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Turning Main Street’s vital corner


When Renaissance Square is built --- and more than half of the needed $230 million in funding is already lined up --- it will have an immeasurable effect on Rochester's downtown.

For good or ill, the project will alter the character of downtown's architecture.

Both of the finalists for the design of Renaissance Square --- LMN Architects of Seattle, and the Boston-area Moshe Safdie and Associates --- have substantial experience designing performing arts centers (and to a lesser extent education, transportation, and mixed-use buildings). Both have designed similar buildings, and those projects have become tourist attractions in their own right.

But without seeing the designs first (as in the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, for example), it's tough to know what to expect. All we have to go on are previous projects and reputations.

Those reputations notwithstanding, designing a building that's both a unique attraction a good fit will be a challenge.

"If it's innovative, it goes out of style very quickly; if it's conservative, it's not attention getting. That seems to me the dilemma whenever anyone builds anything; you make your choice even for a single house," says Jean France, a retired University of Rochester architecture history professor.

"That's the major dilemma. And I think they are going to find quite a problem trying to do that."

Another local architect, Barkstrom and LaCroix's Roger Brown, shares those concerns. The designer of Corn Hill Landing says it's important that Renaissance Square "is going to be a good design and that it's going to reflect the community and the surroundings and that it isn't going to be an ego kind of thing. Because if it is I think it could be a real detriment to the project."

The answer to those concerns will come in the work of one of two architects.

LMN Architects

Mark Reddington, who is handling Renaissance Square plans for LMN, has plenty to say on the subject ("I could probably talk for an hour about that," he joked.)

For him, the use is what drives the design.

"We certainly would look at the characteristics of the city, the texture of the buildings, the scale and massing, the light and the climate, and the way people participate with indoor and outdoor spaces, which would be different in Rochester than, say, San Diego or Seattle or other places. Every building looks carefully at all of the local conditions and develops the signature statement as a way to engage the local quality."

If it's done right, says Reddington, "this is the kind of project that really catalyzes the development at the urban core. It could be an anchor project that really stimulates a lot of other things." Those are the types of projects LMN seeks out, he says, for exactly that reason.

"When it's done and it's operating efficiently and the shows are coming in and it becomes a real community gathering place, there's a lot more impact than people predict," says Reddington. "This first dream is a dream; the reality of it is far more inspiring than a dream."

Moshe Safdie and Associates

Warren Mathison, Safdie's point person for Renaissance Square, views use and design as inextricably connected. But when asked specifically about the dilemma France poses --- uniqueness vs. compatibility --- he credited the vision of his firm's founder.

"It's Moshe," he says. "Moshe designs in a way which leaves buildings, in the best possible terms, timeless. They're not of any particular school of thought; they're more a reflection of the need of the project and the environment it's in."

Safdie himself explains his vision this way: "I don't think there's a contradictory question here between having a building that fits and reinforces life in downtown and being a signature piece; I think they reinforce each other," he says. "You make a design that's very extrovert, that's very inviting, that draws you in from the street but doesn't siphon off activity on the street. It becomes very open and inviting to everything that's around it."

Mathison and Safdie both cite the goal of rebirthing a neighborhood as something that attracted them to this job.

"We have a history of working on projects that have as at least part of their goals the renaissance of an area, which obviously this project has because of its name," Mathison says. "The catalyst that comes from a project like this can certainly spread to adjacent areas. We've often had that effect on places."

His boss is on the same page.

"Most of our downtown projects just spin off a complete rejuvenation of the district, and the more appealing and attractive the design as an icon as an expression, the more it draws people because they know about it and if you're really good at it and lucky it'll become a tourist attraction in its own right," says Safdie. "The most important part of the puzzle is to get the right program. And you've got the right program, in the way that this has been formulated."

Is Rochester ready?

So Rochester's getting a "signature civic building" downtown. But will we be ready for it?

"Well, I'm not that sure," says France. "It seems to me that the fact that [it] will be innovative may have a certain amount of, shall we call it, advertising; people will come to see [it] specifically. But this is not a city that always loves the unusually far out. I just don't know."

For Brown, it all comes back to the design. Avant-garde or otherwise, people will react positively to a good design.

"If it feels good to the public and it attracts the public, it'll be successful. It'll compel them to want to experience it. And more than just once," he says. "That's why an urban design background is important, because urban design speaks to bringing life to the street. So the more the architect is aware of that and sensitive to that, I think, the more successful the project will be."