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.
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.