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Downtown's next in Center's sights 

Christmas is coming, and Midtown Mall is dressed for the season. Lunchtime shoppers walk past ornaments and wreaths, and the mall's trademark aerial train hangs overhead. But the number of shops in the mall has dwindled, and Midtown is beginning to show its age. Gone is Santa's cheery entourage of elves and reindeer; gone is the sparkling white castle that used to loom in the background.

Nostalgia for the Midtown Plaza-Sibley area abounds, says Joni Monroe, executive director of the RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter, an organization that helps neighborhood groups improve their communities. Plans to revamp Midtown and its surroundings continue to generate a lot of buzz. In June, for example, the Urban Land Institute --- a national consulting organization --- conducted a week-long study of the Midtown area at the request of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation. While some of the Institute's suggestions, including tearing down Midtown, may appear radical, they have given the community something to think about, Monroe says.

Inside the DesignCenter's headquarters in the HungerfordBuilding on East Main Street, Monroe pulls out a 2-foot by 2-foot board depicting Midtown and the area within a quarter-mile radius. Buildings are marked in black, and open spaces, such as parking lots, are in white.

The diagram foreshadows the DesignCenter's charrette of the downtown area, planned for March 23 to 26 at MidtownPlaza. The goal of a charrette, which typically pairs citizens with design professionals, is to give residents a sense of ownership over their environment, Monroe says. Charrettes, she says, "have been around and popularized in the last five to 10 years as a way for community-based planning to happen."

Locally, the charrette process usually begins when an individual or group contacts the DesignCenter requesting help revitalizing an area. The center, partnering with the local branch of the American Institute of Architects, then draws in other citizens and community leaders and conducts a brainstorming session. There, people form teams with design professionals to generate ideas.

The downtown charrette, however, departs markedly from previous models. Because it will be based loosely on the Urban Land Institute's findings, Monroe says, it has already moved past the brainstorming stage. Although citizens remain integral to the process, she says, the Midtown charrette teams will be composed only of design professionals. DesignCenter staff and involved AIA members are optimistic that this charrette will provide more than just a conceptual model.

"These drawings will probably be more complete thoughts from the get-go," Monroe says, noting that, as always, charrette participants must answer the central question: "What is the glue that holds all this together?"

While excited about the Midtown charrette, Monroe says the DesignCenter must do more than hold that event to draw people into the process. Many people can see that something's wrong with their community, but have a hard time pinpointing the problem. To bridge that intellectual gap, the DesignCenter will hold its first lecture series, featuring city leaders and urban-revitalization experts from across the country.

Titled "Reshaping Rochester! Planning for the Public Realm," the series will kick off January 11 and conclude in May with the group's third annual Design Matters conference. This year's conference will focus on both city and village centers. Speakers will include Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr.,who is credited with increasing racial harmony, decreasing crime, and revitalizing his city's historic downtown; Jeremy Harris, Honolulu's former mayor and urban-sprawl foe; and James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," which probes how highways and mega-malls have blighted America's landscape. It may seem to be humorless fare, but Monroe says many of the lecturers, especially Kunstler, will keep the audience entertained.

"All you have to do is open that book and read the first paragraph, and you'll know what I'm talking about," she says. "He has a very tongue-in-cheek approach. He can help us look at some of the things that we've done and laugh at ourselves, even though some of those things are profoundly sad."

In keeping with its visual orientation, the DesignCenter is adding one more event to its spring program: a design exhibit in a gallery in the Center's Hungerford offices. The walls, which currently display an informal array of ongoing and completed charrettes, will soon be plastered with design models submitted by local and national architects and designers.

A jury of DesignCenter and AIA board members and local architects will vote on entries later this month. Promising submissions include a Charleston city master plan from Urban Strategies in Toronto and a design for a park in Brooklyn. Locally, Chait Studios in Rochester submitted its design for Spot Coffee in downtown Rochester. "The goal of the show is to highlight good public places," says DesignCenter employee Audrey Stewart. Later, the exhibit will travel to malls, libraries and other locations. Architect Richard Pospula, head of the local AIA chapter, says the exhibit, coupled with the lecture series, Midtown charrette, and May conference, reflects the DesignCenter's emergence as an important player in the area's urban-redesign process.

Information about the lecture series and other events is available from the DesignCenter, 271-0520;

Schedule of events

The RochesterRegionalCommunityDesignCenter will sponsor a series of lectures and other events this winter and spring, focusing on urban revitalization. Other local institutions also will host related events during that period. Here's the schedule:

January 11: "Master Plans for Great Cities," lecture by Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr.; 7 p.m. at the Harro East Ballroom.

January 27: Reshaping Rochester! exhibit and gallery opening; 5 p.m. in the DesignCenter's Maguire Gallery of Architecture and Design, 1115 East Main Street.

February 1 (date tentative): "Designing for Sustainable Communities," lecture by former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, 7 p.m. at the MemorialArtGallery.

February 11: Rochester AIA Design Awards at MAG.

March 8: "Retail and Economic Revitalization," lecture by Michigan-based urban planning consultant Robert Gibbs, 7 p.m., (location pending).

March 22: "Rethinking our Public Realm," lecture by John Norquist, CEO and president of the Congress for New Urbanism, 7 p.m. at ChristChurch.

March 23 to 26: Design charrette for the MidtownPlaza area, at MidtownPlaza.

April 6: "The Future of Downtown," panel discussion hosted by the MemorialArtGallery at MAG.

April 12: "Our Modern Urban Landscapes," lecture by James Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," 7 p.m. at the German House.

May 17: "RevitalizingCity and Village Main Streets," lecture by Norman Mintz, head of the 34th Street Partnership, Manhattan, 7 p.m. at the FirstUniversalistChurch downtown.

May 18 to 20: "Design Matters III Conference: CityCenter, VillageCenter" at various locations, including the DesignCenter. The conference will include neighborhood tours and workshops.

Tickets are $50 for the six-lecture package, $10 for individual-lecture advance tickets, and $15 at the door.

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