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.