Thursday, February 22, 2007

Between a Rite-Aid and a Hard Place

Like many loyal Rochesterians, I'm torn on the design for the proposed Rite-Aid at Monroe & Goodman. True enough, there are things to like about this design. It is right up to the sidewalk, it visually (if not functionally) blends with the streetscape, it preserves the facade of the Monroe Theater, and creates four new, presumably owner-occupied, brownstyle-style townhouses. If you compare this design to the developer Rainaldi's past proposals for this corner, it is a near-miracle. However, it remains far from perfect (renderings below).

For one thing, this City created a form-based zoning code for a reason. Allowing this to be built would go against all of the hard work put in to developing the new code as well as all of the accolades it has received nationwide. Secondly, this design precludes the future use of the Monroe Theater as a community arts center, music hall, or even a moviehouse in the future. Furthermore, a drive-thru pharmacy is completely out of scale with the neighborhood and out-of-tune with modern-day urban design. On top of all of this, why the hell does a pharmacy (especially one with a drive-through) need so much parking?!?!?

That being said, I fear that if we do not approve this, we may lose an opportunity to clean up an eyesore in this once-vibrant stretch of the Monroe corridor. Much of the violent crime that has occurred on Monroe (not that this is a violent area) is committed by residents of the "rundown" apartment building at the corner of Monroe & Goodman that would be torn down to make way for this project (see pictures below). Anyone that has walked past this building has felt the change in community character once you get to this block. Not only is the apartment building a problem, the garbage-strewn vacant land that surrounds it gives an awful impression to visitors. Both of these negatives would be removed if the Rite-Aid is approved. But the Rite-Aid would create a new set of negatives, so how much is the neighborhood really being improved with this development?

So the question is, do we go ahead and accept Rainaldi's argument that his is the best proposal that will come to this corner or do we risk many more years of neglect at this highly important intersection? The community is absolutely correct to stand up for itself and assert its interests in the debate, as it has for years now. Look how far they've come with the design - it's so close to good, it stings. Maybe if the City denies Rainaldi one more time, he'll come back with a perfect design that addresses all of our concerns. For one, get rid of the drive-thru. As you can see in the following picture of a Walgreens in Chicago, drive-thrus are completely out-of-scale with urban neighborhoods. If the Town of Brighton doesn't allow drive-thrus, why should the City of Rochester?

Secondly, add real living space on the second floor and possibly add a third floor. While I have no doubt that Rite-Aid would prefer to have a single-story building all to itself, I don't buy the argument that they refuse to consider locating in a mixed-use building. Take a look at these pictures of various chain pharmacies in city neighborhoods across the country. Some are good, some are bad. But even Rite-Aid recently opened a store in downtown Sacramento, CA with real living/office space above it. If they'll do it for Sacramento, they can do it for us.
Thirdly, either significantly lessen the amount of parking, or make that parking open to the public - whether they are Rite-Aid patrons or not. Most importantly though, do not tear down any portion of the Monroe Theater. This building has a bright future as the focal point of a revitalized Monroe Village. While preserving the facade is a noble gesture, knocking down the former stagehouse renders it completely incapable of once again serving its intended purpose. To that end, I painfully recommend the denial of this development. Rochester is not alone in its battle with these chain pharmacies. Other cities have emerged from these battles with buildings that not only are points of pride for their neighborhoods, but will also stand the test of time. We deserve better, let's demand more.

UPDATE: We the people have lost this battle. This morning, the Democrat & Chronicle reported that the City Zoning Board of Appeals granted the seven variances needed for this project to move forward. If I were a pessimist, I would choose to dwell on the negative aspects of this; however, I would rather take the form of an optimist and suggest that, while not perfect, this project will be an improvement over what currently exists at the corner of Goodman & Monroe. Now let's just hope the developer sticks to his plans.