Soon, Rochester City Council is likely to decide on the future of Parcel 5. Will council members give the go-ahead to the proposal from the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and Morgan Communities to build an arts and entertainment center coupled with a residential tower?
The decision could be influenced by a consulting firm’s findings on how the RBTL complex might impact other local arts organizations. Another factor that clouds the proposal: the FBI investigation of developer Bob Morgan’s company, which already has produced charges against Morgan’s son and nephew.
Personally, I would not bet even a tiny fraction of $25 million—the amount Paychex founder Tom Golisano has pledged for the entertainment center—on what the outcome will be. In a matter of weeks, Parcel 5 could be back at square one.
There is something, however, I’d be willing to place a wager on: Parcel 5 will not become Rochester’s signature downtown open space.
Despite the considerable support this idea has attracted, it’s almost certainly not going to happen. Yes, the former Midtown Plaza site could remain in its current state—gravel and dirt, bordered by a handful of skinny trees—for quite some time, as the city tries to figure out what to do next. But a thoughtfully designed urban square or park? No.
I say this not because I think a public square or park at Parcel 5 is a bad idea. On the contrary, I’m all for a world-class open space in downtown Rochester, and Parcel 5 by far is the best location for it.
No, I say it because I think City Hall sees the Parcel 5 opportunity through a very narrow lens—one shaped by misconceptions. Among them:
■ Open space has no value. Foremost, city officials apparently believe a public square or park at Parcel 5 would be a waste of precious downtown space. To have value, the property needs taxable development. Yet other cities have shown how well-designed public space can stimulate growth in the surrounding area.
In Columbus, Ohio, an urban mall whose better days were long in the past (much like Midtown Plaza here) was leveled and the land it occupied transformed into Columbus Commons, a six-acre green space. In its first year after opening in 2011, Columbus Commons hosted 130 events that attracted 300,000 visitors. Property values neighboring the park have soared, drawing both residents and merchants.
Columbus Commons has a packed program throughout the year (a recent four-day period included kickboxing and cardio fitness sessions, a wine festival and a free concert featuring Bruce Hornsby). But even on quieter days it is a bustling, festive place. When I visited there one afternoon this summer, a sizable crowd had gathered for FamJam, a family-oriented festival with booths hosted by community groups and organizations, and youth performances on the main stage. Others were relaxing amid the colorful gardens, riding the hand-carved carousel, having fun with an electronic playground, or eating at one of two outdoor cafes.
The Columbus Downtown Development Corp. says demolishing the old mall and building Columbus Commons cost $25 million; to date, the urban park “has triggered additional private investment of nearly $400 million in the neighborhood known as RiverSouth.”
How did Columbus Commons happen? Some strategic planning and a public-private partnership of the mayor’s office, Columbus City Council and major local corporations. In other words, nothing that could not happen here.
In New York City, Bryant Park—once a hangout for drug dealers—now is an award-winning park that draws a diverse mix of city residents and visitors. It reopened in 1992 after a four-year renovation, with a design inspired by classical French urban parks like the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens in Paris.
It’s now run by Bryant Park Corp., a privately funded non-profit management company that works as an agent for New York City. BPC operates the park “with private-sector techniques and management methods,” providing sanitation, security, horticultural management, educational and entertainment programming, and other services.
While Bryant Park is located in a business district, the park is spurring development of condos and rental apartments, grocery stores and restaurants.
■ Rochester’s weather. A public square or park at Parcel 5 would go unused once the weather turns cold, right? That’s not the case at either Columbus Commons or Bryant Park. During a visit to New York City last December, Bryant Park was bustling. The Winter Village, sponsored by Bank of America, runs from Oct. 28 through New Year’s; last year it featured more than 175 vendors (nearly 40 of them serving food) and a 17,000-square-foot skating rink. Even the year-round surfaces for table tennis were in use.
■ Parcel 5’s size. Some who acknowledge the vitality that a public square could bring to downtown Rochester say Parcel 5, at slightly more than an acre, simply is too small. After all, Columbus Commons is six acres and Bryant Park occupies nearly 10. But compare city populations: Rochester has roughly 209,000 residents, while Columbus has more than four times as many people—and New York City’s population tops 8.5 million. A six- or 10-acre park in a downtown the size of Rochester’s? Let’s be serious. In fact, Parcel 5 seems like a perfect fit here—small enough to feel welcoming yet large enough to host Jazz Festival concerts and Fringe Festival events. (Besides, city squares come in all sizes; among those earning praise are Campus Martius in Detroit, 1.6 acres, and Larkin Square in Buffalo, 0.8 acres.)
■ Enough open space, already. Skeptics also like to note that downtown already has several parks, including two large ones—Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Charles Carroll Park—and the planned ROC the Riverway will bring more open space development. But neither Martin Luther King Jr. Park nor Charles Carroll Park is designed to be an urban square—a public space meant for festivals, concerts, outdoor markets and other community gatherings. The same is true of ROC the Riverway, which would be akin to the Scioto Mile, which has transformed the riverfront a stone’s throw from Columbus Commons.
