A serious flaw in Rochester 2034

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The administration of Mayor Lovely Warren has put up for a brief public comment period a new comprehensive plan: Rochester 2034. At more than 400 pages, plus fascinating appendices, it’s a great aspirational vision of where Rochester should be headed. As appropriate for a once-every-other-decade comprehensive plan document, there are only a few specific recommendations for change in zoning regulations.

Richard Rosen

One of them I found very troubling, however. City residents need to be aware of this proposal so they can weigh in by the Aug. 16 deadline for comments.

The draft document calls for a “Placemaking Plan” to replace current unrelated zoning requirements.

“The Placemaking Plan is meant to both enhance the quality of life for residents and to facilitate the repopulation of the city,” the document states. “Rochester must build up the critical mass of residents and consumers needed to support small businesses, stabilize the tax base, increase housing affordability, and provide critical services to residents in need.”

Rochester 2034 recommends that if, and when, Rochester’s population does increase, consideration should be given to allowing an additional dwelling unit in each house in neighborhoods surrounding downtown that have large lots (generally 50-foot lot width). Those lots were created for large 19th century homes. On the map below, that’s the bright yellow portion, generally within one-half to one mile of downtown. Those neighborhoods are mostly zoned R-1 (low-density residential), especially in Southeast Rochester. Many such large homes already have been subdivided into apartments. But others remain in single-family use, and are some of Rochester’s most desirable residences.

It’s quite likely that in the near future Rochester’s population will increase due to the new apartment construction under way downtown and in nearby neighborhoods. That could trigger implementation of this Rochester 2034 recommendation to change the zoning ordinance by permitting conversion of one-family homes to two-family in the bright yellow areas on the map. On its face, that could be a good thing. It could mean small households and individuals could find wonderful housing at an affordable price. Seniors could downsize and remain in the same neighborhood. That could add to the stability of these neighborhoods, by providing cash-strapped owners with rental income, which could be used to spruce up old dwellings that require costly upkeep. The devil is, of course, in the details. And the major detail is off-street parking. 

At present, the availability of on-street parking is critical to the desirability of the low-density neighborhoods where future conversion of single-family to two-family use is recommended. Interspersed with single-family homes in these neighborhoods are townhouse groups on corner lots, apartment houses built before there was zoning, or past conversions to two-, three- or four-family use where off-street parking was either not required, or where the requirement was waived by granting of variances. As a result, even on streets with fine old single-family homes, on-street parking is very tight as all these other dwelling types may have no off-street parking provisions.

What does Rochester 2034 say about a rewrite of the city’s zoning code regarding parking requirements? It recommends “a more flexible, demand responsive approach to automobile parking regulations.” That recommendation, if implemented, has the potential to destroy the desirability of the older large-lot neighborhoods close to downtown. A “demand responsive approach” translates to a recommendation by a planning consultant or traffic engineer, to be selected by the applicant, requesting permission to add an apartment to a single-family home.

That consultant might well cite the fact that occupants of the home garage their cars off-street, and that the proposed apartment would likely be occupied by a single individual who either relies on transit or bicycle or walks, and therefore will add no additional parking burden to the neighborhood. This will likely result in these highly desirable neighborhoods becoming less desirable due to parking congestion. Taking transit to work, or biking, is for many residents aspirational at this time. City consultants have noted that unless buses pass by at 10-minute intervals and stop a short distance away, unless there are dedicated bicycle lanes, and given how hard walking can be with current snowplowing standards particularly at intersections, many will continue to own a car. However commendable, the aspirations are, at this time, just that.

And thus, the original intent of the recommendation—to make neighborhoods more vibrant by increased density—may result in the loss of the high-income residents who can afford to live in the oversize 19th century homes that lend character to center city. The goal of adding diversity to the city’s population must not include driving out those with higher incomes. Adding an apartment to a well-located single-family home can accomplish the goal of diversity without unwanted displacement, but only if parking requirements are maintained.

