Momentum toward 2034

Print More
The Promenade at Erie Harbor along the Genesee River downtown, which provides public access to the riverfront. (Photos by Paul Ericson)

Since its adoption nearly five years ago, Rochester’s comprehensive plan—its blueprint for growth and development as the city heads toward its 200th birthday—has marked a number of significant milestones. And work on its myriad goals and strategies is “moving forward,” city officials say.

The phrase, used in the recently released second progress report on the plan, is apt. At its core, the Rochester 2034 is concerned with planning and designing for people, not cars. It is a deliberate attempt to shift toward infrastructure and programming for pedestrians and bicyclists, and away from driving.

“Growing a population is something that we aspire (to) but something that we as the city (and) as a community have only limited control over what actually happens,” says Kevin Kelley, Rochester’s manager of city planning. “We want to set the right conditions for Rochester to be a wonderful place that people would choose to move in, and also a place that as people grow up in the city that they choose to stay here.”

Kelley points to words from Fred Kent, an authority on public spaces and founder of Project Public Spaces, to illustrate that intent.

“If you plan a city for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places,” Kent has said.

The comprehensive plan is past the 25 percent completion mark. Progress is being made on more than 95 percent of the 88 goals and 76 percent of the 628 strategies. More than 6 percent of strategies are completed, 29 percent have been started and nearly 40 percent are being addressed through ongoing work, the progress report states. It adds that work has yet to begin on 24 percent of the strategies, and efforts on the more than 250 strategies marked as “ongoing” must be supported and sustained. 

The progress report shows that some topics—like transportation, arts and culture and forestry—have taken on lives of their own, resulting in a deeper analysis of how to make the city flourish and adapt to challenges and opportunities.

“It’s not meant to be a plan that says, ‘you got to make progress on every single one of these in the next five or 10 years.’ There’s a lot to take on, and the city only has so much capacity,” Kelley notes. “So, the fact that we’ve made some of our progress on more than three quarters of what’s in there is really healthy.”

Visible progress

A 15-year plan designed to improve the city by its 200th birthday, Rochester 2034 was adopted by the city in 2019. The product of years of work, it tapped a number of studies, such as the 2018 Citywide Housing Market Study, the Transit Supportive Corridors Study and the Comprehensive Access and Mobility Plan. Planners met with City Council, neighborhood groups and other community stakeholders, and some 4,200 residents participated in online surveys.

In 2021, in a post for the Brookings Institution, Jenn Beideman, former advocacy manager at Common Ground Health, highlighted the plan in writing about resident advocacy for play. (Beideman is now deputy chief of staff at the city.)

“When comparing Rochester 2034 to the city’s 1999 comprehensive plan, we see ‘Placemaking’ increased from zero mentions in 1999 to over 233 mentions in 2019. ‘Play,’ ‘parks,’ and ‘play space’ went from nine to 166 mentions; ‘walkability’ and ‘bikeability’ from 15 to over 112 mentions; and ‘health’ from two to over 210 mentions,” she wrote.

Beideman also noted: “The groundwork laid with the comprehensive plan will be fundamental in shaping children’s outcomes in Rochester for the next 25 years. But a plan without thoughtful and intentional implementation is paper sitting on a shelf. There won’t be improvements to children’s health and well-being without full implementation and accountability.”

Open spaces and room for children and families are important elements of Rochester 2034. The plan covers a slew of other topics as well, from historic preservation, housing and transportation to land use and economic growth. 

Each topic has goals and strategies that are in line with a broad vision and guiding principles aimed at “ensuring a vibrant, thriving, and healthy community.” Its expansive and detailed nature has brought accolades—an award for comprehensive planning from the Upstate New York chapter of the American Planning Association and recognition from the Community Design Center.

Shortly after the plan was adopted, however, COVID-19 hit the area, bringing with it a public health crisis. In addition, 2020 saw a fracturing of the community’s relationship with the police. These events were unforeseen, the progress report states, but the foundational work of the plan helped guide the city through challenging times. By 2022, Rochester had a new mayor, Malik Evans, who prioritized the plan.

Perhaps the most evident Rochester 2034 progress to date involves the ROC the Riverway initiative, the proposed High Falls State Park and the Inner Loop North transformation, which Kelley predicts will continue. 

“Between the High Falls State Park and the Inner Loop North transformation, which is also going to be massive … that whole corridor is going to be transformed,” Kelley says. “We’re going to stitch back together the urban fabric that was torn by that urban renewal era highway that just has been really destructive to our community in a lot of ways.”

ROC the Riverway has several elements including upgrades to riverfront facilities, redesign of  Charles Carroll Plaza, and completion of the Genesee Riverway Trail. The project is centered on developing a bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and a vibrant public space.

Roughly a year ago, Evans cut the ribbon on a new Brewery Line trail and the Pont de Rennes and Brown’s Race rehabilitation projects, both part of ROC the Riverway. The trail enhanced High Falls Terrace Park while improvements to Brown’s Race and the Pont de Rennes bridge also keep the focus on people and bicyclists.

