Rochester reclaims the river

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Our nation’s connections to its waterways was once quite transactional. Rivers were used for transportation, power and waste disposal. As open sewers or pathways for noisy and dirty shipping, they were actively shunned by residents. 

The Genesee was no exception: Commercial structures on both sides of the Main Street Bridge largely hid the waterway from residents for a century beginning in 1861.

Electricity freed manufacturing from flowing water. Improved sanitation, coupled with the 1972 Clean Water Act and other laws, dramatically reduced the level of pollutants and the noxious smells. Communities around the country have reclaimed their waterfronts. Residents of San Antonio, Chicago, Milwaukee and many other cities can join tourists who come to walk, bike or dine along their rivers. 

Milwaukee Riverwalk (Credit: Visit Milwaukee)

Rochester now offers many lovely views of the river. The Main Street Bridge, freed of buildings in the 1960s, is adorned with an Albert Paley-designed railing. The Ford Street Bridge, originally built in 1844, with the current structure completed in 1919, was substantially renovated in 2001. The Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge offers a stunning view of High Falls.

Walkways and bike paths along the river are incomplete and in disrepair, however. With access limited, opportunities for lazy riverfront socializing are rare. One of Rochester’s most interesting features—an Erie Canal “water bridge” or aqueduct over the Genesee—remains capped by Broad Street. 

The Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge at High Falls (Credit: Rochester City Hall Photo Lab)

ROC the Riverway—a joint initiative of New York State and the city of Rochester, partially funded by a $50 million state grant—aims to fix this. The Phase I Vision Plan was unveiled just over two years ago.

City staffers Erik Frisch and Kevin Kelley hosted a bike tour of the projects included in the plan on Sept. 26, and I participated. The complete vision plan and an interactive “storymap” can be found online.

Erik Frisch and Kevin Kelley (Credit: Kent Gardner)

Navigating downtown

If you’ve attempted to bike or walk along the river through downtown, you know this to be an obstacle course. Consider a bike route from the University of Rochester northward. This is a frequent route for me as I live in Irondequoit and am active in a church located in College Town. 

■ The Genesee Riverway Trail (on both the east and west sides of the river) abruptly ends at Court Street and a rider is routed to city streets.

■ It is nearly two miles over city streets to the start of the El Camino Trail on Scrantom or the restart of the Genesee Riverway Trail at St. Paul and Clifford.

Turning Point Park (Credit: City of Rochester)

■ If your destination is Turning Point Park, the trail returns to city streets at Lake Avenue for another 1.2 miles before it reappears.

Much of the glorious Genesee River Gorge is hidden from view.

A number of the ROC the Riverway projects aim at fixing the problems through downtown, described in the plan as producing “seamless and accessible pedestrian and bicycle access along both sides of the river.” See the map of the obstacles targeted in the plan.

The project is planned in phases with only Phase I currently funded, through the $50 million investment of Empire State Development funds announced in August 2018. Phase I improvements include:

■ Renovation of the Sister Cities Bridge with improvements to the Charles Carroll Plaza (west terminus of the bridge) scheduled for Phase II.

■ The Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center terrace will be improved visually and will be integrated into the east bank Riverway Trail.

Sterile and unconnected Convention Center terrace. (Credit: Kent Gardner)

■ Similar improvements to the uninspired plaza between the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial and the river, development of the Rundel Memorial Library’s North Terrace and other streetscape and mobility enhancements will make downtown a much friendlier destination for residents and tourists alike.

■ Improvements to the Brewery Line Trail will enhance views of High Falls and increase the appeal of the adjacent park.

Read more: First phase of downtown skate park completed


Attracting private investment

Public dollars will go only so far. If the plan is to be successful, it must spur private-sector spending. Projects might include:

■ Improvements to the Blue Cross Arena, among them repurposing the east side of the building from offices to make expanded retail and dining possible.

■ Developers of the recently-sold Thomson Reuters building (home of the Mercury statue) are considering a first-floor bar/restaurant spilling onto the riverfront promenade.

■ Corn Hill Navigation wants to replace the now-retired Mary Jemison, formerly docked at Corn Hill Landing. ROC the River improvements will increase visitation and the viability of the planned return of a Genesee River tour.

The Mary Jemison at Corn Hill Landing (Credit:

While the Genesee Riverway Trail continues south of downtown on both sides of the river, the trails are in poor condition and connections to the adjacent neighborhoods can be vastly improved.

