With the eastern portion of Rochester’s Inner Loop filled in, City Hall has set about doing the same to the highway’s northern section. While comparisons between the projects are expected, the stakes are different this time around.
The Inner Loop East Transformation Project wrapped up in 2017. More than 800,000 square feet of building permits have been issued in the corridor, and the area saw an increase in pedestrian and bike traffic before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city. Erik Frisch, Rochester’s deputy commissioner of neighborhood and business development, says the project has proven successful on these grounds.
Residents can walk down Union Street with no inkling that its tree-lined sidewalks and new medium-density residential developments are built on land once covered by a large expressway. Aside from a single commemorative sign, no vestige of the eastern Inner Loop remains.
North of the city center, however, the highway still stands. Along the edges of Brown Square, Upper Falls, and South Marketview Heights, the road constructed around 60 years ago cuts through the landscape, separating neighborhood residents from downtown Rochester.
Frisch says this points to a key contrast between the two highway segments. The Inner Loop East project did not raise as many concerns about displacement because affected a downtown area with fewer residences.
“It was already a relatively affluent area, so when you get into Inner Loop North, especially in the Marketview Heights area, you have different concerns,” Frisch says. “You are talking about an area that very clearly was a lower income and highly nonwhite population that existed prior to its construction. …. A lot of people have lived there for generations and are still there and can still feel the wounds caused by the construction.”
Indeed, taken together, 45 percent of residents in the neighborhoods along the northern stretch of the Inner Loop are Black, nearly half of the households in these neighborhoods earn $15,000 a year or less, and 51.9 percent of residents have never attended college, according to the market analysis conducted for the project. The current picture of the area is one of financial precarity.
This situation is inherited from a history of segregationist housing practices from which the construction of the Inner Loop cannot be separated. The northern segment of the highway is built through or adjacent to three districts that were redlined in 1939 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which was created as part of the New Deal to extend new mortgages and provide relief to mortgage borrowers.
One of these redlined segments included all of Marketview Heights.
“Houses are rather unsightly but are detached and set back from the street,” reads the HOLC’s description of this area from Nov. 1, 1939. “There is almost no pride of ownership.”
The High Falls area was another of these segments, and the HOLC gave it a similarly negative description.
“Appeal is entirely to the laboring classes who cannot afford better,” the description reads.
In the wake of this history, Frisch says, the city government is trying to embed community input into the development of the Inner Loop North Transformation Project to rebuild public trust.
“We fully appreciate how the construction of the highways, combined with the redlining that was occurring at the same time, contribute to a complete lack of trust in what the government is doing,” he says. “When we come in here and we say, ‘We’re going to make everything better.’ I can totally understand why people would say, ‘Really? We’ve heard this before.’”
For instance, when the city was floating concepts for the project last year, officials offered a range of six levels of restoration and asked the community to weigh in via online voting or in-person voting at the four meetings they held. The community opted for Concept Six, which promised the greatest degree of restoration, and the city turned this into the current concept moving forward, Frisch says.
The challenge now is balancing what the community wants with the realities of property development.
Frisch says Marketview Heights residents have adamantly demanded lower-density, owner-occupied, and affordable housing. This could be tough to deliver, but the city is working with housing partners, different funding sources, and models like lease-to-purchase to realize these demands, he continues.
“We want people to have opportunities to own homes, but we also want people to not be displaced from the homes that they’ve been living in,” Frisch says. “So, we’ve got to find that right mix, that right balance.”
To Frisch, despite the differences between the two projects, the ultimate goal of the northern transformation will be to build a picture much like the one now seen along Union Street. He hopes for a future where people cannot tell if there ever was an Inner Loop cutting through these neighborhoods.
“If you’re not from Rochester or you’re too young to remember what it was like, you would just think that new buildings were built,” Frisch says. “Over time, I would hope that what we see is that these truly become neighborhoods and become parts of the downtown, the trees grow up around them, generations get used to it, the retail and restaurant spaces are filled, and that it builds on itself.”
Justin O’Connor is a senior at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.
The soon to be released Draft Recommended Budget and Plan for the Inner Loop North $100 million state-funded project does not include anything for the new affordable low-density housing that the residents of the Lower Marketview Heights neighborhood made clear in several meetings was their highest priority. When Senators Moynihan and Gillibrand were on the site in April 2021 they said this project would help rebuild the neighborhood that was damaged by the initial construction six decades ago. The budget does not reflect that at all!
There are things that could have been included:
a. Prepare the sites for new housing. I observed that when the recent Inner Loop East removal project was undertaken three years ago, the new development sites were left with old rebar and pieces of the concrete walls, all of which had to be removed and replaced with clean fill by the housing developers. Let’s not repeat that mistake! At the same time, water, sewer, and utility connections for each new building lot could be installed.
b. There are 105 vacant lots throughout that neighborhood, the result of the arson of the 1970’s and building abandonment and demolition since then. The same thing should be done there: which would save new affordable housing developers an estimated $35,000 per lot.
Let’s not kid ourselves about the objective of connecting neighborhoods: The Plan eliminates bridges, but the connecting streets remain exactly the same, except for one new connection: Gibbs Street, one that unfortunately ends after the one-block-long connection could be made. Frank Orienter’s letter, above, is correct.
When I lived in Beechwood and worked downtown I often found the inner loop to be convenient and frustrating depending on where I needed to go. I don’t believe that affordable housing, neighborhoods, and the inner loop bifurcating neighborhoods per se, is the cause of any of the social and economic challenges residents feel these days. I think the western portion from Frontier Field to the city line of 490 did far more damage to prior endemic communities. It’s been my experience that government cannot create neighborhoods. Often there are serious unintended consequences resulting from major projects, no matter how much community input there is. Those who provide input at public meetings seldom actually go out and poll each neighbor and ask what’s vital to them. City employees and community organizations frequently chase the funding. That is they modify their long-term vision in order to have access to grants and funding and contort themselves and their projects to acquire money. Depending on the jobs and economic development in the city as a whole, and adaptive reuse of existing structures by new employers there would be a significant incentive in working closer to where one lives, especially if gas prices continue to rise. It may be possible that the resurgence of North Village Village and Beechwood could continue to move westward to include 14621 and Marketview Heights, but a vast amount of public funding and programs will be needed to rehab existing structures and new, income appropriate housing being wisely integrated into what has become a widely commercial and industrial area. One major problem is the lack of long-term continuity of elected officials at all levels who can over time, assess, design, and implement the policies that will achieve the desired outcome.
That the Inner Loop is a blight on the landscape (even if a necessary piece of urban infrastructure) which has had a negative impact on economic development of parts of Rochester seems to be indisputable. But one of the arguments raised by proponents of deep-sixing the roadway has never made much sense to me.
The argument is that the Inner Loop split neighborhoods. Correct, it did. But what gets overlooked in the discussion are two vital points. First, in most cases, the racial and socio-economic makeup of those neighborhoods had only been established post-WWII. So by the time the Inner Loop was planned and constructed in the 1950/60s, those neighborhoods were about 15 years old at best. Hardly what one could call a “neighborhood” in the sense of a multi-generational residential area. And secondly, those “neighborhoods” have now been split for 60 years, far longer then they existed in the first place. The vast majority of the original inhabitants are long gone, so that the current residents of these “new neighborhoods” have no memory of, or connection to, the short-lived prior “neighborhoods.”