“These ROC the Riverway projects are evidence of Rochester fully embracing the natural wonder of the Genesee River, the state’s commitment to helping reimagine our downtown’s access to the natural beauty that we have in abundance, and years of hard work by city staff to put residents dreams into actionable plans,” he said at the time.

Placemaking

These initiatives fall under Rochester 2034’s placemaking theme. This section has seven goals and 57 strategies—more than half of the latter have begun.

Kelley’s excitement over the placemaking plan is obvious, and he acknowledges his interest in its success. He calls it a plan within a plan. It isn’t an uncommon aspect of comprehensive plans, he says, but Rochester took New York’s mandates to the next level.

“In New York State, the main thing is they want your zoning code to be consistent with or in accordance with a well-thought-out land-use plan,” Kelley says. “(We) said, ‘Let’s not just look at land use in a bubble, in a vacuum. Rather, let’s look more holistically at what makes our neighborhoods special places, and how we can improve on that from multiple angles and multiple perspectives, not just land use, not just what types of uses are allowed, and how buildings are designed.’”

There are other aspects to placemaking as well, including the transportation system, walkability, community facilities, parks and recreation centers.

“The placemaking plan really tries to look at developing our neighborhoods from a holistic perspective,” Kelley says. “I’ve never seen that done in a comprehensive plan, I thought it was pretty innovative to take that holistic approach.”

The city has updated and, in some cases, rewritten the zoning code and map to reflect the placemaking plan’s vision via the Zoning Alignment Project. As of February, ZAP was 75 percent complete. The draft code and map were released to the public last fall. The ZAP team is currently reviewing those comments. The new code and map are expected to be presented to City Council later this year.

“(Rochester) 2034 set the foundation, kind of set the vision, which included stronger connections between land use and transportation, and now you move on to your zoning code and make sure that your code reflects that,” Kelley says. “The most tangible, obvious example of that is making sure that our transit corridors are where the RTS bus lines are. A lot of them right now are zoned for our lowest density of zoning. You want to encourage more density on your transit corridors. So, if your zoning doesn’t reflect that, you’re not meeting that goal.”

The city has up-zoned most of its transit corridors to encourage more density in those quarters to support the transit system and increase the number of riders.

“Hopefully, more riders in the system will help the whole thing, but to give more options for people that don’t own a car or choose to not own a car,” he says. “They can have more housing options on the transit corridors and have another way to get around. It’s one of the big things that we’ve been working on.”

Typically, a larger city with a robust transit system doesn’t have these challenges.

“When you’re in a midsize city or a smaller city, it becomes a little bit more apparent,” Kelley says. “It’s a problem that bus corridors are along these streets that are just mostly single-family homes; that’s not the kind of density that you need to support a bus corridor. We’re trying to sort of shift that.”

More than 200 apartments and townhomes now are located in the Neighborhood of Play across the street from the Strong National Museum of Play.

Placemaking strategies underway also include expanding bicycle facilities and identifying opportunities to celebrate the riverfront. Among the completed strategies in this section are an updated Lincoln Library branch and construction at the Strong Museum of Play and the surrounding mixed-use, mixed-income buildings, hotel and parking garage to create a “neighborhood of play.”

Spawning ideas

The plan’s footprints of progress can be tracked in a few other ways. In 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act brought $202.1 million in federal funding to the city. Rochester 2034 offered a guiding framework for the Strategic Equity and Recovery Plan with ideas for projects. ARPA projects were aligned with the comprehensive plan, and some were specifically recommended by it.

Broadly, plans in Rochester 2034 are either location-specific (infrastructure or a trail), topic-specific (transportation or arts and culture) or cover policy. Strategies, as seen in placemaking, have seen progress across initiatives:

Reinforcing strong neighborhoods, which covers housing; vacant lands; arts and culture; historic preservation; schools and community centers; public health and safety; and community beautification. 

Sustaining green + active systems includes efforts related to natural resources, parks, recreation and open spaces, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban agriculture and community gardens and transportation.

Fostering prosperity + opportunity covers economic growth, workforce development, tourism, city and neighborhood promotions, and smart city innovation

Planning for action shares information and stewardship of Rochester 2034 and plans for building community capacity.

One lens to examine actionable progress of Rochester 2034 is topic-based plans. Some strategies have resulted in the city taking a closer look at specific topics. Take the Active Transportation Plan, which the city calls a blueprint for making smart investments that will make walking, biking, and public transit a safe, accessible and preferred option for people. Rochester ATP has recommendations for those goals and outlined projects to meet those objectives. 

The draft Rochester Urban Forest Master Plan has led to the Trees Expansion and Beautification Initiative, which allocated $3 million to increase the city tree inventory from 64,000 to 70,000.

Rochester ZAP, the updated zoning, is yet another illustration. An upcoming plan is one focused on arts and culture. The city already has formalized its Percent for the Arts program—each year, it sets aside 1 percent of total development costs of qualifying capital projects to help fund public art. 

