Friday, March 21, 2008

Rhinos, Paetec Park Still Have Future, Now Will You Support Them?

The importance of Utica businessman Rob Clark's rescue of our once-beloved Rhinos Football Club should not be underestimated. Had this community lost the Rhinos, we would have lost a part of soul. Okay, maybe I am guilty of overestimating this a bit, but anyone concerned with resuscitating our city should be breathing a big sigh of relief today. If you're reading this Mr. Clark, and I'm sure you are, thank you for saving the green-and-gold. I wish you all the best in this endeavor and hope that your investment pays dividends down the road.

Now that this is settled, I wonder if Metro Rochester will step up and ensure that Rhinos FC is here to stay. The Rhinos were once the talk of the American soccer community. We averaged more than 10,000 fans per game, we brought home championships, and beat up on MLS squads. Heck, we were a shoo-in for MLS expansion one day (I remember the chant "Mission: Stadium, MLS"). Since the construction of Paetec Park however, much of the lustre has worn off. The stadium is not the major league product we thought it was going to be, ticket and concession prices have skyrocketed, victories are not as forthcoming, and most importantly, the fans stopped coming. Then came the rumors, followed by the lawsuits, then the bankruptcy. I certainly wouldn't have blamed Rhino fans for staying away from Paetec Park if the league had stepped in to run the team. But thankfully it did not have to come to that and now it is up to us to ensure that it never does.

Although purely perception, concerns about the stadium's location have had an impact on the fan base. Although I have walked to Paetec Park numerous times from my home in Corn Hill with nary a peep from the evildoers lurking in the shadows, the average suburbanite honestly believes that they will be robbed if they attend a game. Unfortunately, we need to address this perception and it sounds like Mr. Clark is alreadly working on it. He has pledged to work on the parking situation, enhance security, and replace concessionaire Delaware North with someone new (hopefully the replacement is nice enough to keep High Falls Brewing products on tap). The guy has been listening to the fans - isn't that a nice change?

The City has a role to play as well. My understanding is that the City will finally allow the state funds to flow so that Paetec Park's luxury suites can be built. This will enhance the facility and bring in a new revenue stream for the team. Hopefully these funds can be stretched, or additional funds secured, to finish other key aspects of the stadium (e.g., locker rooms, box office, team store, etc.) as well. The stadium will never be fit to host a World Cup match but who knows, with the right leadership, maybe we can start dreaming of MLS once again. I plan on attending my fair share of Rhino games, hopefully I'll see you there.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

How to Salvage Renaissance Square (and Credibility)

Criticism has been hurled at every aspect of the Renaissance Square project since Day One. Opposition to an underground bus station was loudly voiced, so the designers came up with a plan to move it to the surface. Many were concerned about the prospect of historic structures being demolished, so the designers came up with a plan to integrate the Edwards and Granite buildings into the project and spare the Cox Building. There were worries about increased transit travel times due to left turns needed to navigate the one-way streets, so the designers came up with a plan to convert St. Paul and Clinton to two-way traffic. The arts community was angered by a plan to subsidize the Broadway theater and ignore other local arts needs, so the designers came up with a plan to include three theaters: big, medium, and small. For every major criticism, a decent solution was devised. Until now.

Much to the delight of its detractors, it appears that the Renaissance Square project is nearing its demise. The "starchitect" hired to guide this project to fruition, Moshe Safdie, has been fired; his vision simply unattainable for the arbitrary $230 million limitation we placed on him. The FTA continues to sit on the project's review, seemingly unwilling to approve its construction. The "Performing Arts Center" component now cut from three theaters to two seems to have not attracted the private investment needed to make it happen. At best, the comedy of errors that Renaissance Square has become is an example of how not to manage a major public development. At worst, it is yet another in a long line of mismanaged boondoggles that have plagued this community over the past three decades.

An opportunity to inject a $230 million investment into the most unsightly block of downtown Rochester may be lost. The most visible face of this community to visiting businessmen and conventioneers will continue to be that of neglect and economic devastation. But does it need to end here? As a long time defender of the project, and someone who continues to see the revitalization opportunities that it would create, I simply cannot stand by and let this project die. I have a plan to save this project and, in so doing, save some semblance of credibility for the County Executive and her staff.

