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Building a green focus


Energized by the completion of its inaugural project, the first eco-district in New York is taking shape in Rochester’s High Falls District, driven by Greentopia—a nonprofit launched in 2011.

In May, the FlourGarden, a 300-foot-long public garden that combines sustainable, native plants with fountain works, was completed by T.Y. Lin International Engineering, Architecture & Land Surveying P.C. after eight months of construction.

The FlourGarden is part of GardenAerial, Greentopia’s project to build a 21st century greenway and park in the High Falls District. The project’s completion is a glimpse of what is to come for the area, officials say.

“We’re at a crux point,” said Michael Philipson, co-founder and chief communications and operations officer for Greentopia. “We finished a project; people kind of know who we are. So we’re now trying to get to the next level.”

What is an eco-district and why should Rochester have one?

An eco-district, or green district, is defined by McKinsey & Co. Inc., an international management consulting firm, as “a densely populated and geographically cohesive area that is located within a city and employs technologies and design elements to reduce resource use and pollution.”

In a May 2015 report, “Building the cities of the future with green districts,” McKinsey & Co. makes the case for districts: economic viability, benefit to the environment and improvement of a city’s quality of life.

“The total increased incremental cost of building a green district vs. a regular development is relatively small, but the economic, environmental and social benefits can be huge—not only for the residents of the district but also for other residents of the city,” said Shannon Bouton, chief operating officer of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. “Eco-districts reduce air pollution, congestion and cost of living for tenants. This leads to reduced public health problems, safer streets with fewer accidents, and happier citizens with less of their total income spent on cost of living.

“The high correlation between economic, environmental and social performance means eco-districts are also economic and social districts,” she added.

The idea for Greentopia was conceived by Philipson and his friend and colleague Lewis Stess. The goal has been to improve Rochester and protect some of its best features.

The idea emerged after Rochester’s 175th anniversary in 2009.

 “We saw (High Falls)—I had never seen it and thought where the heck is everybody?” Philipson said. “Then we heard about the failed entertainment district and all these disasters, and we thought, but look, it’s a natural wonder, it’s a natural asset and it is just waiting for something to be done.”

Stess, president and CEO of Greentopia, and Philipson have no background in urban planning, but they are driven by a desire to improve the city that helped launch their careers. Both are part of The Philipson Group Inc., a local design studio at Brown’s Race in High Falls. Philipson is the president of the firm and Stess is a principal.

The organization
Greentopia is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that operates under a 19-member board of directors that oversees the organization, officials said.

Its capital improvement projects require coordination, approvals and agreements with city, state and other entities. The Greentopia board decides the vision behind each project and works with the other parties to accomplish each goal.

To date, Greentopia has received some $840,000 from state granting entities through the Consolidated Funding Application process with the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, officials said.

The funds have been used for the construction of the FlourGarden, arts programming for Greentopia festivals and for planning and organization of the eco-district, the organization said. Greentopia also raises other funds for its workforce development program, Green Visions, and for general operating expenses, officials said.

The city of Rochester is playing an advisory role in the planning phase of the eco-district.

“The Office of Energy and Sustainability is supportive of Greentopia’s efforts to create an eco-district in High Falls,” said Anne Spaulding, energy and sustainability manager for the city’s division of environmental quality. “Many sustainability initiatives are most effective at the neighborhood or district level.”

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp., sees a chance to remedy some of Rochester’s biggest challenges with the focus on downtown spaces.

“The eco-district and the Innovation Zone sit in the middle of one of the poorest cities in the country,” she said. “All of us are trying to find ways large and small to make more direct connections and create engagement, create roles, (and) create more pathways to prosperity for people to get engaged in something that impacts their neighborhood.”

Both the Innovation Zone, an area created to showcase innovative and creative companies in downtown Rochester, and the eco-district need creative ideas and new thinking to gain traction.

“I think in the end if we’re going to be the kind of place that attracts millennial workers—for the growing tech and knowledge industry that has real opportunity to grow in this region—if we’re going to keep that workforce, we’re going to have to be an innovative place,” Zimmer-Meyer said.

