Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Downtown Dormant? Nonsense!

The editors of the D&C must like to hear themselves talk. That's the only logical explanation for today's op-ed piece comparing downtown development in Syracuse to that of Rochester. How they came to the conclusion that downtown Syracuse is somehow doing better than downtown Rochester is beyond my comprehension. Furthermore, their assertion that it is the responsibility of local colleges and universities to pick up the perceived slack is absolute ludicrosity.

The D&C points out that there is some $600 million in construction projects underway in Syracuse's downtown core. Granted, I'm not all that familiar with current events in that city, but I do know that included among that $600 million are major construction on I-81 through downtown as well as a new connector road between the University and the downtown area. I would also assume that a controversial new sewage treatment plant proposed for the Armory Square area is included in that figure. On top of that, it wouldn't surprise me if monies related to the all-but-defunct DestiNY USA and Syracuse Inner Harbor projects are also in that $600 million.

Let's compare that with the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation's latest figures for investment in our downtown. RDDC lists some $500 million in projects here, the lion's share of which is attributable to Renaissance Square. Also included on that list are projects with no costs attached such as redevelopment of the Parry Machine Building in High Falls or the Natatorium Building near Washington Square. Other projects are missing from the list such as the long-awaited Charlotte Street housing development and the now-controversial plans for a mid-sized theatre appropriate for Garth Fagan Dance and other troupes. All of this would likely push the total dollar amount to more than $600 million. Oh, that high-end supermarket they mention? Yeah, they're planning on opening one of those here too. So what the heck was the D&C trying to say?

The gist of the piece (I think) is that the powers that be are not doing enough to encourage development of student housing downtown. Nevermind the fact that preliminary drawings for Renaissance Square show a number of new residential structures to the north of the site that would likely attract the type of tenants the D&C desires and nevermind the fact that private developers are filling this void, such as is being done with the Halo Lofts on Grove Street. My question is, how much more non-taxable development can the City afford in its downtown? We need to be careful to balance private (taxable) development with public (non-taxable) initiatives so that the City does not unnecessarily harm itself.

Still, I agree in principle that local colleges and universities could do more to support and enhance downtown Rochester. I have long dreamed of one project in particular that could be a real linchpin in downtown development. That idea is to move RIT's Schools of Art, Crafts, Design, Film/Video/Animation, and Photography to downtown. Specifically, the new Rochester Institute of Art & Design could be located at RIT's original campus on the west side of downtown bounded by Plymouth Ave, Broad St, and I-490. A number of these buildings are currently vacant or could be vacant in the near future - this is an opportunity to fill them up in one fell swoop.

Why those particular schools and why RIT? Because it is a miracle that RIT produces such incredible talent from such an uninspiring campus as their Henrietta Brick City. I have discussed this with some RIT grads and faculty and they agree that changing to an urban campus would foster a more creative learning experience for these budding artists. The Institute would still be affiliated with RIT, similar to how the Eastman School of Music is part of the University of Rochester. But I digress...