict that what we are doing with the Port of Rochester is going to change everything. You're going to see 1 to 2 million people coming through that port. Not just Canadians, but people from all over the world.
We already get calls all the time from people using the Toronto airport as the airport of choice for the northeastern half of the country, because they are just so congested down there, and it is such a negative experience. They are favoring Toronto over Boston and New York because it is so much easier.
I predict we're going to have visitors for this entire region from all over the world. And we're the gateway to this whole region.
We have to keep the people who support these local businesses, but we also have to draw from out of the area, too. We can't do it alone.
City: During the tour, some residents referred to buildings that are not up to code and to some property owners who have not been very cooperative. How will you address issues like that with some of your veteran businesses --- who have been there with you through the good and the bad times --- without creating barriers to your future plans?
Schantz: It in great part comes down to mutual respect, and the plan we are putting together and how they will benefit. We have to find that place where we can trust one another well enough to move forward. And a big part of that is showing them the plans, which are very specific. If they don't trust me or don't trust the plans, ultimately they won't buy in. We are in a position to show them a vision that has a very high standard, and what we are trying to do is create an opportunity to make investments that return money.
City: You talked about "streetscapes" several times during the Design Matters workshop. What did you mean by that?
Schantz: For some reason, this area has been slow to pick up on this; it's not something you see here very often. It's everything you experience going through an area, on both sides of you. The sidewalk widths, the lighting, the green space, the trees: All of these things become a visual and interactive experience, whether you're walking, driving, or riding a bike. These are the things that invite you in and make you feel like you've arrived. They're the things that make you feel comfortable.
City: The Design Matters group placed a big emphasis on the history of Irondequoit. What has been lost, and what you are doing to preserve more of it now?
Schantz: Irondequoit has a fascinating and diverse history. There have been books written about it, and unless you have read them you probably wouldn't think so. But again, when you don't have a plan that the entire town values, you don't publicly value the town's history. When you don't have specific guidelines or regulations in place to preserve your historical buildings and your history, then you're going to lose them.
It was only three or four years ago that we were able to establish a landmark and historical committee with the legal means to preserve some of our heritage. We are right now in the process of doing an inventory identifying and cataloging our residential and commercial sites. There is a cost to that, and you have to make that a priority and place a value on it. Once people understand that this has value, then we will all go about protecting these sites. But it's important to bring this to the consciousness of the people.
When you drive down the street, yes --- we have lost a lot of our historical character. The Evershed family was one of the first families that came here in the 1820's. They were all farmers, and they built a beautiful old farmstead on the corner of Culver and Hoffman, which we desperately tried to save. But because we did not have any legal ability to preserve it, and our historical committee wasn't in place, it was torn down.
City: During the Design Matters program, you said, "We're fighting for our lives here." You also said, "We're only going to get one shot at this." What did you mean?
Schantz: I believe that the next four to five years will define this area for the next 25, locally and regionally. Either we turn the corner and start making the changes to secure our future or we don't. You don't stay in one place. You go up or down. Which is it?
I think the momentum is there. We just have to make it easy for investors to see the potential. We have so much to offer. And, yes, I do believe that we will have one shot at this.