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.