The city of Rochester plans to build on the results of its Inner Loop East Transformation Project when it turns the northern section of that roadway into a new community.
“(We’re) taking the success we had with Inner Loop East and applying that to the remainder of the corridor, but in a different way,” says Erik Frisch, the city’s deputy commissioner of neighborhood and business development.
The completed Inner Loop North Transformation Project will reconnect neighborhoods that the urban freeway cut to pieces and leave Rochester with 22 acres of new land for housing and green space. Once that’s completed, nothing of the Inner Loop Highway will remain other than the on- and off-ramps that once connected it to I-490.
Last year, the city completed the Inner Loop North Transformation Planning Study and City Grid Restoration as a concept to redesign the roadway. New York has committed $100 million toward the project, and the state Department of Transportation is funding the project’s design, officials say.
“With this critically important phase underway, we are one step closer toward ensuring we restore the communities severed more than a half-century ago and revitalize downtown Rochester for a century more,” said Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez a few weeks ago.
As the design phase rolls out, the city will continue to develop concepts for future land use, including green space and redevelopment, along the Inner Loop North corridor. The public will be able to provide input on transportation design and land use.
“To reclaim prime real estate in the heart of Rochester and apply the best practices of city planning with a focus on equity, sustainability, and the reconnection of our neighborhoods and residents is inspiring,” said Rochester Mayor Malik Evans in announcing the next phase. “Thanks to Gov. Kathy Hochul, we have the funds to right some of the wrongs of our past and build a new future filled with opportunities and hope for everyone.”
Built to solve a problem
The Inner Loop Highway originally was designed to solve a problem that no longer exists. Rochester’s population rose during the years after World War II as manufacturing boomed and returning service men and women started families. At the end of the war, about 330,000 called the city home. By 1950, that number had risen to 332,488, and was expected to increase. The resulting traffic problems led city officials to propose building a highway that linked Rochester’s northern and eastern ends with downtown.
Work on the first of the five segments of the 2.7-mile Inner Loop began in 1952. During the next 13 years, construction crews demolished 1,300 homes and businesses to make room for the four- to six-lane highway, along with public buildings, parks and factories. The concrete ribbon cut through neighborhoods, many of which were primarily the homes of minority groups. For the residents of those neighborhoods, the roadway and its whizzing cars limited access to the city’s center.
“Charlotte Street did not cross the Inner Loop,” Frisch says. “There was no connection across all the way from East Main Street to East Avenue.”
Construction of the Inner Loop ended in 1965, but suburbanization, the downsizing or loss of major businesses and other factors had already begun to drive Rochester’s population down. It dropped to 230,872 in 1990 and to 219,773 in 2000. By then, the road was underutilized, particularly the eastern section, and in poor repair.
Eliminating the Inner Loop
At the same time, public support for the Inner Loop’s removal had begun to grow, leading city officials to study the measures to take regarding the urban highway. The 2001 Inner Loop Improvement Study proposed removing the highway, and offered six alternatives for doing so. City officials subsequently chose to demolish and redevelop the Loop in separate phases.
The Inner Loop East Transformation Project focused on the two-thirds-of-a-mile stretch of the roadway that extended from Monroe Avenue to Charlotte Street. Among other objectives, the project was designed to reconnect the neighborhoods through which the roadway had bored to the center of the city, enhance the economic opportunities available in the affected area and promote alternative modes of transport in that area.
Crews broke ground on Inner Loop East in 2014 and finished the job in 2017, providing close to six acres of new land for development. Federal and state funds covered all but $414,000 of the project’s $22 million cost.
Union Street, which ran along that part of the loop, is now a walkable boulevard with protected cycling tracks, landscaping and wide sidewalks. Multistory housing blocks, some of which sport restaurants or other businesses, stand on much of the land that the project made available for development. Charlotte Street, which once didn’t cross the highway, has been made whole again.
“That area was really underinvested—it was hard to get to,” Frisch says. “Now, there’s hundreds of units of new housing in the area, that’s brought life in terms of people walking, looking for things to do.”