The Rochester 2034 plan can be a first-rate guide to future policy if city residents participate in the process by making their reactions to the draft known. It is unfortunate that so little time is left before the public comment period deadline. 

Richard Rosen is a city resident, architect and urban planner.

11 thoughts on “A serious flaw in Rochester 2034

  1. Thank you again, Mr Rosen for helping regular folk understand the proposal. More than the parking issues this proposal introduces, I am concerned about the reduced rate of owner occupancy that would result. While our renter-friendly neighborhoods are currently an asset, it is still the case that owner-occupants anchor every street where they are located. The reason for this is not that tenants and landlords are in any way less responsible than owner-occupants, but that they are simply less vested in the health of the neighborhood. Walk down any street in our city, and you can pretty accurately identify which properties are owner-occupied.

    • I totally agree, just looking at my street and neighborhood in Charlotte. There is a huge difference between the homes that are rented vs owned. I would hate to see those beautiful, well maintained homes that make our city beautiful and unique changed. Look at where that has happened already in the city. Seneca Parkway (as just one street that comes to mind) area homes that used to be beautiful one family homes split into apts .As I drive in those neighborhoods I often mention how beautiful the area must have been “in the day”
      I don’t know the answer, but changing those beautiful well built homes and destroying the history there is not it!

  2. “This will likely result in these highly desirable neighborhoods becoming less desirable due to parking congestion.”

    Market forces will dictate rents, less demand equals lower rents. Could this be one route to more affordable housing stock in the city? I believe that to be a good thing.

  3. Tiny houses, mother-in-law apartments, garage conversions are all options that run against the grain in current zoning. (Which city just removed all zoning to encourage diversity in housing options?) Increased population consolidation is good for the planet — services more effectively delivered,fewer natural resources squandered. Young people – the 20/30 year olds – are not so chained to the single automobile.They are already comfortable using alternative options. Worrying about car parking in the city (and property values!) is last-century thinking. Come on, Richard! You’re a creative planner!

  4. However, Shirley Dawson, if I have a 19th c. mansion and wish to have a cocktail party or dinner guests, I do not expect them to have to call Uber to get to visit. They should be able to find an on-street parking space within a block. Travel modes may evolve, but it is a slow process. We can’t afford to chase out those who have invested in close-in neighborhoods and expected that on-street parking would continue to be available.

    • So when it comes to addressing the climate crisis… you really want us to take multi-unit structures and the efficiencies they create off the table in order to hold cocktail parties?

    • Buddy, if you can afford a 19th century mansion, you can pay for your own parking. You are advocating that we choose parking for vehicles over space for people.

  5. If you want to find on-street parking within a block wherever you happen to be in the city, expect to pay for it. If street-parking remains free for drivers, expect it to be difficult to find. A better solution than restricting how many people can live in desirable neighborhoods would be to charge money for on-street parking. Then a landlord can decide whether to set aside some of their property for car storage, or instead attract renters without cars.

    I’m a property owner in one of the neighborhoods you worry will be worried by a lack of parking (Westminster Rd) and I say bring on the density. More density means more amenities which means my neighborhood will be even more fun to live in. After all, as you yourself note:

    “City consultants have noted that unless buses pass by at 10-minute intervals and stop a short distance away, unless there are dedicated bicycle lanes, and given how hard walking can be with current snowplowing standards particularly at intersections, many will continue to own a car.”

    We can increase bus frequency, build protected bike lanes, and reliably plow the snow off of sidewalks, and then none of this is an issue. We have 15 years to do it, let’s get cracking.

  6. There is plenty of free parking in the city right now. Changing minimums would not change this overnight. Pair this with actual support for alternatives to private automobiles instead of sitting on our laurels, and we’ll be much better off. As a city resident, I’d rather not subsidize your parking.

  7. By the time of implementation of the 2034 plan, either the private automobile or our civilization will have ceased to exist as we know it. Automobiles are not a sustainable and healthy element of an urban society and must be replaced. On-street parking is nonsensical use of public space just as requirements for provision of machinery storage on private property are nonsensical.

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