“That’s a really exciting program, and in city planning, we’re really proud to be managing that program,” Kelley says. “Unlike other cities of our size, we don’t have an arts and culture department … like you might find in Pittsburgh (or) Cleveland. In the absence of that, city planning is kind of taking on part of that role.”

The city also is on the verge of kicking off an arts and culture plan. This one will be in collaboration with the county—called for by Rochester 2034.

“That’s a really exciting partnership, looking at how to improve the arts and culture ecosystem in our region,” Kelley says.

On the horizon, and recommended by Rochester 2034, are a community food systems plan, and parks and recreation master plan. And then, there’s an idea for the creation of a nonprofit, in which the city is a partner, similar to the former Arts and Cultural Council of Greater Rochester. It is expected to be established in a couple of years.

“That’s a huge void right now,” Kelley says. “Any city of our size, or even smaller, has a nonprofit organization like that. So, there’s folks at the Rochester Area Community Foundation, ROC Arts United, Eastman School of Music, there’s all these different stakeholders involved that are working with the city to try and figure out how to get that organization up and running. That’s going to be big for our community.”

He views that type of an organization as necessary for a dynamic arts and culture scene.

“We can do a fair amount as the city. Monroe County is doing a lot of funding for the arts, which is great. But we’re really missing that sort of nonprofit part of the three-legged stool,” Kelley says.

Community engagement

Rochester 2034’s goals to expand accessibility and inclusivity extend to the document itself. For instance, two interactive web tools encourage the community to learn more and explore the plan’s recommendations. The Placemaking Plan Map is an interactive map of proposed character areas, a basis to develop a new zoning code, and recommendations in the Placemaking Plan. The Master Action Plan lists actions, strategies and goals—searchable and sortable by keyword, topic/section or principle—while a detailed appendix gives more insight into the status of each strategy.

Working on the plan, given its size and scale, has required collaboration among experts within the city and getting community input and feedback. 

“We met with so many different stakeholder groups, focus groups, affinity-based groups, neighborhood groups,” Kelley says. “We met with every neighborhood association in the city to talk to them about what’s happening in their neighborhood, what they love about their neighborhood and what challenges they’re seeing in the neighborhood.

“We did a lot of outreach to understand the conditions in Rochester based on other people’s perspectives, and sort of cobble that all together and start to develop some goals and strategies about how to address those things. It’s challenging to reach everyone, it’s challenging to make sure that every voice is heard. But I think we did a pretty decent job of that and have a pretty good understanding of what our city’s biggest challenges are.”

While the city faces significant challenges related to poverty, education, and systemic racism, the report states, Rochester also has seen increased and highly visible investment—from the private and public sectors—and a growing sense of pride not seen in generations, officials say. Rochester 2034 is informed by guiding principles of healthy living, equity, resilience, prosperity and partnership, and City Hall aims to involve the public as it positions Rochester for growth. 

It’s a tall task to keep awareness ongoing. Advocacy groups like Reconnect Rochester, for example, have urged the public to offer input in the past.

While the plan was adopted nearly five years ago, Kelley stresses that it isn’t sitting on a shelf.

“We want to do whatever we can to keep telling that story and letting the community know that it’s driving the decisions that we make and their voice was heard,” Kelley says. “That doesn’t mean that the door is closed to more feedback.”

Rochester 2034 is a plan developed by the community for the community—a sentiment that is often repeated by city officials.

“The mayor always talks about, ‘It’s we not me,’ and this plan is sort of the poster child for that sentiment,” says Kelley. He adds: “If folks just look at that progress report and see how much has been accomplished, they’ll see that it’s not just a fluffy plan or a feel-good plan that was developed years ago.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. 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]

2 thoughts on “Momentum toward 2034

  1. Rochester has a host of opportunities to make itself a truly unique city. It should take advantage of its natural beauty, which (believe it or not) includes the Genesee River Gorge. Connect the Charlotte area with the heart of Rochester (High Falls) with a gondola. What… you say!?….yup a gondola that travels up and down the river from the now laid to waste ferry terminal up the river following its travel from the High Falls area. A spectacular ride that would educate and provide a unique attraction for Rochester. It would make that an attraction throughout the four seasons. The summer, obvious and the fall, spectacular, to say nothing of the winter and the beaty it provides. A great river gorge exposed for all to see and enjoy. I did an in-depth project research on this opportunity and submitted it years ago. No response. (surprise) It can be profitable to boot. The research included contacting the builders who agreed that the Charlotte and High falls connection would add a unique and spectacular aspect to Rochester. An all season spectacular ride highing above the river gorge. While traveling above the gorge it would make its way under the bridges. It could be lighted for the Christmas holiday much like a drive through lighting. Rochester has a host of opportunities to make itself a destination city. But you have to be a little creative and bold. Ask yourself the question, what better way to open up harbor boat travel with Down Town? Lake Ave.? ya right. Com-on Rochester…GET CREATIVE!!

    • A great idea! Right up there with the idea of connecting Rochester with Toronto via a “fast” ferry. Yes sir, “creative” hot air based on if we build it they will come instead of a solid business case has always been a great way to ensure failure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *