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A question for City Hall: who is downtown for? 

Last week, City Council bucked the mayor a bit and said no to loaning $1.5 million to one of developer Robert Morgan's companies for a project on Court Street in downtown Rochester.

I could be wrong, but I'd bet that one way or another, the project will be built anyway. Whatever happens, though, the discussion about it – like the discussion about an RBTL theater on Parcel 5 – has pushed an extremely important question in front of city officials, and in front of the public: What do we want downtown Rochester to be in the future?

Who is downtown for? Who should live there? Work there? Play there?
click to enlarge In the downtown of the future, who should be able to live, work, and be entertained there? - FILE PHOTO
  • In the downtown of the future, who should be able to live, work, and be entertained there?

The Court Street project had gotten attention because of reports that the FBI is investigating the financing of a Morgan project in Buffalo. But that didn't seem to be the concern for Rochester's City Council members. Some of them questioned the timing. Work on the site has already begun; if the developer knew he needed a loan, why wait this late to ask for it?

Other Council members focused on the issue of rents in the project's apartments. Most of the units will be market-rate: too expensive for many Rochester residents. And that's the case with most of the apartments and condos being developed downtown right now.

In the negotiations with Morgan about the loan request, Mayor Lovely Warren had gotten an agreement that 10 percent of the 111 apartments would be "affordable": half for households with incomes less than 120 percent of the federal "median family income," and half for households with incomes less than 80 percent of the median family income. But even that is out of range for many people. And 11 units isn't a lot of units.
It's time to talk about this issue.
A good many of downtown's older buildings are being converted into apartments and offices, and new ones are being built. All of that will boost the city's tax base, and those new people will patronize businesses downtown.

But the developers have gotten a good bit of public help, in the form of tax incentives and loans. While that's had its critics, I think it's been necessary. Is it now?

And what about the development itself? Do we care whether all of the new housing is for the relatively affluent?

In cities like San Francisco and New York, housing and commercial space for small, independent businesses have been priced out of reach for many people. We don't have the wealth, the business concentration, and the demand for city housing that those cities have. But lack of affordable housing – decent, actually affordable housing in good neighborhoods – is a problem, too.

A recent CityLab article focused on the impact of the strong development taking place in Minneapolis and Atlanta, where housing prices have shot up – and many residents have been driven out of their neighborhoods as a consequence.

The Brookings Institution, the Urban Land Institute, and others have been studying this problem. And in Toronto, Alphabet – Google's parent company – has embarked on a unique project, developing an 800-acre site along downtown Toronto's waterfront as an example of what cities could be in the future.

Called Sidewalk Toronto, the project "will blend people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity," says its promotional material.

Alphabet plans to create mixed-use, walkable, diverse, and affordable neighborhoods; vibrant parks and other public spaces that are in use year round. It promises a "suite of design and infrastructure innovations" that will "dramatically reduce building energy consumption, landfill waste, and carbon emissions – creating a blueprint for truly climate-positive neighborhoods."

Rochester's not Toronto (or San Francisco or Atlanta). But we have the same problem, for different reasons, on a different scale. And we have a responsibility to solve it. The issues surrounding the Morgan development are a good place to start.

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