A quick look at the budget shows that both the transit center and the MCC campus are paid for. In theory, we could break ground tomorrow on these components. Of course, it's not that simple. Despite the fact that no money has been raised toward the performing arts component, the public will not allow Renaissance Square to move forward without it. A new wrench has been thrown into the mix in the form of the redevelopment of Midtown Plaza. The need to close the 1,800-space parking garage at Midtown has prompted the need to keep the Mortimer Street Garage open. Mortimer was expected to be torn down as part of the performing arts center. If Mortimer stays, the Broadway theater likely cannot fit on the site. While most see this as an opportunity to kill the project, I see this as an opportunity to move forward.

First off, the cost can be reduced significantly by eliminating the large theater. Less cost = less fundraising = one obstacle removed. Secondly, removing the large theater from the scope of the project will provide an opportunity to save the historic buildings at the corner of Main & Clinton. Between the Midtown redevelopment and the reimagined Renaissance Square, finding a developer to restore these buildings into retail, restaurant, office, hotel, and/or residential use should be quite easy. More historic buildings saved = less opposition = another obstacle removed. Third, the arts community's own studies show that the most pressing theater need locally is that of the small "blackbox" theater. According to a recent Democrat & Chronicle story, the 2,800-seat Broadway theater would be in use only 170 days a year while the 250-seat blackbox theater would be used 331 days a year and has the added benefit of helping ensure the survival of Downstairs Cabaret and other smaller arts organizations in our city. Keeping the blackbox theater = support of the local arts community = yet another obstacle removed.

This project is too important to let die. We cannot afford to turn down an opportunity to invest $200 million in a long-declining eyesore in downtown. With Midtown being redeveloped into the home of thousands of workers, hundreds of units of housing, and new retail and restaurant space, we cannot afford to allow the iron wall of buses to continue clogging Main Street literally choking away any chance at revitalization. Renaissance Square will provide an enclosed and controlled transfer center for RTS and Greyhound/Trailways. That reminds me, Greyhound/Trailways needs to move from Midtown, this will give them a proper home. Midtown is also prompting Wilmorite to develop plans to revitalize the Sibley Building, however these plans cannot be implemented until MCC is out. If Renaissance Square is cancelled, it will be many years before MCC can find a new downtown home. Or worse, MCC could choose to leave.


I am proposing that Renaissance Square move forward with the transit center and MCC campus intact and as designed. The performing arts component would be reduced to include only the blackbox theater. The Mortimer parking garage will remain and the historic buildings at Main & Clinton will be restored to their former lustre. This plan will allow the project to move forward with little additional funds needed. A fundraising effort to support the original vision of three new theaters (big, medium, and small) will be commenced with a goal of raising up to $100 million. This will also give the community more time to determine the appropriate locations for the medium and large theaters, though I envision them at Midtown and/or the "Block F" site cater-corner from the Eastman Theater. Most importantly, this will give our elected officials the opportunity to save face. It will show that all of the work done to date, worth some $15 million of our taxpayer dollars, has not gone to waste.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Welcome Downtown, ESL

A big name in the local financial scene, ESL Federal Credit Union, revealed plans on Thursday to move their corporate headquarters to a new building in downtown Rochester. The new six-story 180,000 square foot building will house more than 300 ESL employees, including 30 new hires over the next three years. ESL follows Paetec Communications as the latest locally-based company making the move to our rejuvenating center city.

As one of downtown's biggest boosters, I'd like to thank ESL for their commitment to this community. They could have very easily chosen to locate their headquarters in a non-descript suburban office park like other local corporate icons such as Paychex, Constellation Brands, Global Crossing, or their main credit union rival, Summit FCU. Instead however, they chose to make a bold statement about both their own corporate future as well as the future of this city. In doing so, their investment will contribute to the vitality of our region's most important destination. If only five percent of those 330 employees decide to take up residence in the downtown area, that's another 17 apartments or condos occupied. As downtown increases in attractiveness, that five percent will surely rise. The same cycle that leads to disinvestment also can lead to investment when you start turning that wheel in the other direction.

Once again, thank you to ESL. Their plans are contributing significantly to the air of optimism spreading across Rochester. Now then, I must be brutally honest with my assessment of the proposed design for their new headquarters. First, the main entrance and street frontage along Chestnut Street are phenomenal. The curved, collonade concept is a daring vision that is quite surprising given the relatively tame designs typically produced by LaBella. I am however, quite worried about the streetscape. If it is anything like the side street/parking garage entryway view in the above image, I can't help but be concerned. This could become another Excellus Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building -- nice looking from one side, but completely lifeless on the other three. My worries are magnified by the roofline of the ESL Building; it looks eerily reminiscent of the roofline of the Excellus Building.