■ A number of large sites—particularly the contaminated Vacuum Oil site—are brimming with potential, once they are made ready for use. Restoration of abandoned industrial sites is never quick. The city’s persistence in pursuing cleanup is to be commended.

■ Although this stretch of the river is ideal for kayaking or canoeing, there is no place to rent the boats or gear. Once again, public investment will open up opportunities for private entrepreneurship.

■ On the west bank, a view of the water is blocked by an unsightly and decaying concrete barrier. The wall is necessary, of course, and is being restored. The solution to the view problem is to raise the path.

(Credit: Kent Gardner)

Aqueduct re-imagined

One of the jewels of Rochester history is the Erie Canal aqueduct. First built in 1825 and replaced in 1842, it became the center of the two-mile underground portion of the Rochester Subway in 1927 and operated until 1956. The tunnel remains under Broad Street and continues to spark the imagination of Rochester residents and city planners. 

The Erie Canal once traversed the Geneseee River by an aqueduct now covered by Broad Street. (Credit: Rochester Public Library Local History Division)

The Aqueduct Re-Imagined project hopes to bring these dreams and visions to reality. In addition to the work under way on the Convention Center and Rundel Library terraces, the planning phase will be completed under Phase I, with construction dependent on future funding. The concept plan for Aqueduct Re-Imagined entails tearing off the Broad Street covering and opening up the connections among the Convention Center, Blue Cross Arena and library buildings. 

We’ve only just begun . . .

ROC the Riverway isn’t the beginning of Rochester’s efforts to reclaim the beauty and history of the Genesee River—a series of modest improvements have improved access to the river. This plan is dramatically different in scope and vision, however. Completing the entire effort will take continued persistence and lots of cash. The experience of other riverfront cities should persuade us that this is a prudent investment in Rochester’s future. Look out, San Antonio!

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

9 thoughts on “Rochester reclaims the river

  1. Thanks, Tom. As you rightly point out, the issues addressed by Roc the Riverway are longstanding and you were one member of our community who kept these ideas bubbling! Thanks for your tenacity. Phase I is only a beginning–further progress will require aligning a number of stars–state, county & city plus vigorous private support. These efforts are generally unsuccessful without a powerful champion.

  2. I’m old enough to remember when the river was hidden from Main St. and at age twelve saw it from the back door of an army surplus store one summer day.

    I’m happy to see it now and like the renderings I see for the future. If this or something similar is done it would be a benefit to both residents and visitors.

    The only thing that is concerning is the cost given the current economy and other issues we are facing in Rochester and nation wide. There are so many things that money might be better spent on like sorting out the school district, dealing with health and welfare of city residents in need, and properly maintaining what we have. We might be better off leaving this development for better economic times and stick to doing the best job of planning this for the time being. Now is a time to be frugal and deal with necessities as they arise.

  3. Kent: Great story that describes the community’s vision quite well. As the former Project Manager (retired) on the majority of public projects within Rochester’s Erie Harbor Harbor, I can tell you first hand that the momentum of the plan will only drive the vision so far. You touch on a few of the issues (funding, planning) however one big issue that Rochester tends to miss the mark on is leadership and sense of importance . Many of the projects you mention were first derived over 30 years ago. The community vision for this corridor has been documented in the South River Corridor Study, Rochester’s LWRP, Rochester 2010 Plan, NYS Canal Recreation Plan and the Erie Canal Aqueduct Master Plan. The issue at hand boils down to why don’t our Elected officials (at all levels) put this initiative at the top of the agenda ? All one has to do is look at Buffalo’s Inner Harbor to see how effective leadership can move a community forward.

  4. So much has been done; so much to do. Perseverance can make all things happen. Happy to see the river is still a focus. We will leave Rochester greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

    • Thanks, Peter. As a longstanding Rochester-watcher, your perspective is helpful. I’m sure that during your tenure as City Manager you explored ways to take advantage of the Aqueduct! Someday . . .

  5. Thanks for this overview of river development issues Kent. As a board member of the Monroe County Library System (MCLS) I have been excited about the city’s commitment to the North Terrace project adjacent to Rundel. It will add a whole new dimension to the library and nearby spaces. Your “ big picture” look at the River is important. Hopefully it helps spur on more attention and commitment to this rich city resource. Combined private and public efforts will pay off for future generations.

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