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Imagining a downtown

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What's your vision for downtown Rochester?

Some of the candidates we've talked with this summer have brought up that issue, and it's a good time to talk about it. What do we want for this essential part of the city?

Rochester's downtown has changed dramatically over the past several decades, and it'll likely never again be the central retail center for the region. We lost that fight long ago, to the suburban shopping malls that followed the housing sprawl.

For a lot of reasons, there was little that city officials, businesses, and residents could do about that – although lord knows, many of them tried. We can complain about what downtown lacks, but it could have been much worse. An impressive number of people have held on to their vision of a downtown that would survive and be strong. They've bought homes and started businesses and grown arts institutions downtown, despite the sprawl that was eating out its heart.

And then there's the document called "Vision 2000: A Plan for Downtown," the result of an extensive process involving consultants, city government, and a broad representation of businesses, institutions, and neighborhood residents.

Vision 2000 was produced in 1990 – 10 years before the May Company closed what was once Sibley's department store. The Vision 2000 creators mistakenly thought retail would remain strong, but the core vision these folks laid out is significant. It has served a succession of city administrations since then, and it can serve as a good guide and inspiration now.

Downtown, said the Vision 2000 creators, is "the center of our metropolitan community expressing who we are, our priorities, aspirations, and dreams. It is and will continue to be the center of commerce, culture, government, and urban life."

"Within this compact and urbane setting, diverse uses cluster in close proximity to one another, enabling workers, residents, and visitors to walk to sporting events, theater performances, business meetings, shopping, and services."

Obviously, downtown has lost some of that compactness. But the bones are still there, in the form of historic buildings that we've preserved and begun to reuse and in new development. And the bones are there in the form of important zoning code changes – regulations that permit mixed uses in a building, for instance, and that require new buildings to be built up to the sidewalk and to have street-level windows, not blank walls.

And then there's this: "We look forward to a future where we are building upon downtown's firm economic foundation," says Vision 2000, "while rediscovering our roots as a riverfront city, increasing our downtown residential population, providing a central neighborhood for all of Greater Rochester, and strengthening the city's role as a learning and cultural center, all within a vibrant and urbane environment."

"Downtown," it says, "should serve as the crossroads of our metropolitan community and a 'common ground' for all segments of the city and its region; a place where diverse people and institutions can meet face-to-face and share a sense of ownership, community pride, and identity. This special place, at the center of its region, should provide unique experiences and qualities which will not be found elsewhere."

Good stuff, yes? And it's interesting – and important – that so many younger adults sketch out exactly that vision as they talk about what they want downtown, on Parcel 5 and elsewhere. They want a downtown that does indeed serve everybody, not a downtown that, in their words, is a playground for the affluent.

If I were a city official right now, I'd be listening closely to what those folks are saying. What are we doing to insure that some of downtown's new housing will serve all of our population? If we're going to have a new theater on Parcel 5, will we guarantee it will be available for broad public use?

There's no better time to have that discussion than now.

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