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Rochester plans a riverfront renaissance


Rochester could just as well have been called Genesee River City, considering the essential role it has played in the region's history and economy. Even before the falls powered the city's many flour mills in the early 1800's, which made Rochester one of the country's first boomtowns, the river had been the lifeblood of the Seneca people for centuries.

Now city officials are looking to the Genesee River again, this time to unlock the future of downtown. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week that he's committing $50 million to an initiative that city officials are calling ROC the Riverway. Rochester at last may be poised to join cities around the country that have capitalized on their waterfront, arguably their most important natural asset, to revitalize their downtowns.

"We've known for years that we have to revitalize the river," says Mayor Lovely Warren's chief of staff, Alex Yudelson. Revitalizing the river was a central theme of a 2016 report from the urban planning think tank, the Rose Center for Public Leadership. But the value of a revitalized riverfront had been the refrain of a chorus of visiting mayors, urban planners, and consultants for decades. A small army of urban planning gurus from California to Tennessee have almost invariably looked at the river with a mix of awe and incredulousness – like, hey, Rochester, what are you waiting for?

  • Alex Yudelson

If we've been waiting for something transformative, ROC the Riverway just might be it. The initiative takes a comprehensive look at the city's riverfront potential and proposes nearly 30 interrelated projects designed to leverage the river's natural attraction and draw people downtown. If done right, these projects could become magnets for recreation, light retail, dining, arts, and education. A 12-person advisory panel led by the co-chairs of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development – Monroe Community College president Anne Kress and Chamber of Commerce CEO (and former Rochester mayor) Bob Duffy – is overseeing the initiative.

The panel will hold a series of public meetings to get community input. The first is this week: from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at MCC's downtown campus, 321 State Street. The public can also post comments at

"We are compiling all of these projects in a sort of focused way, similar to the way the Buffalo Billion was used in part to revitalize that city's waterfront," Yudelson says. Don't look for a new high rise or much in the way of brick and mortar development, he says. "This is not about new developments. There are really only about four to five of these projects that are what you might call new mixed-use office and retail sites. But most of this, almost all of it, is about how to best use public space."

While there is almost always some skepticism about redevelopment, and its costs compared to its benefits, Yudelson says that ROC the Riverway has one overarching purpose. "The goal here is to bring vibrancy downtown," he says. "That's what it really boils down to: creating excitement."

Some of the excitement has already started with the redevelopment of much of Main Street, he says. For the first time in decades, downtown Rochester is seeing its population grow, and builders don't seem at all concerned about overdevelopment, he says.


But the river's potential hasn't begun to be tapped, he says. A vibrant riverfront will attract more people to live downtown and spur small business growth, he says. It will also reassure people who have already made the investment in downtown that they made the right move, that the area is only going to continue to grow and improve, he says.

Yudelson thinks that in the lead-up to Mayor Warren's re-election, many people thought she was concerned only with building a performing arts center on Parcel 5.

"And that wasn't the case," he says. "Her priorities have always been the economy and creating jobs. Revitalizing downtown has always been the goal, and the river is just an integral part of that. Sure, a performing arts center could bring thousands of people downtown, but there has to be more for them to experience once we get them here."

In that respect, ROC the Riverway is just a starting point, a first phase of the much broader Local Waterfront Revival Plan that was developed several years ago with the river, Lake Ontario, and portions of the Erie Canal in mind, says Yudelson. Mayor Warren sees ROC the Riverway as a catalyst, Yudelson says, something that will attract more private investment, similar to what's happened on Main Street with projects like Sibley Square.

ROC the Riverway should be seen as a potential $500 million project over 10 to 15 years, one that could ultimately have a major economic impact, Yudelson says.

A potential $500 million project? For a cash-strapped city – in a state that will surely face increased money problems, given federal cutbacks – how likely is it that we'll ever see a $500 million project?


Yudelson agrees that that's an optimistic figure: the "Cadillac" plan, as he calls it. The city is starting with the optimum, for the full plan and for its individual projects. As long as the initial plans are sound, the first $50 million in state funding is assured, and state officials say more could come later.

Nor will all of the money have to come from the city and the state. City officials anticipate partnerships with other governments and other sources.

ROC the Riverway consists
of three distinct pieces. The downtown segment includes a wide variety of riverside projects along both sides of the river, from I-490 north to the Inner Loop: improving existing parks, adding riverside pedestrian walkways, improving the Convention Center and the Blue Cross Arena, adding new pedestrian and bike pathways across the river.