Altogether, five of Inner Loop East’s seven parcels have been developed. Charlotte Square on the Loop, just one of the complexes that have sprouted on the filled-in Inner Loop, offers 50 apartments and town homes within walking distance of many of downtown’s attractions. Federal, state and local rental assistance is available for qualified renters. The development isn’t the only one to offer such aid.
“Roughly 500 housing units have been created, more than half of which are affordable at or below 60 percent (of area median income),” Frisch says. “It’s an economically diverse neighborhood that we’ve created.”
Government agencies use AMI, also referred to as MFI, or median family income, to determine whether the income of a renter or home buyer qualifies for government assistance. For a single person renting in Rochester, 60 percent of the MFI comes to $39,900 or less. For a four-person family, the figure is $57,000.
In the wake of improvement
At the other end of Inner Loop East from Charlotte Street sits the Strong National Museum of Play, which recently cut the ribbon on a 90,000-square-foot expansion of its premises. Steve Dubnik, the museum’s president and CEO, says the filling-in of the eastern part of the urban highway helped make the iconic museum’s growth possible.
“This project started many years ago when the city of Rochester, with federal and state support, made the commitment to filling the Inner Loop, creating usable land and connecting neighborhoods,” Dubnik said when the expansion was unveiled in June.
The museum’s $75 million expansion includes the addition of a more than 24,000-square-foot interior exhibit space that’s dedicated to electronic games and the Hasbro Game Park, a 17,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit area that explores the influence of board games. Kids can now marvel at a giant Monopoly piece or make a huge Dungeons & Dragons sculpture roar and breathe fire. A new street, Adventure Place, connects South Union Street to the museum’s driveway.
The museum is the heart of the Neighborhood of Play, a collaboration of the museum, the Indus Hospitality Group and Konar Properties. The Indus Hospitality Group owns the Hampton Inn & Suites, a 126-room hotel, while Konar Properties owns Vida Apartments and Townhomes, a recently constructed complex that offers a total of 238 rental units. Both rose in the wake of the Inner Loop East project.
A number of other businesses have also sprouted as a result of Inner Loop East. The Buffalo-based craft beer company Fattey Beer Co. opened a club on Adventure Place, as did Nerdvana Rochester, which offers a combination gaming and dining experience.
Other parts of the city have also benefitted from the filling-in of the sunken highway, Frisch says.
“Weve seen investment in what’s becoming known as lower Monroe, or “Lo Mo,” the area (of) Monroe and Union just outside of downtown,” he says.
Frisch points to Nine Spot Brewing as an example of such investments. The craft brewery opened on Monroe Avenue a short distance from the Strong Museum last December.
Inner Loop North
Inner Loop North, Rochester’s effort to fill in the remaining part of the sunken highway, appears more ambitious than its predecessor. The recently completed Inner Loop North Transformation Planning Study calls for the removal, filling-in and reconstruction of a 1.5-mile stretch of the expressway that reaches from Route 490 across the Genesee River to the intersection of Monroe Avenue and North Union Street.
The finished project is intended to reconnect downtown Rochester with the Public Market and the city’s Brown Square, High Falls, Upper Falls and Marketview Heights neighborhoods, and provide land for redevelopment.
“You’re talking four times the impact, potentially, of Inner Loop East,” Frisch says.
When finished, that part of Rochester would sport many of the features of Inner Loop East, with some differences. During the planning study, residents of the neighborhoods adjoining Inner Loop North called for developing the reclaimed land in a different manner than the project’s predecessor.
“Working in the South Marketview Heights area, we heard loud and clear from neighbors that they don’t want to see larger, block-type development like we have seen in Inner Loop East,” Frisch says. “They have expressed a preference for lower-density, owner-occupied, affordable home ownership opportunities.”
Frisch says the current scheme would potentially result in the creation of new, affordable, single-family lots in the Marketview Heights area. The part of the Inner Loop North corridor that’s closer to downtown, where the population is denser, might be made available for mixed-use, multistory housing blocks. Altogether, 14 of Inner Loop North’s 22 acres are slated to be used for redevelopment, and the remainder for green space.
Stantec, a Rochester-based engineering and design firm, has been picked to lead the team that will create the preliminary design for the City Grid Restoration concept. Frisch says crews should begin removing that section of the highway in the spring of 2027.
