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Home / Special Report / Commercial Real Estate: Fitting in
When balancing development and tradition, design matters

Commercial Real Estate: Fitting in
When balancing development and tradition, design matters

The charm of the buildings and streets in the High Falls district is a big draw for Rochester residents and visitors alike. As in similar areas that are designated preservation districts, conserving and protecting original buildings with architectural integrity and/or historical significance is paramount.
But a commercial district does not need the historic designation to possess character. A homey, small-town feeling is the trademark of Main Street in many towns and villages.
Today, cities and smaller communities alike are struggling to foster retail development while preserving the traditional look and flavor of their business districts. The twin concerns of aesthetics and community vitality are shaping these efforts.
Why are some streets more inviting than others? The answer lies in the layout of the buildings and the design of the street, says Blythe Merrill, preservation adviser at the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc.
Many studies have shown that pedestrian traffic on a street increases in direct relation to the size and accessibility of its buildings, she says.
“People aren’t going to walk up and down a street that has a lot of open, broken space,” says Merrill, who has worked for 15 years in the field of preservation and urban planning.
Pedestrian-friendly streets are those with buildings situated close to the street and close together.
“(Store) entrances should be on the avenue, as close up to the sidewalk as possible, to create a sense of continual street wall,” she says. “This gives a sense of enclosure and a space that is friendly and visually appealing.”
Pedestrians often cross the street when there is a break in the wall, Merrill adds. They avoid walking past gas stations or parking lots because the empty space does not feel safe or inviting.
Unfortunately, Merrill notes, the standard building design that many franchise and convenient stores use is static.
But there are ways to incorporate new or existing buildings that will enhance a streetscape, she says.
Kenneth Greene, owner of Bruegger’s Bagel Bakeries, says, “There’s no reason (a building) shouldn’t complement a neighborhood.” Greene says he designed his stores on Monroe Avenue in the city and in Bushnell’s Basin specifically to fit the streetscape, rather than stick with a one-size-fits-all model.
Randall Johnson, chairman of the Monroe Avenue Design Community, agrees that the Bruegger’s on Monroe Avenue shows how an enterprise can boost a street’s business and its appearance.
The Bruegger’s building is proportionate to the others on Monroe Avenue, which gives the street continuity, says Johnson, interim dean of liberal arts at Monroe Community College.
Even though the store is functionally one story high, it appears to be a 1/ – story building, he says. In addition, the cornice along the top exterior walls and the treatment of glazing on the walls at street level give the building character.
Guiding new construction and renovations along Monroe Avenue is one of the reasons the Monroe Avenue Design Community exists, Johnson says.
The group’s purpose is not to create a preservation district, the Woodlawn Street resident says, although an early 20th century style of architecture typifies the avenue. Instead, the organization hopes to ensure that “any modification to commercial strips be made in a way that maintains the integrity of the avenue.”
The group reflects the concerns of residents neighboring Monroe Avenue regarding the way commercial development is shaping the appearance and feel of the thoroughfare. It also is an outgrowth of a city-sponsored initiative– Neighbors Building Neighbors, a conglomeration of 10 coalitions–created to provide resident input on development of Rochester neighborhoods.
The volunteer Monroe Avenue design group composed a draft of 37 guidelines in areas such as general construction,signage, parking and fenestration. The group hopes these guidelines will be integrated into zoning ordinances or used as a tool for other citizen review committees, Johnson says.
There is a real difference, he notes, between stretches on the avenue with a steady line of buildings and high pedestrian traffic, and the areas where parking lots crowd the sidewalks or buildings are set far from the street.
Stephen Brown, chairman of the Monroe Avenue Merchants Association, has reviewed the design organization’s guidelines and agrees that standards for new construction are very important in order to avoid a “Henrietta strip-mall occurrence along the avenue.”
But Brown, an owner of the Bug Jar club on Monroe Avenue, and other merchants are concerned that some restrictions may diminish a business’s uniqueness. If a shop owner wants to put up a hand-painted sign, design standards should not prohibit this expression of individuality.
MAMA represents more than 100 merchants on Monroe Avenue from the Inner Loop to Cobbs Hill. The association is adding banners and hiring part-time security patrols, Brown notes, to the avenue’s appeal.
But Brown questions converting these design standards into mandates for businesses.
“I don’t know if the city is going to want another level of (provisions),” he says.
He does acknowledge, however, that some standards–for example, setbacks that regulate a building’s distance from the street–would have prevented stores like the 7-Eleven at Monroe Avenue and Meigs Street from being situated far from the curb with very little landscaping.
Design is an important factor in preserving the character of a commercial district, but it is not the only one. Along Monroe Avenue in the town of Brighton, function rather than form is stirring debate over a commercial site.
At a recent planning-board meeting, developer Frederick Rainaldi, co-owner of Rainaldi Real Estate Inc., presented a proposal to erect a new building to be leased to Rite Aid Corp. on the site of the Princess Restaurant at Monroe and Elmwood avenues.
In the middle of Twelve Corners, the commercial hub of Brighton, the site is highly visible. Given the location, Rainaldi says, designers strived “to create a softer commercial look” for the pharmacy building.
Rainaldi also consulted with Brighton’s architectural review board. As a result, the plan proposes 35 percent more green area and a more contemporary style.
The proposal is only in the preliminary stages of the approval process, but already it is the focus of much debate. For many residents, preserving the current use of the site is most important.
For the past 50 years, the location–which previously was home to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant–has been a meeting place for Brighton residents.
For patrons of the restaurant, maintaining the character of the area means keeping the site as a place for people to gather and socialize.
“We want to provide services that residents want and are appropriate for the area, (and) one of those is that (of a) restaurant,” says Ramsey Boehner, town planner.
More than 100 Brighton residents attended the planning-board meeting, he says. The town recently created a comprehensive plan for Monroe Avenue, which had not been done in 20 years.
The town’s agenda is twofold, Boehner says. It is to provide safeguards in the planning process to protect the residential property surrounding the commercial districts and to preserve the community’s image.
“We want to make clear what type of business we want, and our expectations of them,” he explains.
By regulating the landscape, setbacks and other architectural standards, and also redefining the zoning uses on the avenue, the town can protect its interests as well as streamline the approval process for businesses seeking to locate in the town, Boehner adds.
He also believes that developing standards in commercial districts will help local businesses compete with area malls.
“We have to be able to help the local businesses establish themselves.”

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