If it wasn't obvious, I feel that the Excellus Building is one of the worst buildings ever built in Rochester. It pays no attention to the streetlife and turns all of its attention inward. South Avenue will never be a lively street if that building cannot be retrofitted to bring retail to the streetfront or, at a minimum, some dang windows! In that respect, ESL is indeed vastly superior; at least there are windows. But why can't we have a building that has first floor retail on all of its street frontage? It seems to me that the corner of Woodbury and Chestnut would be a great location for a restaurant. It's across the street from one of the top tourist attractions in Upstate New York (the Strong National Museum of Play), has great accessibility and visibility, and would have very little competition because all of the other lifeless office buildings in its neighborhood lack retail/restaurant space.

I may be rushing to judgment. Perhaps ESL is planning first floor retail besides the new bank branch. But none of the news articles that I've read on the subject have mentioned it and none of the renderings that I've seen highlight it. I'm not a "beggars can't be choosers" sort of guy. I don't believe that any city should just approve every development it comes across simply because it's better than the alternative. That goes against every tenet of quality city building. And while a bank branch is better than an office, and ESL certainly is entitled to have a branch at their headquarters, it isn't the same as a store or a restaurant. Banks are only open business hours, they're usually drab and lifeless, and they're almost always oversized. Retail and restaurants, on the other hand, are open during the evenings, usually have vibrant window displays and entryways, and they typically take up less space. The more streetfront retail space, the more sidewalk activity.

I say these things not because I'm against the ESL headquarters. On the contrary, if it gets built as designed, it will still be a great improvement over the pothole-strewn surface lot it will replace. The building's design is not boring and boxy, but rather, displays an exciting facade that would be unique in our region. I am simply pointing out that there is always room for improvement. If it's not too late, I would encourage the good folks at ESL to consider allowing for first floor retail space. It would be good for the employees, good for the clients, good for the long-term viability of the building, and good for the downtown community at large. And would it be too much to ask at least some employees to walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation to work? Oh well, I'll save the downtown parking fallacy for another rant.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Passport to Insult

A new day has dawned on our northern border. For the first time in our peaceful history, Canadians and returning Americans now need a passport to enter the United States. Supposedly, this will bring increased security for all Americans. I guess Washington thinks Ottawa is so unsophisticated that they just let in every Ali, Mustafa, and Omar that wants in. Thankfully Bush and Chertoff are keeping us safe! No more Canadian terrorists will be able to gain entry into this sacred land, at least, not without a passport. What a sham. What a disgrace. What an insult. Canada is America's best friend and has been for nearly 200 years. Our economies are inseparably intertwined. Our cultures are all but indistinguishable. We are they and, for the most part, they are we.

So why is it that the geniuses in Washington feel the need to continue shutting us off from the rest of the world? As we put up walls along our southern border and bureaucrats along our northern one, our counterparts in Europe are erasing their international borders. How are they doing this without provoking a single terrorist act? Beyond the fact that the terrorist threat is blown way out of proportion in this "home of the brave;" the Europeans are creating a continental standard for travel and immigration applicable across the entire European Union. Imagine that, nations working together to secure each others' citizens. Apparently, that's just not the American way.

Most of the northern border is already porous. Why would these crazy terrorists, whoever they are, choose to enter the US through a secure border crossing when they can just walk across a farm field in Maine or North Dakota? It seems logical to me that, instead of damaging northern border economies and fraying international relations, we should be pursuing greater ties with our friends to the north. Why not work together with the Canadian government to create one standard for travel and immigration to and from North America? Then we can open our borders from coast to coast. No more tolls, no more border guards, and no more need for passports. It may sound like it, but this is not some fantasy land with gingerbread houses and rivers of chocolate. This is Planet Earth 2008 and America is falling further and further behind the rest of the world.

The reality of our global economy is that we in Rochester are as tied to Toronto as we are to New York City. By adding another roadblock between us and Toronto, we hamper a significant part of our regional identity. The good ol' boys from Texas who make these rules may not understand it, but we sure do. It's bad enough that we make good people from many foreign nations that do not share borders with us jump through hoops to be allowed entry into this great country. But it's downright insulting that we would do this to our friends in Canada. I hope that Ottawa returns the favor and makes it harder for us to enter their land. Besides, don't they have as much to fear from us and we do from them?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Brown Square Park Festival Site: Why?

