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The right code for a changing city


The building stands startlingly close to the road — an oversized blue billboard for people living across McArdle Street in northwest Rochester. Faded signs advertise the structure's various lives: Aries Precision Products, Keene Transmission, Metropolitan Granite & Marble. Its parking lot backs up to a chain-link fence with a line of large trucks on the other side — so close you could almost touch them.

The property at 15 McArdle Street has a bit of an identity crisis. It's zoned residential and is in a residential neighborhood, but has never, as far as anyone knows, been used for housing. And due to the design of the building and the property's long history as an industrial parcel, it almost certainly never will be.

It's one of hundreds of "neither this nor that" properties in Rochester — a condition created when the city updated its code in 2003.

The long, slow bleed of people and industry had left Rochester with a surplus of commercial and industrial properties. The danger is desperate property owners may end up renting or selling for less-than-desirable uses, says Marcia Barry, the city's director of planning and zoning. Or the building could sit vacant indefinitely.

So in 2003, the city "downzoned" hundreds of these properties, including 15 McArdle, to a residential designation. Officials also built flexibility into the code, essentially acknowledging that while these properties are technically residential, you're probably never going to see a house there. These "nonconforming use provisions" also give the city and the neighborhood some control over the use of the property.

The situation was thrown into sharp relief recently when the owner of 15 McArdle applied to rezone the property from residential back to manufacturing. Although the property had always been used for industrial-manufacturing, many neighbors opposed the rezoning because, Barry says, they worried about opening the door for uses that are not necessarily compatible with a residential street.

"Some buildings are so surrounded by residential, you want a 'sleepy' use in there," Barry says. "It's respecting the neighborhood that the buildings are in. All that the [residential] district recognizes is that you're in a neighborhood that is more residential than it is manufacturing."

The situation has city officials wondering if it's time to take another look at the code, she says. If manufacturing is poised to make some sort of comeback — as some people believe it is, albeit in a different form — should the city adapt the code to be better prepared?

"McArdle is part of a bigger picture," Barry says. "If indeed manufacturing is going to be returning and we want to have much more of an incentive for it, are there things we should be doing with these properties? It makes us recognize that if indeed we're starting to get very low-key sorts of manufacturing uses, whether there might be a 'manufacturing light' that we might need to be considering."

The city has manufacturing zones, for example, off Winton Road and off Mt. Read — two very different areas, yet they are governed by the same rules under the same zoning regulations.

It's not clear what the owner of 15 McArdle wants to do with the property. City Council member Carla Palumbo, who represents northwest Rochester, says that the owner goes back and forth between selling the property and looking for tenants.

The owner thought the property would be more marketable as a manufacturing parcel than as a residential parcel, Barry says. But the city is working with him, she says, to keep the property's zoning intact. He has a right to operate it as an industrial use, she says, but the reality is that he's in a city neighborhood, with a relatively narrow street and children playing outside.

"It's a building that has good bones, and there's a variety of things that he can put in there with our nonconformity provisions," Barry says. "We just want him to be assured that he is not without hope. There is a future for this building."

If a building has been continuously occupied, as 15 McArdle has been, the city evaluates potential new uses to determine the impact they might have on the neighborhood. The building at 15 McArdle was previously a tool and die operation, so an equal-intensity use might be warehousing, Barry says, or manufacturing equipment repair.

If a property goes vacant for more than nine months, Barry says, the new occupant would need either a special permit or a use variance; the latter has a higher bar. This allows for a public hearing process, she says, and lets the city regulate the business by setting appropriate conditions on its operation.

It also allows the city to do a broader analysis of market conditions, the viability of the property, and other factors that might be contributing to the vacancy, Barry says.

What you don't want to do is make the properties unmarketable and unusable, she says. That's bad financially, socially, and aesthetically, she says.

"One of the things that we have to acknowledge in Rochester is that the market hasn't come back to all neighborhoods of the city," Barry says. "Where parts of the city are thriving and they're getting all kinds of uses and property values are increasing and whatever, in other parts of the city it's a little bit slower to reoccupy buildings."

And having mixed uses adds diversity to a neighborhood, she says, which, historically, is part of the appeal of urban living.

"If you look at old city neighborhoods, they all had a little corner store," Barry says. "You don't want to wipe that out."

She says that the 2003 code changes were done to protect the city in a time when it was losing population and business. So the question becomes, is the time right to revisit the code once again? There are uses that the code doesn't even address because they didn't exist in 2003.

Another option is to sit tight until stronger indicators of an economic bounce-back emerge, Barry says.

"Zoning code is something you continually look at, because the market does change and times do change and neighborhoods transform," she says. "Areas that were struggling at one time are now starting to show signs of being restored.

"We depend on our residential zoning to stabilize the city," Barry says. "So we want to make sure that there's a good chemistry between any commercial and residential use."