West River Wall
In addition to creating new neighborhoods along the Inner Loop’s route, the city recently completed the first segment of the West River Wall project, three-quarters of a mile south of where the Inner Loop crosses the Genesee River. Among its many benefits, the $8.4 million construction project was designed to be a plus for the Plymouth Avenue Exchange (PLEX) Neighborhood.
“It’s our goal to utilize the waterfront of Rochester, but also to create equitable access between the neighborhood and the river,” says Kamal Crues, manager of the Roc the Riverway initiative. The initiative, a collection of more than two dozen projects that the city of Rochester plans to undertake along the Genesee River, includes the first and second segments of the West River Wall project.
PLEX, a J-shaped neighborhood, sits between South Plymouth Avenue and Exchange Street on the west bank of the Genesee River. In 1918, a wall was constructed to protect the land west of the river from flooding. The wall deteriorated down through the years until the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that it could no longer provide effective flood protection.
In 2020, crews began work on Segment 1 of the West River Wall Improvement project, which covered a 2,000-foot stretch of the riverfront that runs from Corn Hill Landing to the Ford Street bridge. One important task was to remove and replace that part of the crumbling floodwall, which was owned by the New York State Canal Corp.
“We actually restored flood protection without having that hard barrier in place basically by constructing (a) levee system or berm,” Crues says.
Construction crews also realigned the Genesee Riverway Trail, which courses along the riverbank, installed new lighting, landscaping and fencing, and built a new plaza, North Star Commons. The plaza is named after the North Star, the antislavery newspaper that the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas founded in Rochester. Statues of Douglas and Abraham Lincoln adorn the plaza.
In addition to undertaking such tasks, crews had to remove soil that had become contaminated due to the proximity to the site of the now-defunct Vacuum Oil Co., a state-designated Brownfield Opportunity Area. The soil of the BOA contains volatile organic compounds, metals and other contaminants that can be harmful to humans.
Segment 1 of the West River Wall Project encompassed about four acres of land, some of which will be prepared for redevelopment. Crues says grants from the Department of State, the Canal Corp. and the Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. helped pay for the project, though he did not provide the amounts of the grants. City officials announced the completion of that part of the project in June 2022.
Segment 2 of the West River Wall project will focus on the part of the Genesee’s riverbank that runs from the Ford Street Bridge approximately 4,200 feet south to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad Bridge. Counting the bank and its contiguous areas, the project involves more than 15 acres.
“The project site is twice the length and over four times the size of the previously completed Segment 1 project,” Crues says.
Crues did not provide many details of Segment 2 of the West River Wall project—it is still in the early stages—but he did say did say that it is expected to proceed in two phases. During Phase 1, crews will deal with effects of the Vacuum Oil plant’s pollution upon the site’s soil.
Once the environmental remediation of the site has been completed, work will begin on Phase 2, which will focus on riverfront revitalization and construction of flood protection measures. The cost of Phase 1 can’t be determined until an environmental remediation plan has been developed, but Phase 2 is expected to cost approximately $32 million.
Crues says the second part of the West River Wall project is currently in the design phase, and that city officials are seeking funding for it.
“Construction will be scheduled once funding is secured,” he says.
Dorian Hall, president of the PLEX Neighborhood Association, questioned the value of the West River Wall project for the residents of his neighborhood.
“That really doesn’t have anything to do with PLEX,” he says.
Instead, Hall asks for more housing for low-income residents. The kinds of rental units that have recently sprouted won’t do for the residents of PLEX.
“Right now, most of the projects that happen, even with the Inner Loop, they’re all the higher-percent AMI,” Halls says. “Our neighborhood, and most neighborhoods, we want to see more development projects with a lower AMI, (a) 30 percent AMI.”
Hall would especially like to see the city help low-income residents buy their own homes.
“When you own your own home, that’s an economic driver that changes your situation,” he says.
To that end, he’d like to see developers build housing in his neighborhood that those earning as little as $30,000 a year could afford to own.
“We need developers who are willing to do projects that are not looking to make that much money off of them, but more to help our community,” Hall says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].