Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Do Soulless Suburban Office Buildings Limit Creativity?

In the news today, Current Communications cut the ribbon on their brand new office building in Henrietta. The company, which has grown from 2 local employees in 2003 to about 100 today, expects to add 180 new jobs over the next five years. Hopefully that is a conservative estimate and they actually add many more jobs to our vibrant telecom cluster. That is great news and I don't want to discredit it, however, a quick look at the building that they're moving into depresses me. It is a bland, architecturally worthless structure in a sea of bland, archtecturally worthless structures. As a community, we should demand better from our local developers.

The vast majority of buildings constructed in the suburbs are soulless and ugly. Take a look at the following pictures and see if you can guess where they are located and, for a bonus, who designed/built them. If you can, you are a remarkable human being.

A. B.





If you guessed A: Henrietta, B: East Rochester, C: Gates, D: Victor, E: Henrietta, and F: Canandaigua; you're correct! If you answered that a gerbil designed and/or built these buildings, surprisingly, you're wrong (though a gerbil probably could have). It blows my mind that these pathetic attempts at workplaces are what passes for quality these days. Don't employers want to harness the creative energy of their workforce? Do employers believe that their workers pull into the vast parking lots at these buildings and find inspiration? Do the "architects" of these sad jokes think that putting an arched awning on a shoebox creates a monument to innovation? Look, I don't want to over-generalize things. I admit that there are some good examples of office design in the suburbs, notably at Canal Ponds Business Park in Greece or Brighton Meadows Business Park in Brighton. Even then though, while the buildings themselves are attractive, bold, or in some way unique, they are still surrounded by an ocean of parking and rarely connected to the sidewalk or transit system and are not within walkable distance of, well, anything.

I understand why these structures are becoming the norm for office space in the area. They're cheap, quick, and easy to build and they're equally cheap, quick, and easy to demolish. This allows flexibility on the part of employers to downsize and/or expand at the same location. In theory this flexibility is a good thing. But what does it say about our economy that companies do not want to make a permanent investment? Gone are the days when companies looking to make a name for themselves here put up a new structure downtown for all the world to see. Nope, instead some of the area's best-known companies (Constellation Brands, PaeTec, Verizon Wireless, Paychex, etc.) make their home at sterile, uninspiring, nondescript suburban office parks. Have you ever tried to navigate through some of these parks? All of the buildings look alike and there are no sidewalks to get from the parking lot to the building. Is that really the environment we want for our employers, their workers, and their visitors?

It seems that COMIDA's answer to that is a resounding yes. COMIDA never misses an opportunity to throw money at a company making a move from downtown to the suburbs. Even if that company is only going to add five jobs and is not threatening to leave the county at all. Thus, the City of Rochester loses tax base while Perinton, Henrietta, or elsewhere in the county gains. Just this past month, COMIDA approved funds for Merrill Lynch to move their offices from the Chase Tower downtown (and other locations across the county) to a new 45,000 square foot structure to be built in the Route 96 corridor of Perinton. Shouldn't a global financial services firm that is looking to centralize their operations in one of America's great cities locate those new offices in the highly-visible downtown area of that city, not in what will undoubtedly be a bland, architecturally worthless structure barely visible from the road out of town?

This community needs to wake up. We are starving our center city and creating drab, uninspiring suburbs with no sense of place at all. Any of the buildings pictured above could be located in any Rochester suburb. However, the Bausch & Lomb Building, Clinton Square, the First Federal Building; those structures can only be located in one place - downtown. While suburban workers have to walk to the parking lot, hop in their car, and go to Applebees or Burger King; only downtown can workers get out of their cubicles and walk - to a variety of restaurants, to parks and scenic vistas, to lunchtime concerts, etc. It is the unique ability of downtown Rochester to mass large numbers of workers together that helps to foster the creativity that the Rochester area is so known for. Let's begin to take pride in our once-great city, America's First Boomtown, the Young Lion of the West, the Flour City, the Flower City. If we don't do it soon, this city and region will be nothing more than a graveyard of bad decisions, and worthless structures.