Drafting a vision of Rochester’s future

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About 200 attended the presentation of Rochester 2034 at the convention center. (Photos by Mike Costanza)

Rochester 2034 takes an optimistic view of the city’s future.

“We are managing a city for growth, and not a city for decline,” said Mayor Lovely Warren during the draft comprehensive plan’s May 16 rollout at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center.

The nearly 500-page document, the first of its kind in 20 years, focuses in part on the use of rezoning to help accomplish that growth. The plan claims, for instance, that updating zoning and land-use regulations will help create jobs, reoccupy vacant commercial spaces and preserve community assets.

“The way that our city is zoned in some parts is not zoned correctly,” Warren said. “We are looking at those places where we want to make investment, and want people to invest in, but we’ve made it very, very hard because of the way that it’s zoned.”

Dealing with such problems, and acting on the draft plan’s many other elements, could bring increased economic development, infrastructure improvements, greater economic and social equality, and many other benefits to this city and its people. As attractive as those goals might be, they could be tough to reach. 

Rochester 2010 – The Renaissance Plan, the city’s last comprehensive plan, had its own set of ambitious aims. That included raising the rate of home ownership, decreasing crime, and stimulating improvements in the school system. Only some of its goals were achieved, however. 

Big launch

About 200 attended the presentation of the new draft comprehensive plan last week at the convention center, where the ground floor was decked out for a celebration, complete with balloons and a large sheet cake. Rochester City Council president Loretta Scott and Commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development BayéMuhammad gave brief speeches, and then the mayor stepped to the microphone.

Warren effusively praised Rochester for its many attributes and “incredible history of tenacity, resilience and innovation.” Declaring the city to be “America’s first boomtown, and the young lion of the West,” she issued a call to action.

Young Lion of the West, let them hear us roar,” Warren called out, referring to the Erie Canal’s influence on the economy in the 1800s. 

And, roar they did—or at least cheer loudly. 

When she finished, the mayor sliced the cake, dancing a bit to the sounds of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Some in the crowd even busted a few moves.

Calvin Eaton might not have danced at the convention center, but he did sound cautiously optimistic about Rochester’s new draft comprehensive plan.

“It sounds like this plan is something that’s active, so they will continue to get input, and really say, like, ‘How do we do this?’” said Eaton, founder and executive director of the Rochester nonprofit 540WMain Communiversity.

Years in the making

Work on the draft of Rochester’s latest comprehensive plan began a number of years ago. It picked up speed after May 2017, when Dorraine Kirkmire became manager of planning for Rochester’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. Kirkmire has spent 30 years with the city, 17 of them working on zoning issues. 

Kirkmire worked on other plans for Rochester before taking her current position, but they were not as large as Rochester 2034. She hired three more people to work on the project, and the small but dedicated team set to work.

“I came to this planning process as more of a practitioner, less as an urban planner,” Kirkmire says. “I wanted to make sure that we created a plan that was going to speak to practitioners, speak to people in a way that made the plan something that was real.”

The draft plan draws upon a number of studies, especially the 2018 Citywide Housing Market Study, the Transit Supportive Corridors Study and the Comprehensive Access and Mobility Plan. It also incorporates content that was developed by other city departments than Kirkmire’s. In addition, her team met with City Council and other stakeholders in the community, including the Center for Disability Rights, immigrant service providers and advocates for the parks. Plus, it sat down with about 50 neighborhood groups.

“We wanted to go to their turf and talk to them about their neighborhoods,” Kirkmire explains.

Seeking to know city residents’ concerns, the planning team passed out and collected paper surveys from around Rochester. Finally, two contractors hired by the city, SurveyMonkey and MetroQuest, polled people online. In total, the results of about 4,200 surveys helped shape Rochester 2034.

As impressive as that number is, Kirkmire could not say that those surveyed constitute a representative sample of Rochester’s population—an important factor when considering research results.

“I haven’t looked across different demographics,” she says. “I can’t say with any level of confidence that we have a representative survey of hard-to-reach populations.” 

The draft Rochester 2034 plan is organized into six “initiatives areas” with titles like the Placemaking Plan and Reinforcing Strong Neighborhoods. Those are broken into sections, most of which end in action plans. The action plans include goals, and strategies that can be used to implement them. 

“People from the community people and from City Hall could kind of pick up one of the strategies, create a group, a collection of people from different areas pertaining to that topic, and actually accomplish the recommendations of that strategy,” Kirkmire explains.

To illustrate how it all comes together, one of the Placemaking Plan’s many aims is to update zoning and land-use regulations. It is hoped that the updated regulations will foster job creation and the reoccupation of vacant commercial spaces, and preserve the assets of the community. The initiative also calls upon Rochester to continue working on a plan to develop multiuse trails and a safe on-street network for city bicyclists. Those could encourage more residents to pedal around the city. 

