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The urban balancing act: residents vs. developers


For many of us, Rochester's neighborhoods – their character, their collection of old houses, their lawns and trees and sidewalks, their small commercial areas – are a big reason we decided to live in the city.

And city residents have been fiercely protective of their neighborhoods, fighting for zoning changes and code enforcement, for police presence, for architectural preservation.

City residents and their neighborhood groups create parks and community gardens, raise money to care for old trees and plant new ones, promote public art, hold block parties and pancake breakfasts and festivals, push for bike lanes and speed bumps and stop signs, and protest everything from street-light design to changes in library hours.

In a very real sense, Rochester's neighborhoods are a key attribute of the city as a whole. The health of the city and the county are closely linked to the health of city neighborhoods. And since that health is often reliant on the activism of neighborhood residents, it's worth paying attention when neighborhood residents get upset about something.

And right now, residents of several neighborhoods are upset. Really upset. In Charlotte, the concern is a plan to build a hotel, condos, townhouses, and space for commercial uses and offices. Charlotte residents are questioning the size of the project, which they worry will change the character of their neighborhood.

In the Mt. Hope-Elmwood area, the concern is the Psychiatric Center's plan to create a regional treatment center for "forensic adults": people with mental illness who, in the state's words, have been "involved in the justice system."

In the Highland Park neighborhood, it's an expansion plan by UR Med Center affiliate Highland Hospital. The hospital, which is surrounded by a residential area, wants to build an addition on what is currently a hospital parking lot. And it has bought a nearby house to use as office space.

Cities are living things, and they change. And the residents of a neighborhood can't have veto power over change. They're part of the larger city, and elected officials are responsible for the health of the entire city.

But residents have to be listened to – and sometimes developers and important institutions have to be told "no."

These three neighborhood-focused conflicts pose particularly difficult dilemmas. The need for forensic treatment facilities is real, but few people will welcome one in their neighborhood. The Psych Center neighbors' concerns are understandable.

Hospitals need space, and Highland was built at a time when Rochester had several small hospitals – virtually neighborhood hospitals – and nobody could foresee the changes ahead in medicine. The Med Center's growth is important, and it can be good for Rochester. It can create jobs. But any further expansion at Highland will have a serious impact on its neighbors.

And in Charlotte: We've known for years that Rochester doesn't capitalize enough on its waterfront areas. But Charlotte residents have worked hard to keep their community healthy. It is Charlotte residents, in fact, who have led the fight for a stronger focus on the river and lakefront.

And frankly, I worry that developers and city officials are more than a little naïve about the potential for things like condos and a hotel in Charlotte.

Sometimes in situations like these three, officials can find a compromise that leaves everybody reasonably happy. Often they can't, though, and I'm not sure how optimistic residents can be in these cases.

I want more development. And I want the City of Rochester to stop shrinking. To grow, though, we need to attract new residents, not drive people away. The problems of the city school district are a tough enough obstacle; the city needs to do all it can to foster the health of its neighborhoods.

During her campaign, Mayor Lovely Warren promised to focus strongly on city neighborhoods. In three neighborhoods right now, she has a chance to ensure that residents are a key part of that focus.