“How do we deal with incredible physical geographic assets and how do we turn that into something that the community celebrates, has pride about and that actually attracts and retains people?”

Greentopia has multiple goals for an eco-district, including achieving economic viability, benefit to the environment and improving amenities for the neighborhoods surround the High Falls District.

For economic viability, Greentopia points to an average return nationally of 16-to-1 on investment in green capital projects similar to GardenAerial, Philipson said. In 2013, Greentopia completed an economic impact study with help from the Center for Governmental Research Inc.

The study found that the GardenAerial would have significant economic and fiscal impacts as a result of initial construction, subsequent use by Monroe County residents and visitors from outside the region and by the addition of new jobs for park operations and organization management.

Construction costs are estimated to exceed $11 million. An anticipated 60,000 travelers from outside Monroe County would visit the GardenAerial each year, directly spending an average of $3.9 million annually and creating a total economic impact of $5.9 million on the Greater Rochester area. The injection of wealth into the local economy would provide an additional $300,000 in tax revenue to Monroe County, and $300,000 in tax revenue to the state, the study states.

In addition, 140,000 Monroe County residents are projected to frequent the site annually, resulting in $4.3 million in direct spending and a total economic impact of $6.5 million on the local economy; including some $350,000 in combined tax revenue to the county and state. Maintenance and operation of the GardenAerial programmatic elements would create 30 jobs directly, according to the study.

Creation of GardenAerial, along with improvements achieved by the eco-district, will develop a vibrant new green zone and help create a new “North End” neighborhood around High Falls that greatly will improve quality of life amenities and opportunities, especially for the downtown core of Rochester, according to Philipson.

Greentopia has multiple projects ongoing, including three main focuses: GardenAerial, the High Falls Eco-District and Green Visions. Projects within GardenAerial include the FlourGarden, Granite Mills Park, Pont de Rennes Arboretum, Wintergarden, East Side Trail, Viewing Platform on Hydro Station No. 4, Sam Patch Zip Line and the Pedestrian Bridge.

The organization has been funded through state agencies. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has provided $240,000 for planning and organization of the eco-district. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation provided $500,000 for the FlourGarden, and New York State Council on the Arts, $100,000 for Greentopia Fest.

The organization also is seeking $55 million to $70 million in private funding to launch the projects of the GardenAerial.

National trend
Last year Stess attended an EcoDistricts Incubator in Portland, Ore., to understand what other cities are doing and how their eco-districts have succeeded. Stess learned that eco-districts are vastly different depending on location. He found that each community ultimately decides what should be incorporated in their districts.

Rachel Walsh, a full-time eco-district manager, has been hired by Greentopia as part of the NYSERDA grant to develop the eco-district in the next few years.

“What really the eco-district has done so far, and what I think is its greatest potential, is providing a framework for collaboration that didn’t previously exist,” she said. “Greentopia’s been doing that—they’ve been convening people.”

McKinsey & Co.’s Bouton sees the creation of an eco-district as the first step to getting an entire city to rethink development.

“I think cities should think of eco-districts as building blocks,” she said. “Some of the technologies, like district heating and cooling, will be easier to implement in a newly built district, but then surrounding existing districts can connect to them and spread the infrastructure and benefits. Similarly, thinking through concepts like transit-oriented design for the eco-district can demonstrate the benefits to the city and its citizens, making it easier to make investments in retrofitting existing parts of the city.”

“In this way, eco-district concepts and designs can spread throughout the city until the whole city is made up of eco-districts, some new and some older but retrofitted,” she added.

Greentopia wants Rochester to be a model for other cities. RDDC’s Zimmer-Meyer sees a need for a new approach.

“The cities that will win in the game of keeping super-creative people think about how to do all (things) differently,” she said. “It can’t be this same old thing rehashed from generation to generation. (Rochester) has got to take advantage of the new ways of thinking, the new methods of communication, and the new pressure that’s building up in cities like ours for everybody to be engaged, not just suit and ties.”

Green City takes a deeper look at what is happening in Rochester’s High Falls District. Next up: The echo of the eco-district: Who’s involved?

12/2/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

 

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