“It’s not only about connecting people to jobs and recreation, but fostering a healthier lifestyle,” Kirkmire explains.

Once in place, those changes to Rochester’s transportation web could help reduce greenhouse gases.

Tips from the past

Implementing Rochester 2034 could be easier said than done. Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson oversaw the creation of Rochester 2010, which City Council approved in 1999. Zoning was not one of its principal focuses.

“We talked about dealing with broader issues,” Johnson explains. “How do we deal with economic development, how do we deal with public safety, how do we deal with schools? How do we deal with all of those things that were threatening the city?”

Rochester 2010 had 11 “campaigns” with such titles as Health, Safety and Responsibility, Economic Vitality and Educational Excellence. Each had a list of goals, and strategies for reaching them. A number of those goals have been reached since the plan was adopted.

One goal of the Economic Vitality campaign was to “support and promote opportunities for shopping for residents and visitors at stores, businesses and personal service shops within our city.” That bore fruit on Upper Falls Boulevard when Tops Friendly Markets broke ground at 285 Upper Falls Blvd. during Johnson’s administration.

“We started building a police station there and a Tops supermarket—the first new supermarket that had been built in the city in years,” Johnson says. 

The police station and the market are still in that plaza, and have been joined by other businesses. 

Looking in a different direction, one overall aim of the Vital Urban Villages campaign was to reduce the city’s list of vacant commercial and residential structures. Rochester 2010 helped turn the long-vacant Hallman’s Chevrolet building into a favorite downtown hangout, according to Johnson. Spot Coffee is the cornerstone of 200 East Avenue Apartments, which offers upscale apartments and townhouses.

Johnson says there are a number of other examples of the bricks-and-mortar benefits that Rochester 2010 helped bring to the city.

“They were the direct results of planning studies that were implemented,” he says. 

Some of the serious problems that bedeviled Rochester back then, however, were beyond its control. Eastman Kodak and other large employers were at the start of a downward spiral that would take the city’s economy with it.

“We did not appreciate what was happening with our major employers, our benefactors,” Johnson says. 

And though Rochester could encourage the Rochester City School District to make improvements, a more direct approach was not possible—and still is not.

“We have no legal authority over what happens in the City School District,” Johnson says.

City schools continue to be greatly in need of improvement. Though high school graduation rates have slowly risen in recent years—almost 54 percent of students received their diplomas last year—10 city schools are on the state Education Department’s receivership list. 

In addition, the Health, Safety and Responsibility campaign’s goal of creating “the safest community in New York State in terms of per capita rate of crime, fires and accidents” eluded Rochester. Despite the efforts of the Rochester Police Department, City Hall and community groups, the city’s rate of violent crimes rose from 742.6 per 100,000 residents in 2000 to 1,259.6 in 2006, according to FBI crime statistics. New York State’s violent crime rate never went over 553.9 per 100,000 during that same period

Since that time, Rochester’s crime rate has dropped, falling in 2018 to what the Warren administration said is “its lowest point in at least 34 years.” 

Many factors affect whether a plan like Rochester 2010 will prove out. Johnson says that the plan he helped to create would have come to fruition—if his successors had continued implementing it after he left office in 2005.

“My assessment is they pretty much gutted the 2010 plan,” he says. “If we’d stayed on track, I think the city would be much farther ahead.”

Regarding Rochester 2034, Johnson commends the Warren administration for the way it went about creating the draft plan, but he believes that stretching its timeline to Rochester’s 200thbirthday might not be a good idea.

“That’s 15 years from now, and a lot of things can happen that we can’t even predict,” says Johnson, who founded Strategic Community Intervention LLC after leaving the mayor’s office, and is its CEO. “I would have taken it out to, say, 2025—something like that.”

Evan Lowenstein

Evan Lowenstein, assistant market supervisor of the Rochester Public Market, who chairs the Neighborhood of the Arts Association’s Development Monitoring Committee, is keen to see how Rochester 2034’s focus on transportation plays out. The longtime city resident, who trained as a professional urban planner, he praised the idea of developing alternative means of transportation.

“The focus on making the city more for people on foot, bikes and for transit users, and less about accommodating cars, is especially exciting to me,” Lowenstein says. “We spent too many decades designing our city for cars, and that badly damaged its fabric and functionality.”

The public will have 90 days to comment on the draft of Rochester 2034. Kirkmire says the Warren administration hopes to put it before the City Council for a vote in the fall.

One thought on “Drafting a vision of Rochester’s future

  1. The Mayor, and Dorraine Kirkmire, should be vigorously applauded for their comprehensive approach to the final vision plan — and their focus on re-zoning and making the City a more livable place and a more business friendly place. Now for implementation…..

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