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What will work for Charlotte's waterfront?

The art of the possible 

What will work for Charlotte's waterfront?

A five-story observation deck, crowned with a rotating restaurant? A chain of islands in LakeOntario?A museum and research center?

These were among the ideas floated last week as attractions for the waterfront area around the ferry terminal.

Despite a layer of icy freezing rain, about 30 participants turned out for a second public hearing on the redevelopment plan being formulated for the port of Rochester.

Earlier this year, the city hired a Boston firm, Sasaki and Associates, to come up with a land-use plan for a 30-acre parcel that includes some of Rochester's prime waterfront (see "Room with a View," September 28). Last week the firm --- along with its marketing consultant, ZHA --- was in town seeking input from the public. They also gave residents a quick presentation of the work they've done thus far, including surveys of existing infrastructure (of which there's plenty) and regional population. The latter found that about 2.5 million people live within a 100-mile radius of the site on the US side of the border alone.

Those numbers are important, since they represent enough people to make a large, international attraction one potentially viable option for the area. The other option is a mixed-use development incorporating housing, retail, and other elements. It would be less of an attraction, and more of a community. Both options have their appeal, but both also present some problems.

During the public comment part of the meeting, most of the suggestions offered by the crowd were geared toward the first alternative. Sasaki's representatives fielded ideas that ranged from the impossible (building a chain of islands in international waters, the crowd learned, would require the unlikely blessing of the federal government) to the mundane (expanding the lighthouse museum). One participant suggested a light-rail line, with a terminal in the area. Others proposed uses for the Hojack swing bridge. Among the more imaginative: a tunneled walkway leading under the GeneseeRiver and up into the bridge, transformed into several restaurants. (The Army Corps' decision to demolish the bridge has given the span its own dedicated group of preservationists.)

The Hojack bridge isn't technically a part of the area Sasaki is studying, but VaroujanHagopian, Sasaki's lead planner on the project, has repeatedly stressed that he's interested in areas surrounding the 30-acre parcel, if only to harmonize his plan with its surroundings.

Among the more solid options is a Great LakesResearchCenter, museum, or combination of the two. SUNY Brockport has already received federal money to plan such a center on the east side of the river and will ask for $3 million more to begin building it.

All of those ideas would be consistent with the first scenario --- the large international attraction --- that the designers described. The challenge, noted ZHA Vice President Sarah Woodworth, is that "it has to work 12 months a year." Winter could make that difficult, especially in Charlotte. And an area designed exclusively for tourists may have a tough time attracting a diversity of businesses --- retail, for instance.

"Retail is going to be very difficult to support without people living here," said Woodworth.

Although most members of the public who spoke at last week's meeting were expounding on large-scale dreams, at least a few shared visions of the second, more community-oriented plan. That's also the vision the Charlotte Community Association embraces.

"We'd like to see something a little more community oriented," says association president Michelle Labigan. "Make it very little-town oriented." (Labigan wasn't at the last meeting, but attended the first one, and has nothing but praise for how Sasaki's been conducting the planning.)

Casting about for a way to describe her vision of what she calls a "harbor village," Labigan rejected the term "upscale" but said her association would welcome "a little bit nicer retail merchants for the community."

Housing would be an integral part of any such community. One participant argued for an emphasis on the types of housing that would attract empty-nesters and young professionals. That idea seemed to pique Woodworth's interest more than most of the others, and Hagopian also seemed to think that would fill a niche in the market.

"Although you have a lot of housing stock, it's not diverse," he said.

That may be true of Charlotte, but it's quickly becoming less so for the rest of Rochester, with the addition of market-rate housing downtown, such as Corn Hill Landing and the Sagamore, and several buildings being renovated as loft apartments.

The community-oriented plan faces other challenges. For one thing, the planners pointed out, Lake Avenue is the site's only real land artery. A large number of new residents might mean a surge in vehicle traffic and a demand for more parking.

Plus, Charlotte's not all that close to much of anything else.

"It's a haul --- from a marketing perspective --- getting here from downtown," said Woodworth. (The driving distance from the Four Corners in downtown to OntarioBeachPark along Lake Avenue is nearly 8 miles.) It's also a haul to the places where young professionals tend to work, either downtown or in suburban office parks clustered around the southern and eastern edge of the metro area.

And although it's not prohibitively distant, the port area is also much further from the downtown cultural and entertainment options than other areas that are also getting distinctive housing options. Proximity to those cultural attractions is one amenity that both retirees and yuppies will want. Convincing them to live in Charlotte --- even a rejuvenated Charlotte --- may take more than just nice condos.

Sasaki plans to have preliminary designs finished by early February. In the meantime, you can check out progress in the planning process and add your own ideas to the mix by steering your browser to http://projects.sasaki.com/portofrochester/.

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