What would you do if you could take a magic wand to your neighborhood? Tantalizing as this sounds, it might seem like a futile exercise. After all, how often does the public get to design its own environment?
It might come as a surprise, but neighborhood design charrettes like the one that took place last Saturday at New Life Presbyterian Church on Monroe Avenue (previewed in last week's City Newspaper) actually help bring a community's ideas closer to reality.
A joint effort by the Upper Monroe Neighborhood Association and the Rochester Regional Community Design Center, the charrette brought Upper Monroe residents together with professional architects and city officials (approximately 100 people total) for a big brainstorming session. With large-scale map printouts and historical photographs posted along the walls --- and tracing paper and colored markers spread across folding tables --- the basement of the New Life basement buzzed with creative energy.
Joni Monroe, executive director of the RRCDC, instructed participants not to compromise, to "think big" no matter how unattainable ideas might seem. Ideas are necessarily compromised throughout various phases of design, she said, so they must reach as far as the imagination allows. As a point of inspiration, Monroe, event chairperson Elizabeth Wallace, who is also head of the Upper Monroe Planning Commission's Steering Committee, and numerous guest speakers all said charrettes are capable of producing tangible results. Filling-in the inner loop (which City Council President Lois Giess referred to as a "moat" and a "mistake") to make way for development --- cited often as "just an idea" --- could now be within reach.
Groups were assigned to different sections of the Upper Monroe Neighborhood, which is a collection of city residential streets along Culver and Monroe bounded by 490 and Cobbs Hill Park. Giess and City Councilman Bill Pritchard, who lives in the neighborhood, each joined groups. City Newspaper followed a group chosen to re-design the neighborhood's "gateways" --- the bridges over the neighborhood's two 490 exits and the Monroe-Culver intersection.
After a tentative start on the 490 bridge near the YMCA and Public Library, the group exploded with ideas. Among them: Completely overhaul the highway overpasses and replace them with pedestrian- and bike-friendly bridges decorated with tile mosaics reflecting the neighborhood's history. Next, they agreed upon a small park or mom-and-pop cafe to replace the Wilson Farms on Monroe at the 490 overpass. Then the group decided to build a greenway promenade and park overlooking that stretch of 490 between the two exits.
With some prompting from local architects Mark Pandolf and Doug Levey, the group eventually decided to turn the abandoned armory on Culver Road near 490 into an indoor public market that would double as a community arts venue. Group members also decided to bring ice-skating and horse carriage rides to Lake Riley and landscape the adjacent section of Cobbs Hill Park to accommodate a butterfly conservatory.
At the end of the day, each group presented its plans. Wallace was encouraged to find similarities among the different ideas. For example, several groups focused on the armory as a community space and emphasized neighborhood walkability by restricting traffic flow. Wilson Farms was a common target, as many felt the building's design ignores surrounding architectural elements. Groups that didn't elect to remove the building outright at least proposed to do something about the exposed trash bins along the side of the building facing Monroe Avenue. One group even suggested constructing a pedestrian/bicycle-only bridge that would start near Monroe Avenue, arc over 490, and end on Berkeley Street near Park Avenue.
Several participants appreciated being able to interact with neighbors, and said they had a great deal of fun through the process. "I've been to about seven or eight of these," Pandolf said, "and the energy is always great."
"This puts the focus where it should be --- urban design --- rather than just architecture," said Rochester Zoning Director Art Ientilucci as he emphasized the value of "spaces between buildings to frame livable space."
In a presentation just before the group activity, Ientilucci outlined a number of ways that the city's zoning code has recently been revised to accommodate aesthetics and quality-of-life concerns. The new code, he said, now includes guidelines for developers to consider existing design in neighborhoods where they've chosen to build. Businesses, for example, are encouraged to share parking rather than build lots between buildings and create discontinuity in the streetscape.
Now that the charrette's over, what's next?
Each group's design plans will be compiled into a report kept on file by the RRCDC. And the city can refer to that report when reviewing various development proposals.
"We find, as we get development proposals to review --- and ultimately approve --- we have a basis to give guidance to decision-makers," said Ientilucci of previous charrette reports.
"If a developer comes in with a proposal that's completely inappropriate, the city can say 'we have these plans,'" Pandolf says. "Rochesterians tend to be pessimistic, but Rochester's great for grassroots. Ten or 15 years ago, you didn't have these types of efforts."
And what about neighborhoods that aren't as well-organized as Upper Monroe? Joni Monroe says that RRCDC tends to focus on "more challenging" areas. Forming neighborhood associations is critical, she says, but she extends an invitation to everyone to visit RRCDC.
"We're here as a resource," she says. "Use us."
The Rochester Regional Community Design Center can be reached at 271-0520, www.rrcdc.org, firstname.lastname@example.org