She had completed her degree in political science and economics from University College Dublin in Ireland in 2004 and headed to the Boston area to put that knowledge to work.
But it didn’t take all that long for Galin Brooks to realize she had maybe missed her calling. There was always an allure, an intrigue, to the urban environment, and when she did volunteer work alongside a city planner in the greater Boston area, she recognized there might be an opportunity to effect change every day.
So back to school she went, earning a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service in 2010.
Now, a dozen years later, Brooks has come to Rochester, overseeing the continued advancement and enhancement of downtown as the new president and CEO of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. (RDDC).
“In terms of what I’m interested in, what excites me and my priorities day-to-day and personally, it seems to be a really cool fit,” Brooks said. “There’s lots of rich history, interesting infrastructure, great bones as a city, lots of historic fabric, beautiful buildings, walkable, treed neighborhoods. I’m excited.”
Brooks, a 38-year-old native New Yorker, took the reins in late June, replacing Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, who retired after 37 years with the RDDC, including the past 18 as president.
“This is really a long-term, strategic hire coming on the heels of how long and how impactful Heidi was in that position,” said Chris Hill, the RDDC board chair. “Galin is a real rising star.”
Brooks split the past nine years working on planning, infrastructure and parks initiatives for two business improvement districts (BIDs) in Washington, D.C. Before that she worked for Hudson River Park Trust in Manhattan.
Thus, it makes perfect sense for her to lead efforts to energize downtown even more in a city intent on the revitalization of the Genesee River through ROC the Riverway.
“The riverfront resurgence is something that’s been happening in cities across the country for a while,” Brooks said. “It’s a vision to connect the communities to their waterfronts, to the river that is here, that belongs to the people of Rochester but for so long hasn’t been accessible, hasn’t been knit into the surrounding area in a way that invites people in.
“It’s a really incredible resource for the people of Rochester. So, to be acknowledging that and responding to it and facilitating it through the creation of this new infrastructure and a network of public spaces that will draw people to their waterfront is just fabulous.”
Brooks grew up downstate, living in New York City and Westchester County before her family moved to Dublin when she was 11. Along the way, she began to develop an interest in the urban landscape.
“Even as a kid,” she said, “the contrast of the settings was very apparent to me, and as I grew up, I appreciated — I think in a unique way — how much the built environment affects your daily experience, your connection to opportunity, your ability to move around efficiently, your connection to your community, there are all these things that the built environment can affect, depending how it’s set up.
“I had an appreciation of that at a young age, and I also had a fascination of it at a young age.”
Fascination has since transformed to facilitation. As director of planning and placemaking for the DowntownDC BID, Brooks focused on parks projects, transportation projects and public realm projects. One major project was the rehabilitation of Franklin Park, a five-acre plot in the heart of Washington, D.C.
Through collaboration with the National Park Service (which owned the property) and the District of Columbia, the DowntownDC oversaw revitalization of the park.
“Franklin Park is an example of where a BID was able to step in and help to provide private sector resources to have a well-maintained park space day-to-day that’s activated and well-utilized and well-loved by the broader community,” Brooks said.
She also worked a great deal with the District Department of Transportation on a variety of projects, related mostly to active transportation, so bus, bus priority, bike, bike lanes, pedestrian safety.
D.C.’s loss is Rochester’s gain, her current and former employers say.
“When Galin came to me and said she was taking the job in Rochester, I said, ‘I’m really happy for you but I’m not so happy for myself,’ ” said Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for DowntownDC. “She left us in good shape, though.
“She understands the issues — like transportation, affordable housing, climate change — and she’s good at balancing economic development issues and social issues. She’s a collaborative person, she’s a curious person and she’s a data driven person.”
Brooks said her most important trait right now is an ability to play a sponge.
“Because I am so new, I’m very focused on learning and listening and working to gain a deeper and richer understanding of the history and complexities of this area, the current context, the sensitivities, all of that,” she said. “I’m definitely on a several-month listening tour because I am new here.”
The RDDC board was impressed with what Brooks can bring to Rochester.
“We really had some amazing candidates but her experience with revitalizing, with activating programming, was impressive,” Hill said. “What really stood out is that a lot of the attributes with Washington, D.C., were similar to Rochester, except on a bit of a larger scale. To be able to bring that level of big-city experience and exposure was very important.”
The RDDC’s mission is to drive the economic vitality of downtown. That, in turn, powers the Greater Rochester area.
“Downtowns are the engine of their region,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of access to opportunity that downtowns can provide. They’re the most centralized place typically for people to get to in terms of equitable access to jobs. They tend to have the greatest density, so they’re more efficient, so the return on investment for cities is higher in terms of the amount of money that a city spends in a downtown versus the amount of tax revenue that a city typically gets out of a downtown, which it can then use for services it provides throughout a city.”
But no one person or entity can determine what’s best for a downtown, in the present or in the future.
“Downtown belongs to everyone,” Brooks said. “Everyone accesses different resources and amenities and activities in a downtown, and a humming, thriving downtown should be providing more to a broader cross-section of the population.
“We need to set a community-informed vision for what downtown can and wants to be. I have a million ideas about a million things that could happen, but this work must be community informed and is only successful if it is community informed.”
There are theories that can provide a guideline to design. In the “15-minute city,” the basic needs can be reached within a 15-minute walk. The Power of 10, a concept espoused by the Project for Public Spaces, says a great place needs 10 things to do and/or reasons to be there.
“The idea is you want to have multiple things for people to do in a spot,” Brooks said. “You want to have a store that sells soft goods, you want to have a funky bench to sit on, you want to have pretty plants to look at, maybe there’s a street performer, maybe there’s a sidewalk sale at a bookstore. You want to have 10 options for people to choose from to keep people in a place and fulfill their experience.”
From what Brooks already has seen, the options in Rochester are endless.
“When I look at downtown Rochester, I see so much potential and so much opportunity,” she said. “There are these incredible catalytic moves that have been put in place — ROC the Riverway, the removal that’s begun of the Inner Loop, what’s going on with Strong Museum — a lot of smart, strategic investments that have the potential to create a really special, unique, thriving, inclusive part of the region.”
[email protected]/(585) 653-4020
Title: President and CEO of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.
Education: B.S. in political science and economics from University College Dublin in 2004, master’s in urban planning from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service in 2010.
Family: Husband, Matt; one son.
Hobbies: Kayaking, hiking, camping and travel.
Quote: “In any planning process, there has to be community engagement and input and ideation and feedback. There has to be research and understanding and review of comparable case studies and best practices. It’s never one person making something happen, it’s always a lot of different people and entities and groups that have to collaborate, and to support them in a way that needs to happen for them to be successful.”