■ We can’t afford it. Finally, naysayers argue that without taxable development, a park at Parcel 5 would be a drain on city resources. But that assumes no public-private partnership of the kind found in other cities, where non-profit corporations manage the site and generate revenues through programming, concessions and sponsorships. (Other examples include Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, which boasts a large lawn, an eatery, a fountain plaza, a play area for children and a concert pavilion. It’s run by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation. And Cleveland Public Square, which is managed by the nonprofit Group Plan Commission.) It also assumes no expansion of the tax base in the area neighboring the park. Like any investment, the payoff is unlikely to come overnight—but other cities have shown that it need not take decades either.
In Europe, few would question the importance of a central public open space where the community can gather to relax, be entertained, discuss and debate ideas, meet friends and make new ones. Those that also serve as a marketplace are focal points of commerce and entrepreneurial activity.
Turning Parcel 5 into a world-class public square or park could solidify the residential revival that’s under way at and around the former Midtown site. It also could help energize the nearby Downtown Innovation Zone. The Brookings Institution, MIT’s New Century Cities designers and other leaders of the innovation district movement nationwide talk about the importance of “digital places”—public spaces made to be digitally accessible. In some cities here and abroad, these spaces have been used as “living labs” to test innovations. The aim, according to Brookings researchers, is to foster “a more seamless transfer of knowledge within and across firms, workers and supporting institutions—in turn facilitating the creation and exchange of new ideas that fuel even greater economic activity and growth.”
So, imagine a place where city residents and visitors gather, where Eastman School of Music students play during breaks from their studies, where those who live or work downtown can enjoy the outdoors in any season, where DIZ workers mingle and dream up innovations. Given the number of people who have spoken out in favor of open space at Parcel 5, I think many Rochesterians can picture that.
Unfortunately, few of them work at City Hall.
Yes, the Radisson demolition may change thinking on parcel 5. City Hall would demonstrate its lack of vision if it doesn’t develope this parcel into someting like a Bryant Park. By creating an improved environment for people who live and/or work Downtown, Rochester would be setting its course for a genuine revival. Don’t listen to the corporate developers. There is excess office space as it is.
Given the recent announcement about the Radisson demolition and the new location for RBTL, that issue is moot. But buried in that story is the Mayor’s new proposal of exactly what you are advocating. A public/private semi-covered plaza with perimeter spaces for restaurants and cafes around a public event space. I can get behind that! But first, put some damn sod down over the gravel!
I am astonished by the mixed reaction to Tom Golisano’s offer of 25 million dollars towards a performing arts center to be built on Parcel Five. I cant think of a better use for that space. It will bring the activity that we need to center city, and a new venue that RBTL desperately needs. There are plenty of other areas downtown for open spaces and parks.Thank you Tom for your generosity.
Your contribution should be applauded and not surrounded by controversy. Its time for the Mayor and City Council to step up and make this happen.
People confuse open space with parks. Open space is open space. Parks are spaces filled with trees, shrubs, flower gardens, benches, statues and gazebos…not open space, but crowded space. We have enough parks; we don’t have enough good open space.
As for space for RBTL, what about the space created by filling the inner loop? Of course I think filling the loop was a mistake. If Rochester sees a resurgence, the inner loop would have come in handy moving all the traffic coming into the city to see all the new attractions.
HOORAY…WELL SAID!!! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create something that would make Rochester a true destination city. Once again Rochester would be a place of beauty that everyone could enjoy year round.
The sheer variety of potential events that could take place in itself is appealing and that would draw so many people. We have so much talent and expertise to offer. Just look at what our local resources accomplished in restoring the Gardenscape event this last spring! “If we build it they will come”. And as you stated so well, so would the increased revenue. The decision-makers need to remember that providing the citizens of Rochester and Monroe County with a truly unique asset such as you have described so well, would put them on a plane of well-remembered civic leaders who made a contribution to the collective character and personality of our city.
What about parking? Without free or cheap, easily accessible parking, the suburbs won’t support it. Evidence the soccer stadium. Parking problem = death.
The midtown parking garage still exists!! Two levels below parcel 5
The city it’s not a totalitarian regime. Our voice will be heard. People for Parcel 5.
We will be at City Council meetings. We will be tree-huggers or should I say gravel slappers. We will go to court.
We are smart and we have resources.
Great commentary. Unfortunately oh so true of our city’s current leadership. As a co-founder of Greentopia, I and our supporters, advocated for years for support of the creation of engaged public spaces. It’s been proven over and over again in cities around the world that public place making development can catalyze at minimum a 16-fold increase in private investment. Urrently, Parcel5 is our only chance to create a central, downtown public square. Let’s not botch it.
Looking forward to your new publication!
Great article. Love green space but wondering where RBTL could then find a home. The auditorium is in need of a major update. And theatre space is also an economic boost for areas.
Interested in those ideas.
Agreed. The RBTL needs a new home. But if not here then where? It would be great to have this as a vibrant green space and also have a new downtown home for RBTL..