This morning's paper contained an article on the City Department of Community Development's study of moving the "Downtown Festival Site" to Brown Square Park. I saw the Request for Proposals (RFP) for this project a while ago and it perplexed me. Why consider moving the site from its current home in High Falls to the far-removed Brown Square neighborhood, especially when the City is in the middle of investing millions in bringing back Manhattan Square? There is much to dislike about this ill-conceived plan that the D&C article did not bother to mention. As usual, it's up to me to cut the BS and get to the heart of the matter.

First things first, it's true that Brown Square used to be home to numerous ethnic festivals way way back in the day. Italian, German, Irish, Puerto Rican: the same ethnicities that settled the neighborhood were the same ethnicities celebrated at summertime festivals at the park. All of these festivals have since moved to other sites: Italian and German are held in Gates, Irish in Irondequoit, and Puerto Rican now held a stone's throw away at the Frontier Field VIP lot. Although I've always wondered why these festivals choose to locate where they do, does a return to the long-gone past make the most sense for our city and region?

The RFP for the Brown Square Festival Site study is fraught with shortcomings. First off: contrary to Commissioner Vazquez's thinking, Brown Square is not even downtown. Why move the "Downtown Festival Site" out of downtown? Shouldn't we locate such an important facility in a location that would maximize its contribution to the economic development prospects of our city? Sadly, there is very little opportunity for spin-off from a "Brown Square Festival Site." Much of the neighborhood has been turned into an industrial park or, even better, surface parking lots for Kodak Office. Across Verona Street from the park is the City Animal Shelter and cater-corner is an elementary school. If we move all of our festivals to Brown Square, most patrons will drive in, park at the area lots, enter the park, watch the musicians, eat the food, and then head back to their cars and drive off. This is not the type of situation that we should be encouraging. It is short-sighted, contrary to the tenets of successful city-building, and pandering to a neighborhood disappointed by the construction of Paetec Park.

Furthermore, the RFP does not call for any study of the surrounding parcels to determine their highest and best use should the festival site move to Brown Square. If we truly want to make Brown Square a successful area, it will need an influx of housing, retail, and services. It will need to shed its current suburban industrial park appearance and morph into what an attractive city neighborhood should be. For instance, why is there no consideration of the adjacent rundown industrial parcel to the immediate west of Brown Square Park along Oak Street? For Brown Square to truly be a "square," it needs to have streets on all four sides. As such, this parcel should be absorbed into the park thereby making it accessible on all four sides and maximizing its ability to contribute to the neighborhood's revitalization. As the City learned during the early years of the MusicFest, Brown Square in its current form is not spacious enough to accommodate large crowds. What will happen if and when these festivals outgrow Brown Square?

While I support the concept of improving Brown Square Park as a centerpiece for a neighborhood on the cusp of renewal, it is simply not the right location for a regionally-significant festival site. It seems to me that if we really want a "Downtown Festival Site" that will attract our region's best festivals and allow them all to prosper, such a site must be located in an attractive setting closer to the heart of downtown. The site should be visible from afar and easily accessible to all. It should provide significant opportunity for economic spinoff, creating opportunities for retail, restaurants, hotels, and housing. There is really only one location appropriate for such a facility: Manhattan Square Park. As I mentioned earlier, the City is in the process of spending millions on fixing up the park to bring it back to its former glory. What better way to ensure such glory than to make a commitment to it in the form of its dedication as the Downtown Festival Site? With the coming redevelopment of Midtown Plaza into the bustling home of Paetec's 1,200 employees, hundreds of units of new housing, new office and retail space, restaurants and hotel rooms, the siting of our region's most prominent festivals at Manhattan Square may finally bring us the vibrant urban environment so many of us want.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Winter Returns, As Do Same Old Complaints

If you're lucky enough to live in the beautiful Rochester area, or much of the upper midwest and northeast, you know quite well that winter weather has returned for the season. It's a great time of year: the holidays, football, ridiculous utility bills, back-breaking shoveling, the lovely sound of rock salt cracking beneath your boots. Ahhh yes, winter is everyone's favorite season for so many reasons; and one of those reasons has to be winter driving.

There really is nothing quite like driving in a snowstorm. For most of us, that means clearing snow off your car before getting going. When you've got a foot of snow to clear, and it's 10 degrees out, you turn into one of the most productive people on earth. Once you've cleaned off your car and hopped in, you turn on the heat and it blows cold for a minute. Now that's refreshing! Time to put the car in gear and head to work, home, or somewhere in between. Your engine fights you for the first few minutes as it struggles to warm up but that's the least of your worries. With the icy roads, you're more concerned with making sure you get from Point A to Point B in one piece.

