ROC the Riverway charts new course for downtown Rochester

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Rochester is blessed with an incredible asset: the Genesee River flowing through the heart of our city. Two centuries ago, Rochester harnessed the Genesee for flour mills and eventually hydropower. Today, we’re poised to harness the power of the Genesee in another way.

Jim Howe

ROC the Riverway, a new partnership between the city of Rochester and New York State, aims to expand access, public space and activities on the Genesee to spur revitalization and development of downtown Rochester.

Despite a growing movement to reconnect cities and their waterfronts, Rochester struggles to engage its riverfront. Every day, tens of thousands of people view or drive by the Genesee, often without interacting with it or even giving it a second thought.

No longer: ROC the Riverway knits together several citywide plans into one strategic vision for downtown Rochester’s riverfront. The result is a $500 million portfolio of projects that together create a bold vision to enhance our region’s vibrancy and quality of life.

The Genesee River is one of Rochester’s most distinctive assets. (Photo credit: city of Rochester)

The city’s vision caught the eye of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in August announced a $50 million investment of Empire State Development funds for 13 Phase I ROC the Riverway projects. Funding from the state’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative will be leveraged with dollars from the city, federal government, and private and philanthropic investors. Cuomo called ROC the Riverway “a critical initiative to drive tourism and spur economic investment in downtown Rochester.”

ROC the Riverway’s goals include:

  • establishing the Genesee River as the centerpiece of downtown Rochester;
  • building seamless multiuse trails, access points and connections along both sides of the river;
  • creating dynamic public spaces, including a new central gathering space, that tie together the Convention Center, Rundel Library and Blue Cross Arena; and
  • generating a four-season downtown waterfront with activities and amenities for residents, employees and visitors.

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Taken together, these efforts are expected to accelerate the resurgence of downtown Rochester, spurring private development, public-private partnerships and job creation.

“We are about to witness an unprecedented level of investment and activity along our riverfront,” says Mayor Lovely Warren.

Distinctive assets

A principal goal of ROC the Riverway is to restore the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal, and later the subway, over the Genesee. The new Aqueduct Terrace will anchor a network of trails, parks and public spaces that provide unimpeded access to miles of the river.

A centerpiece of ROC the Riverway is the restoration of the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal over the Genesee. (Rendering courtesy of Bergmann Associates)

By removing the road surface from Broad Street and creating a flagship public space in the bed of the old aqueduct, the new terrace will enable Rochester to tell an authentic story about the city’s development. As the experts say, you can put up a front to attract people, or you can tell your own story.

Distinctive assets like the aqueduct, and the Genesee itself, build a sense of place, a quality that more and more Americans desire. In an increasingly homogenous society, a community with its own feel, flavor and history stands out. Distinctive assets also translate into economic vitality because of their ability to attract and retain businesses, residents and tourists.

High Falls is another distinctive asset. Rochester is one of few cities in the country with a thundering waterfall in its downtown. ROC the Riverway intends to get people closer to the falls. Imagine a viewing platform – a la Niagara Falls – at the rim of High Falls. The Genesee Brew House, Monroe Community College and a host of businesses in High Falls are ready partners.

More recreational opportunities on the Genesee are another priority. ROC the Riverway will create user-friendly trails on both sides of the river extending from the University of Rochester campus all the way to High Falls. South of downtown, new car-top boat launches and boat liveries will improve access to some of the best flatwater paddling on the East Coast. And ROC the Riverway also is investing in a new tour boat that will be run by the same company that operates the popular Sam Patch canal boat in Pittsford.

“Across the country, communities that have preserved and leveraged their waterfront have experienced significant economic benefits,” says Vinnie Esposito, executive director of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. “It’s time for us to reimagine and reactivate our unique and underutilized riverfront, which will propel our economy and create the next Rochester – the same way the Genesee River fueled our proud and innovative history.”

ROC the Riverway was developed based on extensive dialogue with the public, including neighborhood associations, user groups like boaters and bicyclists, environmental organizations, businesses, and people who live and work downtown. Bob Duffy, CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and MCC president Anne Kress chaired a diverse advisory board that solicited input and ideas. One idea from the public is a skate park under the Frederick Douglas-Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge, which is now fully funded in Phase I.

ROC the Riverway also looked closely at how cities like Baltimore, Buffalo, Montreal and Pittsburgh have engaged their waterfronts. Many cities have created a management entity to promote active uses and events of their public spaces, not just in the milder months, but in all four seasons. ROC the Riverway includes funding for a new organization to play this role.

“This is a new chapter for Rochester,” says Kevin Kelley of the city’s planning office. “Younger generations are clamoring for vibrant gathering spaces and recreation amenities in a city setting. They’re urbanists at their core, more so than previous generations, so this will help attract new residents and companies to the best-kept secret in the Northeast. The Flower City is back!”

Jim Howe is director of the Nature Conservancy in central and western New York and a member of the ROC the Riverway Advisory Board.


3 thoughts on “ROC the Riverway charts new course for downtown Rochester

  1. You can lead a horse to water… Remember, all these proposals aim to draw people into the city and along the river. The Fast Ferry aimed to do great things too.

    If the hopes and dreams for the city of Rochester are to lure more people into the city to attends events, visit local businesses or just stroll along the river, this would mean increased traffic. If increased traffic is the result, why isn’t the city planning for that? Instead removing the Broad Street bridge and parts of the Inner Loop seem to be planning for less traffic or just demonstrate bad planning and a lack of concern about annoying amounts of traffic if the plan is successful.

    I am out every weekend photographing the gorgeous views of the Rochester area. I am often in the city, along the river enjoying and capturing the beauty and history. Development as described by ROC the Riverway, in my opinion, could easily detract from the natural beauty with attempts to install manmade focal points. The public needs to realize ROC the Riverway is first and foremost a plan to distribute funds to developers and construction companies. Development and construction often results in the destruction of natural beauty.

    Making High Falls Rochester’s entertainment district has been a plan since I moved to this area in 1994. Show me the results. ROC the Riverway is just another one of those grand plans. You can lead a horse to water… A better idea would be to wait till the horse is drinking and then invest in some improvements people actually want to see.

  2. “Building seamless trails” along the Genesee River. That’s at the top of the list of priorities in Jim Howe’s enthusiastic review of ROC the Riverway. So let’s look at the reality today, and what is in the proposed master plan:
    1. Bike, hike, walk or jog south from High Falls to downtown, or to continue through. That’s not possible today without relying on State St on the west, or St Paul St on the east. To avoid that, it means using the nasty pedestrian tunnel under the Inner Loop. No solution is proposed. If coming from the U of R, you have to cross Court Street, then take a long flight of steps up to Broad St. So if a family wants to bike from the Lake at Charlotte to Genesee Valley Park, they must return to public streets to get through downtown. ROC the Riverway plans do not alleviate that. On the east side of the river, Water Street and St Paul Street is the only route. There exist solutions that haven’t yet been mentioned. For example, at Milwaukee the riverway is continuous, cantilevered from buildings, over the water. In Detroit, biking the length of the riverfront from one end of downtown to the other is seamless. That is why diverse cultures and populations all mingle together at downtown public spaces. I think this should be first priority, for if not, far fewer people will come to the proposed new central civic space on the Broad St Aqueduct.

  3. Devil will be in the details. And a new agency? This is New York? With the county and the city involved? We need to make it transparent and accountable.
    We need to ward off the petty corruption that often seems to creep into the system.
    Phase 1 is a great start. Let’s keep our eye on the ball and make it all succeed.

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