Parcel 5: a historic opportunity

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High Street in the UK. Main Street in the U.S. A simple, one-syllable word conveys the importance a thoroughfare has for an entire community. Rochester’s Main Street intersects Clinton Avenue, named for the New York governor who masterminded the development of the Erie Canal, key to Rochester’s emergence as a pre-eminent city in the first half of the 19thcentury.

Richard A. Glaser

It is this stretch of Main Street that became Rochester’s main business district, until suburbanization hollowed out the city’s inner core. It was here that the city and business leaders decided to develop Midtown Plaza in 1958. Opening in 1962, it immediately attracted international attention.

This was an era when our community was more integrated. The city’s neighborhoods were showing signs of segregation after the influx of African Americans during the Great Migration and arrival of waves of transplants from Puerto Rico. But residents of all ethnic backgrounds shopped together and walked the same sidewalks. Midtown Plaza was public and open to the entire community in ways that, unfortunately, feel unfamiliar today. Nostalgic traditions, like visiting the Clock of Nations or taking the kids for a monorail ride during Christmas, were enjoyed by all members of our community.

After years of neglect, our downtown is reemerging, almost phoenix-like. (In this case, it’s rising from gravel, not ashes.) The plaza was demolished and the main section of Midtown is now known as Parcel 5. The volume of activity around the vacant lot is increasing. New city residents occupy neighboring buildings converted from office space to residential units; professionals work at innovative companies relocating downtown; and fashionable restaurants are opening to cater to a clientele that is returning to the city it shunned for decades.

As we negotiate this transformation, we must remember the city residents who never left. The city of Rochester’s population is majority “people of color” and disproportionately impoverished. As we decide how to redevelop Parcel 5, we have an opportunity to make a statement by embracing diversity and nurturing greater understanding between races and classes.

One of Rochester’s great historical legacies is Frederick Law Olmsted’s park system, including Highland, Genesee Valley and Seneca parks. He even designed Washington Square Park, only two blocks from Parcel 5. Olmsted was born nearly 200 years ago to an affluent Northern family. He began his career as a journalist, traveling to the pre-Civil War south, writing about slavery and the Southern economy. He became an abolitionist and wrote extensively about social class and egalitarian ideals. He also partnered with Calvert Vaux in response to a request for proposal to design New York’s Central Park in 1858. They won. And, with this masterpiece he enunciated the principles that influenced his work as our country’s greatest landscape architect.

Olmsted understood the role that public space could play in nurturing a more democratic society that is based on freedom and equality. He endeavored to create a natural environment conducive to pleasure and accessible to all—rich and poor alike. Using a modern idiom, his parks embraced “social equity.”

Mayor Lovely Warren recently obtained City Council approval to seek financial support for a project entitled “Parcel 5 Public Space.” The state funding mechanism involves a multistep process that will require detailed public disclosures. It is my understanding that the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council will determine if the proposal is presented to the state funding authorities in Empire State Development. Some of their deliberations will be held in sessions open to the public. Presently, it is difficult to form any specific response to the concept because so little information has been shared.

I have been advocating for a transparent and inclusive approach for several years. We can learn from other post-industrial cities similar to our own, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Columbus, to identify best practices applicable to designing Parcel 5. We can incorporate the work of leading contemporary urbanists, some of whom are already familiar with, or even live in, Rochester. We can use contemporary techniques to integrate public opinion and ideas in ways that were not available to Olmsted. These might include charrettes or public forums similar to those conducted with the ROC the Riverway project. Or an online voting process, as New York recently used to determine the design of our new license plate. I am confident public input will deliver the best result for the entire community. It is the most democratic approach.

Rochesterians are again displaying their deep connection to this one-acre lot near the corner of Main Street and Clinton Avenue. Workers enjoy lunch at one of the several food trucks parked there throughout the week; pedestrians stroll through the open space on their way to a destination; and vast crowds congregate to enjoy a festival event. We shouldn’t be surprised, given its history as the city center. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with our past. Let’s perpetuate the magnificent elements and, most importantly, prevent repeating our past errors. Parcel 5 belongs to the public. Let’s reclaim it.