Of course, not all of us have to deal with this routine on a regular basis. As a walker, I simply have to layer up, throw on my boots, and I'm on my way. Sure, it's a pain in the ass dealing with the often unshoveled sidewalks, the slush-filled intersections, and the constant feeling that you're about to slip and fall; but it's a hell of a lot better than risking your life in an unreliable commute by car. Every day I cross over 490 (lesser known as the Erie Canal Expressway) on my walk to work, and during these past few wintry weeks, I've noticed just how slow traffic moves. This brings me to my point: we don't have to live this way.

It seems to me that, given our long winters, it makes perfect sense that we live in denser, less spread out communities. There are many reasons for this. One, more of you will be able to join me on the sidewalk using your God-given non-polluting mode of transportation to get to work. Two, alternate modes of transport such as transit become a lot more viable when they serve dense neighborhoods and as a result, you'd be more likely to want to take the bus. Three, if we live closer to each other, there will be fewer roads to plow and a lot less stress on public budgets (lower taxes, anyone?). Four, if you still must drive, your commute will be much less lengthy and probably much more reliable. I'm sure there are many more reasons why a more denser community is preferable in our winter climate, but I'm not going to bore you with them.

The point is, if you don't like it, you can change it - you can move. I don't understand why the City or the Downtown Development Corporation hasn't started sponsoring billboards on the expressways around downtown with the slogan "If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now." Take it from me, it's a nice feeling to find yourself moving as fast as the vehicles around you and you're not spending a cent on gas nor are you putting yourself at risk of serious injury (so long as you watch where you're going). Not that the fact is being lost on everyone. We've added thousands of units of housing in and around the downtown area in recent years and thousands more units are planned or underway. But it still amazes me how much sprawling development we continue to see on our periphery. I just can't see the attraction, especially given our unique climatological situation, to living so far away from everything. Furthermore, the more of you that make that uninformed decision, the more we all have to pay to subsidize you.

A lot of us complain about the weather and a lot of us complain about people who complain about the weather. Either way, it's easy to complain about something you cannot change. We can't change the weather and we can't change how people behave; but we can change how we live. So why complain about those things that are caused by our own choices? Why complain about things we actually can affect? Next time you find yourself stuck in weather-related traffic congestion, ask yourself, have I made the right choice?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Tomorrow "We" See How Stupid "We" Are

Election Day 2008 is tomorrow. Despite having no real race for County Executive, this has turned out to be a very intriguing year for local politics. Monroe County Republicans have seemingly done everything they can to hand the County Legislature to the Democrats. By ignoring the obviously unethical practices of the Water Authority that limits dissent and serves as a staging ground for GOP golden parachutes; by obstructing any attempts at addressing the shortcomings of COMIDA which has produced the unwanted double-wammy of no job growth and unsustainable suburban sprawl; by refusing to consider the many real answers to the County's budget problems proposed by the Democrats and subsequently celebrating the shady, anti-democratic methods behind Maggie's F.A.I.R. plan (which I am almost ashamed to admit that I support); and now the despicable, racist, xenophobic political mailer produced by the Monroe County Republican Committee which basically claims that County Democrats support terrorism and that all Arabs are terrorists (see images below borrowed from my good friends at RochesterTurning).

I can write the counter-mailings: "County Republicans want your children to die for Texaco," "County Republicans Support Substandard Health Care," "County Republicans Know What You Did Last Summer."

This frankly should be a cakewalk for the Monroe County Democratic Party. Republicans at all levels of government have shown nothing but disdain for the Constitution, distrust of the People, and an uncanny ability to allow private corporations to control every aspect of our lives. Their mantra of "profit above all - health, safety, and well-being be damned" has outworn its welcome across this country. This region missed out on its last chance to show that we are a part of that newfound spirit during the 2007 election, when we returned three failed Republican incumbents to Congress. Maybe we just didn't realize how fraught with incompetence and corruption the local Republican leadership is. Well, unfortunately for us, they've reminded us in a big way. Tomorrow we shall see if we have learned from our mistakes. Will we prove ourselves to be mindless sheep of the status quo flock or will we come out and represent ourselves like the intelligent, hard-working, progressive community that we really are? I know I'll do my part; please do yours. Vote Democrat tomorrow - it's your duty.