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Preserving preservation 

The plan for a new apartment building at 933 University Avenue is back in the news.

The proposal, by Morgan Management, is on the Rochester Preservation Board's August 7 agenda. The board won't vote that night on whether the project should be built. But it will come up with a position on a key issue: whether the project might have a significant adverse effect on adjacent properties, the character of the neighborhood, traffic, noise, and other concerns.

That position statement will be sent to the City Planning Commission, which will likely hear the Morgan case on September 16. And it will help the city's director of planning and zoning decide whether an Environmental Impact Statement should be done on the project.

Morgan has revised its plan several times, and its latest proposal eliminates one serious objection. Originally, Morgan planned to demolish the 1920's house on the northeast corner of the property, and the city seldom grants permission to demolish a structure in a preservation district. Morgan now says it's willing to restore the house and provide space in it for the building's current owner, the Monroe Voiture veterans group.

The apartment building design has not changed, though. Neither have critics' other objections.

The building would be three and four stories tall and would have 99 apartments and 157 parking spaces – 132 of them underground, reserved for residents, the others available for Monroe Voiture. Officials at the two adjacent institutions, the George Eastman House and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, insist that the development would adversely affect them.

Church officials say that the project will create serious traffic problems, that it doesn't include enough parking for all of the apartments' tenants, and that they will end up using the church parking lot.

Morgan officials dispute this, but it's logical to assume that every one-bedroom tenant will have a car, and that most of the two-bedroom apartments will have two tenants with cars. And when they can't find space at the Morgan development, they will park in the church parking lot – conveniently just a few feet away.

The Eastman House argues, among other things, that because of its scale, the building will damage the view from the Eastman House property. That can sound elitist. This is, after all, a city. And in cities, a variety of uses (and sounds and views) must co-exist. But this is not Manhattan. The City of Rochester has room for a wide variety of uses, without one of them butting up against another.

More significant, though, is that the Eastman House is a National Historic Landmark. As such, the State Environmental Quality Review Act protects it from harm, and adjacent development could need an Environmental Impact Statement if it might have a significant adverse impact on the museum. And the act states specifically that the "visual proximity" of a proposed development can be considered in determining whether it would cause an adverse impact.

The project will unquestionably have an impact on the neighborhood, part of which is the city's first preservation district. Significantly, a big reason the district was established – at the urging of neighborhood residents and the Landmark Society – was the construction of a growing number of large, out-of-scale apartment buildings on East Avenue. The preservation legislation pretty much put an end to that development.

The East Avenue Preservation District is a neighborhood of houses, commercial buildings, and institutions. Some of the houses are grand, to be sure. But they are not massive. They fit their surroundings. The proposed Morgan building covers much of its property, and its mass will look completely out of character on University Avenue.

University Avenue is not East Avenue, of course. It has numerous commercial buildings, as well as apartments and houses. But they are of small scale. And when the preservation district lines were drawn up, University Avenue was included – because district supporters and city officials believed it needed protection.

Once we start nibbling away at that protection, the district and its quality are at risk. This won't be the only property that developers will find attractive.

The development would also increase the neighborhood's density, clearly affecting its character. It's good that this city neighborhood is so popular, and it's good that developers want to invest in the city.

But just outside the preservation district, this neighborhood already has numerous apartments, many of them in houses converted from single- or two-family uses. Among the adverse results: an excess of cars, paved backyards, and noise.

It is significant that the neighborhood group serving the area opposes the development. These are people who already live there and have made personal investments in the neighborhood. They are among the people who would feel the adverse impact of the development.

Theirs are not the only interests that should be considered, of course. The Preservation Board could find that the project would have an adverse impact, but the Planning Commission could decide that the benefits of the development outweigh the negatives.

I hope not. The Morgan development might provide a small economic boost to nearby businesses and add to the city's tax rolls, but there are numerous other development sites available – including downtown, where the city wants more housing.

A negative vote on this particular project is not a vote against new development. At stake is the question of what the neighborhood will be in the future. Will it continue to be a mix of tenants and homeowners, young singles and families and empty nesters? Or will it become predominantly a neighborhood of tenants?

Also at stake: whether we support the intent of the preservation legislation – which protected the neighborhood's architectural quality and generated its current popularity and strong tax base – or we start undermining it.

(A disclosure: A reader complained – rightly – that I didn't note in an earlier column that my husband and I own a two-apartment house adjacent to our home a couple of blocks from Morgan's proposed project. Theoretically, new apartments could be competition for ours.)

"The proposed Morgan building covers much of its property, and its mass will look completely out of character on University Avenue."

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