Probably the most controversial element of the downtown segment is the reimagining of the Erie Canal Aqueduct, Yudelson says. The aqueduct was built in the 1840's, and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structure was built to serve as a waterway and later served as the old subway bed. Its surface is now used as the Broad Street Bridge. The ROC the Riverway plan calls for removing vehicular traffic, making the aqueduct a pedestrian bridge, and either re-watering part of the surface or converting it to greenspace.

As city officials are aware, for years there's been interest in keeping the aqueduct covered and using it both as a walkway and for small retail or exhibits. Using it as an open pedestrian space instead "is something for the public to discuss," Yudelson says.


The downtown segment of ROC the Riverway, Yudelson says, is Mayor Warren's Number 1 priority.

"This is what she wants to tackle first, because it would have the greatest impact," he says. "It would truly be transformative."

The river's redevelopment potential hardly stops there, though. The High Falls district north of downtown offers possibly the most interesting views of the Genesee. But the area has long suffered from a sense of being cut off from downtown, says Yudelson. Thanks to a mishmash of railroad tracks, the Inner Loop, on-ramps, tunnels, and bridges, it can seem intimidating to try to walk between the Main Street area and the High Falls.

Much of the work planned for this area focuses on linking the High Falls District to downtown, making the area more pedestrian friendly, and enhancing access to the river gorge. The former RG&E Beebee Station and its property would be developed for public use. And on the west side of the river, a Tree Top Trail would give visitors aerial views of the river, the gorge, and the falls.


The third area of riverfront development is south of downtown where the river flows past the University of Rochester and the PLEX neighborhood. The concept here includes a pedestrian bridge to connect the east and west sides of the river. A pair of man-made islands would be created in the river, and the bridge might have a moving structural component that would swing open and allow boats to pass through.

Both sides of the river would be prepared for future private development with plenty of public space. At the south end, Yudelson says, the city hopes to see a more natural-looking shoreline and boat launches for small crafts, canoes, and kayaks.

The river shouldn't be something to appreciate only visually, he says. What will distinguish this area from the others is the opportunity for water-related recreation where residents and visitors can play and physically interact with the river, he says.

An underlying theme in all three areas of development is connectivity, Yudelson says. The city has numerous walkways and trails – some more useable than others. But in many instances, they're not connected, and creating a continuous pedestrian and bike-friendly passages is extremely important, Yudelson says. When ROC the Riverway is completed, downtown must be seamlessly connected to riverfront development to the north and the south, he says.

Many Rochesterians will likely find ROC the Riverway exciting. And it's reasonable to turn to the Genesee River as a way to boost the city's attraction and quality of life. But Rochester has a history of designing grand plans. It also has a history of over-reach and failure to follow through.

And beyond its price tag, this particular plan has some formidable obstacles, starting with public buy-in. Rochesterians' skepticism – about their city and about public officials – is plentiful. New plans also frequently create a tug-of-war between people who welcome development and those who don't.

How realistic is the plan? While city officials agree that it's not likely that every one of the ROC the Riverway projects will be created – and some may end up less expansive than the plan envisions – the plan is as real as we want it to be, says Vincent Esposito, regional director for Empire State Development. The $50 million in state funds could be just a beginning, he says; more can be tapped if the initial ROC the Riverway projects are successful.

The first step is getting public reaction to the full plan. After that, the ROC the Riverway Advisory Council will refine the plan, probably whittle it down, select the first projects, and send its recommendations to the governor's office for his approval.

One thing is clear; Rochester is experiencing unprecedented growth in its downtown corridor, and the city and other downtown interests want to keep that momentum going. Capitalizing on the Genesee River, making it the centerpiece of the city's downtown vitality, is not an unreasonable idea. And it's not original, either. It's been successful in many cities with similar assets.


The riverfront development needs to help encourage life downtown after 5 p.m. and through all four seasons. That's a tall order, but whatever projects are identified and finally approved need to include those that will encourage a year-round attraction to downtown.

And we learned from the city's earlier attempt at redeveloping the High Falls district into an entertainment center that the marketplace needs to guide itself. After years of struggle and some business failures, the district has successfully transitioned into a smart mix of offices and residential properties that are unique and desirable.

And perhaps most important is collaborating on a plan that will be so successful that it leads to further development.