Richard A. Glaser is co-founder of RocGrowth and People for Parcel 5.

6 thoughts on “Parcel 5: a historic opportunity

  1. Excellent piece. I worked in Midtown for four years and it was extremely diverse, a real reflection of our community. My fear with Parcel Five has been exclusivity, but it looks like we’re moving away from that direction (condos and costly Broadway shows) and back towards the community center that the original Midtown represented.
    Now, can the City please put some sod in? As a stopgap? Seriously, Grass For P5 NOW!

  2. For an excellent book on the role that government can play in creating innovative spaces – NOT owned by private investors or developers, I’d highly suggest this book:

    While the book advocates doing this on a national level (funding innovative startups, creating technical innovation centers, structuring the deal so that it pays back to the original investors – the taxpayers) there is no reason we can’t do the same thing on a local level.

    If you’re serious about developing Parcel 5 in a way that will enhance our local economy I strongly urge you read this book and see how it might apply. Side note – the author ranked cities for potential and ability to implement this. Out of ALL the metropolitan areas identified Rochester was #1 on this index.

    Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream
    https://amzn.to/2Hu5Ypl

    • I am not interested in developing the parcel for the economy. I see it as the people’s choice. Olmsted didn’t do economic development…although he demonstrated how quality of life and inclusiveness provides the right environment.

  3. Many spoke up, and Mayor Warren listened. An application to the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council for 4.7 million for a community open space of some sort on Parcel 5 was approved by City Council. I don’t quite know how the City was able to estimate the total development cost at 23 million, since there is no design as yet: but that’s what’s been submitted. Funding is competitive, so advocates should pay attention so we can lend our support when the Finger Lakes Regional council announces it’s deliberations.

    There is more that we ought to be doing now. Starting five years ago, in various letters to the editor and on-line forums, there seems to have emerged a consensus that a very good design model to follow would be Bryant Park in Manhattan. City staff visited many cities to see downtown parks that work, and got facts from local officials. A public design charrette process will provide an opportunity for the general public to participate. A presentation by the City of everything they learned in their publicly financed visits ought to be part of that process. The Rochester Regional Community Design Center is well equipped to manage the entire design charrette process, as they have successfully done for many sites in our region.

    I urge that those like Richard Glazer who care passionately about the potential for Parcel 5 organize to ask City Council to initiate such a process to involve the citizenry. Past practice suggests that If the funding gets approved before that process is complete, a consultant will be hired to design the project, and public input will be limited to the usual exercise of “voting” on pre-determined elements by post-it note exercises. That removes the public from the design process. Posting votes on elements of a plan is not designing! City Council can be asked to fund the modest fee the Center will charge.

    Why is public input from the very beginning important? For one thing, there may be a strong consensus that the City is not the appropriate agency to manage the enterprise. Bryant Park is managed and funded by a corporation primarily of the building owners around it. Glazer’s essay highlights what may make the difference between success and failure: Midtown Plaza drew the entire city downtown because of the businesses and activities located there.

    As early advocates for Parcel 5 as a public place have continually emphasized: it’s the pop-up eateries and other businesses that can draw a diverse crowd. Those will be key players, together with folks who work and live downtown. Open space that is just another park, however beautiful, won’t change life downtown. Manhattan Square has performance space, ice skating, and kids playground. Washington Square is a great place for a rally. The City has decided it can forego the property tax revenue that a high rise might have generated. City taxpayers need to participate in the design process, starting now.

  4. Agreed.
    I keep fighting for our right to be involved.
    I will do whatever I can to prevent a “post it” situation.
    Nothing will be predetermined by an elected official who doesn’t engage in a process that the public wants…as long as I have some influence. Much appreciation to the Rochester Beacon for providing this channel of communication.

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