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If we keep operating in our conservative ‘business as usual’ mode, Rochester will continue to envy cities like Chattanooga.

To transform Rochester, two critical focus points 

Rochester’s assets – including distinctive, livable neighborhoods; rich arts and cultural offerings; diverse health systems; beautiful parks, and historic architecture – make our city a good place to live. Couple that with progress happening downtown – the Inner Loop project, residential construction, planning for a new Main Street – and there’s even more reason to feel positively.

Yet Rochester will never become the mature, magnetic, and thriving civic center of the region until two essential areas are effectively addressed: 1) the Genesee River Corridor (primarily downtown) and 2) our public transportation system. Creating a first-class river experience and transit system will move Rochester to the top tier of great American cities, midsize or otherwise. These two initiatives can be powerfully transformative for the economic and social fortunes of our city and region.

Too often, local leaders have viewed spending money in these two realms as an expense (and thus not affordable) rather than as an investment toward future economic and civic rewards. If we keep operating in our conservative “business as usual” mode, Rochester will continue to envy cities like Chattanooga, Greenville, Milwaukee, Columbus, Grand Rapids, and St. Paul, which are leaders in their regions. All have made major strategic urban investments that make their cities attractive choices for people and businesses looking to move.

In Chattanooga, a private non-profit organization, the River City Company, was formed in 1986 to invigorate the city’s riverfront in partnership with the public sector. It was so successful that now the River City Company is the catalytic development force for the entire downtown. In the early 90’s, an electric-powered shuttle bus fleet was also developed in Chattanooga, effectively connecting downtown destinations and parking facilities.

St. Paul created a similar non-profit, which has been responsible for dramatically enhancing the river’s edge. More recently, Columbus created a completely new downtown riverfront. Columbus also has a circulator bus system connecting the downtown to the city’s vibrant and historic neighborhoods.

Milwaukee created the RiverWalk, a two-mile pedestrian walkway that seamlessly edges the river downtown, providing room for green space, restaurants, boat docks, and other lively civic amenities. Today Milwaukee also has an extensive circulator trolley bus system.

Guiding the development of all of these initiatives was a physical Vision Plan, a detailed document, citizen based, extremely graphic, that provides the roadmap for planning, implementation, and promotion – and in turn helps excite the community to action and to identify and develop funding sources.

We have great opportunity in Rochester, but we must capitalize on it. Let’s bring together our county, city, RTS, business, and citizen leaders to achieve this vision:
  • A beautifully developed, fully accessible river corridor that will draw people to our special attractions and river-enhanced downtown. More people mean more jobs, vitality, and economic opportunity, and these spark pride and community spirit. 
  • A fully developed public transit system (bus, circulator, street car) that connects residents and visitors conveniently and comfortably to city jobs, venues, services, and amenities in an efficient, frequent, sustainable, and equitable manner. 
Because both initiatives address critical issues like jobs and accessibility, they will help greatly to reduce our city’s well-documented poverty.

Commitment to these two endeavors requires our own Vision Plan for the River Corridor and a separate Vision Plan for a Citywide Enhanced Transit System. Fortunately, our City officials have already taken a foundational step with regard to the river, with the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program draft report.

Outside experts agree strongly with turning this vision into reality. Speakers in the Reshaping Rochester Lecture Series, sponsored by the Community Design Center of Rochester, have repeatedly recommended dramatically developing our river and transit systems. How long must we wait to make these investments for our 21st-century future?

Roger Brown is a board member of Community Design Center Rochester.

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