The advisory board is there for guidance, Yudelson says. And the city has developed renderings to serve only as a visual aid, he says. No final designs have been completed, and there's plenty of time for public engagement.

"The Genesee River has been pivotal to the city's development for centuries," Esposito says. "The question is how do we maximize the river's potential right now? This is going to be exciting."

Discussing the plan
The first of a series of public meetings on the ROC the Riverway plan is this week: 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at MCC’s downtown campus, 321 State Street.
The full plan is on the City of Rochester website, and the public can also post comments there: 


The projects

In ROC the Riverway, city officials envision an extensive network of trails, parks, bridges, and other public spaces along the Genesee River – and sometimes crossing it. The estimated public cost: $500 million, which officials hope will both enhance life in the city and attract new residents, businesses, and millions of dollars of private investment.

The plan includes a "management entity" that would work with state and local organizations to get the projects done. The group would be responsible for involving the community, overseeing public investment, getting state and philanthropic money, creating programs and events, marketing, and recruiting businesses. The estimated cost for its operation: $10 million.

The plan itself consists of 26 separate projects, created over more than decade. The projects are detailed below, starting at the southern end of the Riverway. The color of each project indicates when the city anticipates its creation. Italicized titles are those the city says have the highest priority.

0 to 3 years | 3-5 years | 5-10 years | 10+ years

South River

Restore the Shore
The site: Land on the west side of the river adjacent to the PLEX neighborhood in southwest Rochester. $15 million public investment, $200 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Clear overgrowth along the river to provide more public space and a better view of the river, improve the existing Riverway Trail, reconstruct the floodwall, and create access for kayaks, canoes, and a water taxi.

Recharging the Trail
The site: The Riverway Trail from the University of Rochester area north to downtown. $5 million public investment.
The proposal: Widen and improve the trail on both sides of the river, create separate pedestrian and bicycle paths, and add pedestrian amenities and river crossings.

Water Landings
The sites: Riverside land from Genesee Valley Park to Corn Hill Landing. $3 million public investment.
The proposal: Create a series of water landings on both sides of the river that can accommodate bikes, kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, and water taxis.

Genesee Gateway
The site: Genesee Gateway Park. $3 million public investment.
The proposal: Improve and redevelop the existing, underused park on the east side of the river south of the Douglass-Anthony Bridge, with public art and space for community events, to create "a vibrant playful, urban waterfront experience."


Link to the River
The site: Underutilized land on the east side of the river adjacent to the Spectrum headquarters on Mt. Hope Avenue. $8 million public investment, $70 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Combine private development of vacant land with improvements of the public land along the river.

Bridge the Genesee
The site: South of the Douglass-Anthony Bridge. $16 million public investment.
The proposal: Create a pedestrian bridge, with two islands, connecting the east and west sides of the river.


Aqueduct Re-Imagined & Library North Terrace
The site: The Broad Street aqueduct and land on the east side of the river between the Riverside Convention Center and the Rundel Library. $43 million public investment and $106 potential private investment.
The proposal: Remove Broad Street across the river – which is now actually a deck on top of the 1840's Erie Canal aqueduct. In its place on the aqueduct, create a pedestrian walkway, with water or greenspace, large enough for community events. On the east side, stabilize and improve the library's north terrace to create outdoor public space for a café, library programs, and other uses.

Arena on the River
The site: The Blue Cross Arena and land southward. $45 million public investment and $22 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Slightly realign Court Street by the arena to provide better access for loading. Renovate the arena, create a riverfront promenade and other public enhancements.

Riverside Development
Make land south the Blue Cross Arena available for private mixed-use development, including a parking garage with a rooftop garden.

Child's Basin
The site: West side of the river between Broad Street and Main Street. $5 million public investment.
The proposal: Create a pedestrian connection between the Blue Cross Arena and Main Street – midblock between Exchange and the river – with sidewalks, plantings, and lighting.


Convention Center expansion
The site: Riverside Convention Center. $125 million public investment.
The proposal: Renovate the convention center and add 130,000 square feet, with exhibit and meetings space and a glass-enclosed ballroom along the river.


Riverway, Broad to Main
The site: East side of the river northward from Broad to Main Street. $10 million public investment.
The proposal: Create a pedestrian bridge along the river in that block, providing a walkway from Main Street southward past the Thomson Reuters building to the new Aqueduct Park.

