News & Opinion » News

Johnson on Renaissance: city was excluded


Typically, when a multi-million dollar development project in the heart of a city is announced, the mayor of that city knows all about the project before the news hits the papers.

            But that wasn't the case last week when Governor George Pataki pledged his support for a Renaissance Center --- combining an arts center, transit center, and college technical center --- in downtown Rochester.

            Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson says the city played no role in the discussions that led to Pataki's announcement. That has clearly aggravated him. Bill Nojay, departing chairman of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority and, until recently, the public face of the transit center, says nobody should have been surprised about the Renaissance Center news. During her campaign, Nojay noted, County Executive Maggie Brooks talked about wanting to combine the transit, arts, and college projects.

            But Johnson says Brooks had not indicated that a full-blown plan was in the works, without extensive city participation.

            Johnson was also aggravated by an article in the January 9 Democrat and Chronicle, which outlined the "birth" of the Renaissance project. Nojay was the principal source for the article. While Johnson has endorsed the transit center, he has expressed concern about the process that created it --- which Nojay spearheaded.

            In an interview last weekend, Johnson discussed his concerns about the Renaissance Center and the process that led to Pataki's announcement.

City:For several years, the city has been focusing on ways to inject life into Main Street, particularly the stretch near Clinton Avenue. How does this new project --- the Renaissance Center --- mesh with the work the city has already started along Main Street?

            Johnson: Let me start by saying there's been no participation by the city on this project. I've had some preliminary meetings with [County Executive] Maggie [Brooks] on the idea of doing a Performing Arts Center downtown. And I told her to get together with the people who had worked on this through the years, like [Deputy County Executive] Dick Mackey and [Deputy Mayor] Jeff Carlson and members of the RUMP Group to review our studies from the past several years.

            Then, on my way to Albany on Wednesday [January 7], I got a call from [State Senator] Joe Robach. He told me the governor will mention this Renaissance Center project in his state of the state, and that they're holding a press conference afterward.

            I ran into Maggie in Albany. She did not mention the press conference. It was clear then that this was not an open process. [State Assemblymembers] David Gantt and Joe Morelle were agitated that they were just hearing about the project that day.

            Local media contacted me after the speech. I said it was great the governor mentioned the project. But it was only one sentence, one promise in a long list of promises. How much is really going to happen? Over the years, I've learned to take everything I hear in Albany with a grain of salt.

            I ran into Maggie after the press conference. She apologized for not telling me about it. I told her it was OK, that the press got my comments.

            Then I saw that they had pictures at the press conference. They had numbers. There's no way [architect] Bud DeWolff drew those pictures that day.

            Maggie has told me repeatedly that she does not want to operate the way Doyle did, that she wants to lay aside the political stuff.

            I met with Maggie after all this and told her that this has the smell of the transit center. The plans were drawn in secret. And they put me at an adversarial position.

            All land-use decisions are reserved for the local authority. A city lobbyist had been told that they [the Renaissance proponents] have been working on the plan for 60 days. Now, that preceded the election. After the election they had plenty of time to pick up the phone.

            I'm not trying to fight old battles. This project will have a beneficial effect. I agree with it in principle. It's my role to be a guardian in trying to advance downtown. I'm not offended by the Renaissance Center concept. But I'm not dancing in the streets. It's too expensive, and the funding has not been secured.

            Then there's this Nojay article. He's in the D&C acting like he started this project. Nojay knows what he's doing. He's crafty. But the Republicans have to clean up their act. They cannot have their county executive going around doing all the right symbolic things while the rest are running around with this "gotcha" mentality, because they can't deliver the money by themselves.

            This project depends on federal money, on a new earmark in the federal transportation bill. It requires support from both senators. And [Congressperson] Louise [Slaughter] hasn't changed her objections. Average citizens have every right to be upset about the way the transit center process has been handled. And this seems to be headed down the very same path.

            They've got to change the way they're doing business. This is Maggie's first real test. And I think it's come a lot sooner than she expected. But she's raised the bar really high for herself, in terms of changing the way her office acts in these situations. She has to lay down the law here. There has to be a commitment not to be as closed and as opposed to seeking full public input. The county executive has to spend time reviewing the process to make sure it will be much more open.

            People want peace. But I won't be used. There are real processes that have to be followed. There are homerule laws in New York State that say the mayor and city council have the final say over projects happening within the city.

            There's no way the county would just go into some suburban town and embark on a major project without first talking to the town supervisor. But they believe they can do that to us. And that attitude has to be challenged.

            Right now, I'm willing to give Maggie the benefit of the doubt. But at some point this is going to become very difficult to accept.

City:What did you think of Nojay's statement in the D&C that they chose the "Renaissance" name to help win over your support?

            Johnson:Nojay's done a lot of dumb things in his life, but that has got to be the dumbest. Before this announcement, everyone has been focused on the transit center project. And I've got no real details about that yet. And now this shifts the emphasis from the transit-center piece. It allows Nojay to bury the transit center cost in the overall project cost. And the public shouldn't fall for that. The public is always concerned that its tax money is being wasted. And this is tax money! Is this the best way to use the public's money? Can we raise enough private funds to match?

            In past experience, several major facilities --- the Convention Center, the War Memorial --- were erected because it was believed that they would generate enough economic activity to be self-sustaining. But none of them are. Will this new complex require huge amounts of public subsidy?

            People want to see change in downtown. But is this based on sound planning? If the Renaissance Center is in the heart of downtown, the city has to make a decision to increase the police patrols there. There will be parking issues. These questions ought to be asked now. We shouldn't be seduced by a flashy picture. We have to temper our enthusiasm, get everyone together, and answer all the necessary questions.