So, are we really getting ready to roll the dice on a downtown casino?
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren says she needs “to keep an open mind to all job-creating projects”—and in particular, the newly submitted proposals for Midtown’s Parcel 5. One plan, from the Seneca Nation, calls for a combined gaming and performing arts center; the other, from a group of casino operators including Thomas Wilmot, envisions a stand-alone performing arts center.
No question, open-mindedness is a virtue, and I’m glad the mayor embraces it. But I hope her willingness to hear out ideas on Parcel 5 extends to another possibility: preserving it as open space.
Not just any old open space. I’m thinking world-class urban square or park. A place that could become a signature element of Rochester’s cityscape, a visual expression of its character.
I’m not disputing the greater job-creation potential of a casino and performing arts center, at least in the short term. I can see a place for it too downtown, but somewhere else. Parcel 5 is uniquely situated for the kind of open, green space that all great cities possess but Rochester currently lacks.
At slightly more than one acre, Parcel 5 cannot become a landscape on the scale of Central Park or Boston Common. But it’s large enough to be a vibrant oasis in the heart of the city.
Urban parks or central squares come in all sizes and shapes, but they are alike in several key ways. They serve as a gathering place, where the community in all its diversity can come together, relax, exercise, and discuss and debate ideas. They also are a destination for both residents and visitors. (Central Park is among the world’s top tourist attractions.)
What’s more, open public space in the city center often is a catalyst for economic activity and commercial development. Historically, in Europe even more so than in this country, the central square was not only the location of the community’s most important civic, religious and political events, it also was a marketplace where commerce and entrepreneurial ideas flourished.
Today, well-designed urban parks can have a similar catalytic effect. In Columbus, Ohio, a retail mall past its prime—like Midtown Plaza—has been replaced by Columbus Commons, a six-acre green space where people gather for recreation, to attend a full slate of concerts, or to grab a bite. Columbus Commons opened five years ago. In its first year, the park drew 300,000 visitors to 130 events. Since then, surrounding property values have jumped and it has become a draw for people who want to live in the city.
In the last several years, a residential revival focused around Rochester’s Midtown site has begun to take hold. Think of what a park like Columbus Commons might do to spur this trend. Urban residents want more than appealing, high-quality apartments and condos. They also want places nearby where they can meet friends casually, listen to impromptu musical performances (the Eastman school is only a block from Midtown) or simply enjoy the outdoors without the need to drive somewhere else.
Columbus Commons resulted from a partnership of key governmental and corporate players who were involved in both planning and funding the redevelopment. The public-private approach has been successful in other cities too.
In New York City, a non-profit corporation helped transform Bryant Park from a haven for drug dealers into an award-winning park styled after classical French urban parks like the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens in Paris. It’s now run by Bryant Park Corp., a privately funded non-profit management company.
In Dallas, the roughly five-acre Klyde Warren Park opened in 2012 and is operated by the private Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation. Created with public and private funds, it includes a children’s park, expansive lawn, restaurant, fountain plaza, performance pavilion and more.
The idea of an urban square or park at Midtown is not exactly new. Others in the community, including some of the owners of property neighboring the site, have voiced similar thoughts about Parcel 5. City Hall, too, has weighed open space as an option, though it’s always seemed a fallback—an “if we can’t think of anything better to do with it” alternative.
With the casino/performing arts center idea gaining speed, however, it might be now or never for those who want to keep this downtown space in the public realm.
I realize that many people in the Rochester area would need a map to find Parcel 5. It’s easier for me; all I need to do is look through the window here on East Avenue. Today, it’s a rectangular expanse of gravel and dirt, lined by a few young trees. But when I look at Parcel 5, I see something else: all that it could be one day, with some hard work and imagination.
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