Joni Monroe firmly believes that Rochester has made monumental progress toward recognizing the value of its natural and historic assets and their critical role in good urban design. Many of the city's neighborhoods, its downtown core, and many suburban communities are improving, she says.
The longtime director and founding member of the Community Design Center of Rochester, formerly the Rochester Regional Community Design Center, recently stepped down from the nonprofit she helped create. Maureen Duggan is the organization's new executive director.
Since its founding in 2004, the Design Center has conducted dozens of charrettes, which are citizen-driven brainstorming sessions that lead to formal plans for redeveloping streets, blocks, or entire neighborhoods. From ARTWalk to the Village of Penn Yan, the Design Center has been an advocate of good design, often pitting the small nonprofit against some powerful interests.
But more often it has meant guiding everyday people to build a grassroots consensus or vision for what they want their community to become. For instance, the Corn Hill Landing vision plans and ideas from the charrettes were instrumental in helping the city obtain a $4 million state grant for the project.
What started as a small band of architects, urban planners, landscape architects, and designers interested in doing community work eventually became an influential force that helped awaken the Rochester area to the importance of good design.
"We were this little collective of Robin Hood architects that would swoop down into communities on request," Monroe says, "and we didn't even have a place to store our drawings."
City Council member Elaine Spaull says that the Design Center is an important independent voice that helps the city see the bigger picture. Though the Design Center doesn't have policy-making authority, Spaull credits the organization with helping to leverage funding and to obtain grants for various projects.
"It's like getting a reality check by professionals who say, 'You're going to have this a long time. Are you sure that you want it that way?'"
Monroe, a graduate of Columbia University and Yale University, has always been concerned with preserving the public realm, that special combination of the built and natural world that surrounds us. When the principles of good design are applied to that space, she says, the result is a more sustainable, functional, and healthier neighborhood and community.
We've come to blame buildings and neighborhoods for the challenged state they're in, Monroe says, even though they didn't get that way arbitrarily. Good design, she says, is the antidote to neglect, decline, and poverty. It's the bloodline of vibrancy and vitality, she says, that every neighborhood and city seeks.
"It actually mystifies me how in this country we look at home building as a sign of a good economy when we're also demolishing buildings, often to build those homes," Monroe says. "What are we really doing? It saddens me to look at city neighborhoods that had housing stock, from hardwoods, materials, and craftsmanship, that is irreplaceable."
Monroe says that we need to re-examine our priorities with a better sense of balance that shifts the emphasis from cars and speed to mass transit and community. One of the first things that people notice when they visit Europe is the social connectedness, she says, and the street life.
"Here street life is looked at as suspect," she says.
But revitalization, as important as it is, comes with some cautions.
"There are some problems when we revitalize an area that we hear from neighborhoods, particularly challenged neighborhoods, and that is the issue of gentrification," Monroe says. "Gentrification has to be managed. We need to think ahead and try to develop with sensitivity so that we're not displacing people, because that's what urban renewal did. We need to make it possible for people who have invested in neighborhoods over long periods of time and stayed there under very challenging conditions to remain there."
Gentrification can also smother diversity, Monroe says, and diversity is one of the main elements of a vibrant city. The lack of it creates social and economic pockets. The concentration of poverty in Rochester and its adverse impact on the city school system is a prime example, she says, of what happens when diversity isn't encouraged.
"Cities have always been places where innovation occurs, she says, and it occurs there because all of these disparate parts and pieces coming together in new and unusual ways. It should be celebrated, not feared."
A specific concern about Rochester, Monroe says, is the lack of a coordinated effort to harness the natural assets of the Genesee River, which has historically been one of the region's most important economic engines.
"Honestly, [the people who] come in from all over the country to lecture as part of our Reshaping Rochester series, they all ask the same question: 'What's with you guys? Why aren't you taking advantage of that river?'" Monroe says.
She says that we could begin with walkways on both sides of the river that start downtown and turn the falls and the gorge into an easily assessable attraction, something that could be done in phases.
"Every time you build a part of it, you leverage it to get more funding," Monroe says. "Once you start in the center and work outward, you've created a tremendous economic generator."
But the river lacks a serious advocacy group, she says.
"San Antonio has three organizations of citizens that work with their river," she says. "We have none. If you look at any city that has a successful waterfront, they'll have some sort of an alliance or organization or consortium group that has a steering committee and serves as a resource for the city."
On the plus side, removing a portion of the Inner Loop, though Monroe would like to see it all gone, and creating density with new housing, office, and retail space are all steps in the right direction for Rochester. The city is finally beginning to recover, she says, from the disastrous impact of urban renewal; something that may have started with good intentions, she says, but went terribly wrong.
The lack of a vision for the Genesee River reflects a larger problem that has stymied Rochester's resurgence, Monroe says. And it's not the ones frequently cited: shaking its rustbelt economy and smaller size.
"Rochester has all of the ingredients of a great city, including its size," she says. "This idea that it has to be big to be wonderful is not true. Some of the most beautiful, most sought after cities in the world are small."
The biggest challenge facing Rochester is a lack of a coordinated vision, she says, and the will to stick to it. The Portland redevelopment wasn't a miracle or accidental, Monroe says.
"Portland had the political will and leadership to put a growth boundary around it, saying 'We don't want to be surrounded by sprawl,'" Monroe says. "'We don't want to be a city that is developing outward and outward, and sucks away the energy from the downtown core.'"
Portland opted for mass transit and density instead, she says, which not only used land prudently, but leveraged and grew the city's tax base.
"You look at Rochester and its center city and we will allow buildings of one or two stories to be built in our core," Monroe says. "And that is a crime because what we're saying is all of the stories above that, all of that opportunity for improving our tax base, we're just going to squander it."
And the city's inability to resist approving numerous variances on projects is symptomatic, she says, of a lack of leadership and vision.
"If you looked at St. Paul [Minnesota] in 1997 and look at it now, almost 20 years later, they have a framework plan and they redid the zoning ordinances to correspond with it. They stuck to their guns. They do not grant variances the way we do."
An Aldi food market slated to go up in the North Winton Village neighborhood is a recent example of a project that required variances. And some still argue that it is a poor fit for the neighborhood in terms of size and style.
But some nearby residents were less concerned about the need for variances. Not only do they want the investment in the neighborhood, but they see the store as competition that will help drive down food costs.
Monroe says that the Design Center was asked by Winton Village residents to offer advice on the project to help make it a better development. She concedes that navigating the politics of development and working with various government agencies to arrive at a better outcome is challenging.
It takes time to educate the public as well as developers about the value of good design, she says, and its relevance in our daily lives.
"It's tough," she says. "There are compromises that have to be made in the built environment. We know that there are very few pure decisions."