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For many, green space a must for downtown

As many welcome what looks like the formative stages of a long-awaited renaissance in the center of Rochester, the phrase “open space” has been introduced into the conversation.

Megan Douglas of the Manhattan-based advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks describes open space as an essential part of a city’s infrastructure.

“Just as you can’t have a healthy and livable city without well-maintained roads and sewers, we need (open space) for our cities to be vibrant and engaging,” she says. “(They) give soul to our neighborhoods and communities, providing gathering places where the people of a city come together and get to know each other.

“Visionary parks attract tourists from around the world,” Douglas says, citing the famed High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City as recent examples. “Visitors to these parks bring business to neighboring shops and restaurants.”

Open space, sometimes called green space, includes parks, community gardens, public plazas and playgrounds. Such recreational spaces enhance their neighborhoods as well as offer places for residents to gather informally.

As city leaders review development proposals for a portion of the former Midtown Tower site known as Parcel 5, discussion continues regarding how much open space downtown Rochester should have and where it should be located. In September, the city received four proposals to develop the site. One proposal was withdrawn and the three that remain are under consideration.

The first includes a 3,000-seat performing arts center as proposed by Rochester Broadway Theatre League Inc. Another proposal, put forth by Gallina Development and real estate developer and broker Patrick Dutton, makes the case for a 14-story mixed-use tower, including restaurants, retail and entertainment at street level, as well as office space and condominiums.

Ken Sato, who lives downtown, helped lead the charge for Rochester Visionary Square, the final proposal still under consideration. Sato is CEO of City Design Lab and director of Rochester Visionary Square Corp.

His idea is to transform Parcel 5 into “a vibrant, multi-use, flexible, marketplace, arts and recreational public green space with active programming throughout the year.” More than 100 local residents helped to create the proposal and have volunteered to build and maintain the square.

Although the proposal includes plenty of open space, Sato stresses that his plans for the property involve more than greenery. The name of the website where he shares the idea for Rochester Visionary Square, www.thisisnotapark.com, cleverly reminds visitors of the balance for which he strives.

In a perfect world, Sato says, Rochester Visionary Square would be a grassroots effort that helps entrepreneurs launch successful businesses.

“Are they going to be Kodak, Xerox or Wegmans someday?” he says. “We don’t know, but we have to encourage people to do this. This won’t be a typical park, which is run by government and paid for by taxpayers. This is the grassroots, not-for-profit solution for the urban problems we have in downtown Rochester.”

Sato, who was raised in Japan and then moved to New York City, has lived in downtown Rochester for nearly 10 years. When he first visited here, he was puzzled by the vast emptiness of downtown.

“In Japan, especially, it is very dense, and the center city is very strong,” he says. “It’s a fun place to go. When I came here, I saw a hole in the middle of the city. I like the city, and I want to help them make this space more attractive.”

Sato sees signs of progress in the area, and many agree downtown is in better shape than it has been in a long time.

“After decades of decline, downtown Rochester has completely turned the corner and is on a very rapid growth trajectory,” says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of Rochester Downtown Development Corp., a private, not-for-profit organization funded by corporations, institutions and real estate companies. “What we expect to see in the next three to five years is a continuation of these trends.”

Zimmer-Meyer, who has worked at Rochester Downtown Development Corp. for more than three decades, points to 48 commercial buildings that have been converted to housing since 2000; nearly 20 additional housing units are in the pipeline.

People are filling those housing units, too. RDDC began tracking population in 2000, when less than 3,330 people lived in the shadow of the former Midtown Tower.

“We have almost 7,000 people living downtown now,” Zimmer-Meyer says, “and we have another 2,850 projected to move in by 2020.”

Given the increasing population, the question of whether there is enough open or green space is big, Zimmer-Meyer says.

“I will tell you this about green space: We don’t have enough of it,” she says. “This is a comment made every time we have experts visit Rochester. We also have hardscape spaces, such as what we find on the midtown block. They are mostly concrete, stone and asphalt. What are we doing with those areas? We really need to think through what we have and ask, ‘How can we do better?’”

For many people, the programming associated with open spaces is as important as space itself. A concert headlined by Trombone Shorty during the Rochester International Jazz Festival last summer provided a perfect example of the kind of energy and enthusiasm that open space downtown can foster.

“During this concert, 5,000 people showed up on the midtown block,” Zimmer-Meyer says. “Photographs from above showed a tremendous scene. It really blew up on social media. People could not believe what they were seeing, and they said it was incredibly exciting.

“Now, many more people are recognizing that we really need to focus on this,” she adds. “They know this will really make a big difference in the quality of life down here.”

Sato and Zimmer-Meyer both refer to open space in Boston as an inspiration for what they would like to see here. Zimmer-Meyer cites Boston’s Emerald Necklace Conservancy, which consists of more than 1,000 acres of parks linked by parkways and waterways.

“It’s a string of little parks that you can jog between,” she says. “It’s a very conscious way of thinking about ways people can use public space.”

According to city documents, downtown Rochester is composed of 722 acres, 231 of which are labeled as public streets. Twenty acres are designated as public green space, while two additional acres are privately owned green space available to the public.

Rochester officials are aware of the open-space discussion that is taking place.

“The Center City Master Plan recognizes the importance of green space in downtown and calls for enhancing existing parks and trails and looking for opportunities to add green elements to our public streets and sidewalks,” says Patrick Flanigan, city spokesperson. “We also recognize that we might need to create more downtown green space as residents move into condominiums and apartments, which often don’t have traditional yards.”

It is unclear when a decision will be made regarding Parcel 5, but those with ideas for downtown will have other opportunities to promote their plans.

 “Parcel 5 isn’t the be-all and end-all of downtown development,” Flanigan says. “We have several examples of parcels that still may be developed.”

Parcel 10, located next to the Douglass-Anthony Bridge near the city’s Public Safety Building, is also open for potential development or use as open space. It currently serves as a parking lot.

“We can only put one of the proposed projects on Parcel 5, but we want all three uses in downtown Rochester,” Flanigan says. “We are looking for the best uses for all available property.”

No matter what decision is made regarding Parcel 5, Zimmer-Meyer is enthusiastic about the future of downtown.

“If you walk down to Main and Clinton right now, you’ll say, ‘What is she talking about?’ But three of those four corners are in high redevelopment gear, and the fourth one is, too. It just hasn’t been made public yet. We’ve been very lucky. A lot of people have worked very hard for a long time, and their incredible vision has turned out to be true.”

2/10/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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