Main Street Resurgence
The site: Main Street through the center city. $9 million public investment.
The proposal: Improve the look and feel of downtown's major thoroughfare, with public art, 'urban play' installations, lighting, signage, and other elements.

Riverway Main to Andrews
The site: East side of the river northward from Main to Andrews Street. $5 million public investment.
The proposal: Create an accessible walkway along the river between Main, the pedestrian bridge across the river, and Andrews Street.


Charles Carroll Plaza
The site: The park along the west side of the river north of Main Street. $25 million public investment.
The proposal: Dramatically improve this vastly underused riverside public park, with regrading, improved views of the river, and plans for increased events and activities.

Riverfront Reborn
The site: Land along the west side of the river north of Andrews Street. $10 million public investment. $50 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Turn this large vacant parcel, formerly an RG&E site, into a mixed use private development: residential, commercial, and offices, with a public pedestrian walkway along the river.

Mill Street Connection
The site: The pedestrian tunnel under the Inner Loop connecting downtown proper with the High Falls area. $3 million public investment.
The proposal: Make the existing pedestrian tunnel more accessible and attractive by widening it and adding lighting and public art.

Bridge the Loop
The site: St. Paul Street in the area of the Inner Loop. $16 million public investment.
The proposal: Add streetscape enhancements – landscaping, intersection improvements, bike lanes, and a pedestrian walkway across the Inner Loop to provide a stronger, more attractive link between downtown and the area north of the Loop.

Welcome Connection
The site: St. Paul Street in the CSX railroad underpass area. $40 million public investment.
The proposal: Transform what is now an uninviting connection between downtown and the city's northwest neighborhoods into a more open area, including expanding the railroad bridge to provide better access to truck traffic on St. Paul.

High Falls region

Over the Falls Bridge
The site: Upper Falls waterfall rim. $28 million public investment.
The proposal: Build a pedestrian bridge across the gorge to provide overhead views of the falls.

Preserving Pont de Rennes
The site: The current bridge connecting the east and west sides of the river in the High Falls area. $9 million public investment.
The proposal: Provide important structural repairs to the 1898 wrought-iron bridge, formerly used for vehicular traffic and now converted into a popular pedestrian bridge.


Tree Top Trail
The site: The east side of the Genesee Gorge roughly between the Genesee Brewery and Smith Street. $8 million public investment, $20 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Build a bridge-like trail that rises literally to tree-top level for viewing the gorge. Encourage private investment to extend the eastside trail northward, create a similar trail on the west side of the river, and add recreational possibilities such as rock-climbing walls, hanging trails, and obstacle rope courses.


Beebee Flats
The site: The former RG&E generating plant on the west side of the gorge and the small island in the river. $17 million public investment, $17 million potential private investment.
The proposal: Transform this prime location into a major public riverside attraction, with park-like areas, outdoor entertainment offerings, trails and walkways, and restored buildings used for environmental and history-related uses.

Connect the Gorge
The site: Across the river from Beebee Station northwestward to Smith Street. $7 million public investment.
The proposal: Create a pedestrian bridge to provide an additional river crossing and scenic viewing site.

High Falls Adventure
The site: Gorge-side land on the east side of the river. $30 million public investment.
The proposal: Clean up a large, vacant parcel north of Smith Street to create an outdoor recreational area, with green space, entertainment space, a skate park, and a multi-purpose athletic field.

Running Track Bridge
The site: Across the river north of the High Falls Adventure site. $5 million public investment.
The proposal: Convert the existing, abandoned railroad bridge into a pedestrian bridge that connects to the El Camino Trail on the east side.


Guiding the plan
A ROC the Riverway advisory board, composed of representatives of community groups, businesses, and government, will conduct public meetings and will review and prioritize proposals for public and private investments along the riverfront.

Chairing the board will be the co-chairs of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council: Monroe Community College president Anne Kress and Chamber of Commerce president (and former Rochester mayor) Bob Duffy.

The other panel members:
Lisa Baron, Greentopia
Clement Chung, ROC City Coalition
Veronica Dasher, Rochester Gas & Electric
Shawn Dunwoody, artist
Jim Howe, The Nature Conservancy
Norman Jones, City of Rochester
Nichole Malec, Constellation Brands
Eugenio Marlin, Ibero American Action League
Mary Beth Popp, North American Breweries
Heidi Zimmer-Myer, Rochester Downtown Development Corporation