July 26, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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River views 

The plan for the harbor is nearly finished. Not everybody likes it.

The temperature inside the meeting hall has risen by several degrees. At least that's what it feels like at the public hearing when the question-and-answer period --- which becomes more interrogation than questioning --- begins.

"I just wish you would back off on some of the building development," says one Charlotte resident. "You negate or neglect to talk about the parking garage until somebody brings it up," says another. "We won't have a beautiful view from Lake Avenue anymore," says a third.

At one point, the audience boos the speaker.

The stage for this drama is the RogerRobachCenter at OntarioBeachPark. The building is old, beautiful, and not air conditioned. A few fans whir far above the crowd, too high to be felt. The air is a thick, heavy mix of humidity and hostility. On one side is Sasaki Associates, the firm the city commissioned to create a development plan for the land around the ferry terminal in Charlotte. Sasaki recommends converting the 30-acre parking lot into a high-end residential and commercial district. The plan also calls for a marina.

On the other side: more than 100 area residents, most of them from Charlotte, and most of them opposed to what Sasaki is recommending. A woman who voices support of the proposed marina quietly leaves after another resident derides her.

Charlotte is like an appendage of Rochester, says Joe Carrozzi, chair of the Ontario Beach Park Program Committee and a 40-year Charlotte resident. Carrozzi, who wasn't able to attend the tense July 17 meeting, says he's not surprised at how the evening played out. "This was a village. It was the Village of Charlotte until 1916, when the city of Rochester annexed it," he says. "We were at one time a part of Greece, too." Even geographically, Charlotte sits apart. Not many cities have a finger-shaped extension leading out to the water.

Charlotte residents' separateness has created "a fiercely independent-type people," Carrozzi says. "It's a community within a community. Charlotte has always been its own small community with a very fierce group of people, fierce in their love of the area, love of the lake and the river, love of the park setting around it."

"We like change when it's change for the better," he says, "but we don't necessarily like change just for the sake of change."

Not that Carrozzi personally opposes Sasaki's plan. "I've never liked the parking lot," he says. "That's one of my big bugaboos." But Carrozzi, like many of the people who were at the meeting, says Sasaki must commit to retaining public access to the water and views to the river.

But if Carrozzi and others can cite specific concerns about Sasaki's plans, others harbor a deeper concern, one that can't be factored into a sketch of the area or tallied on a finance sheet. That is the issue of identity. Some families have lived in Charlotte for generations. Most residents in the area are low or middle income. A small-town mentality prevails, and many would like to keep it that way.

Based on previous meetings with area residents, Sasaki has made significant changes to the draft plan. It reduced building density to allow for greater views of the river and more green space. There is one point, however, on which Sasaki refuses to compromise: high-end development. Apartments here are likely to cost around $1,400 a month --- cheap when compared to waterfront property in other cities, but pricey for Charlotte.

"You're asking everyone in this room to foot the bill for this, and we're the ones that can't afford it," said one audience member at last week's meeting.

Sasaki maintains, however, that upscale housing is the only way to make the project financially feasible. The price for developing the parcel has been estimated at between $110 million and $140 million. Sasaki staffmembers believe that private investors can cover about three-quarters of the cost. The city would have to finance the rest.

Right now, Charlotte resembles a resort town, characterized by sleepy winters and booming summers. Bringing in empty nesters and others attracted to waterfront living, says Sasaki, will spur year-round activity. Sasaki and city officials hope that new, wealthier residents will attract businesses such as upscale restaurants and boutiques. Carrozzi refers to the area as a potential Niagara on the Lake, the upscale Canadian town that hosts the Shaw Festival.

Typically, says Julio Vazquez, Rochester's commissioner of community development, city officials try to develop mixed-income neighborhoods. But in the case of the small port area being studied, Vazquez says: "I'm not sure that that area will be an area where you would have mixed income, because of the level of investment that you have to have."

Vazquez says Sasaki looked at development that could draw tourists year round, but research showed that the market couldn't support such an attraction. Other destination points, such as DarienLake, are already close by.

In addition, in a city challenged by financial difficulties, Charlotte is an untapped resource. "We're losing a phenomenal amount of assessed value," says Councilmember Bob Stevenson, whose district includes Charlotte. "Probably the market would support 1,000 units down there." The current plans calls for fewer than 400.

While city officials don't want to bullyCharlotte residents, they also know that the decision to build --- or not --- rests with them. "You have seen the plan change a couple of times to accommodate people's feelings," Vazquez says. And, he adds, city residents as a whole want this project to go forward.

But Carrozzi says it's vital that the city remain open to what residents have to say. The situation, he says, is similar to what happened when he and other Charlotte residents met with city officials to discuss the now-defunct ferry service between Rochester and Toronto. "I was on the mayor's committee, and a couple of us had suggested a smaller ferry," he says, "but they really had in mind these big ferries, and they pushed it and pushed it and pushed it, and they pushed it through. Now you see what happened."

But both Carrozzi and city officials also contend --- or hope --- that those at Monday night's meeting aren't representative of Charlotte residents. "You have a small core that are against almost anything," Carrozzi says. "They come to all those meetings, and they do sometimes overpower others."

Strategic development, says Julio Vazquez,is the key to growing Charlotte. But growth will be slow. It will likely be at least two years before ground is broken on Phase 1 of the project and about a decade before the entire parcel is developed. The area has several environmental problems, says Vazquez, noting: "Earlier, all the industry was water-based and was by the water. Everything seems to be contaminated."

But Vazquez says several developers have already expressed interest in the site. Phase 1, he says, will likely be the marina. "That is what's going to make the area unique and very attractive." Sasaki also recommends starting development on the parcel's southern end. That way, Vazquez says, existing parking spaces can remain for as long as possible.

But if a slow, calculated approach was meant to dull residents' pain, they were far from appeased last week. Sasaki project lead Varoujan Hagopian was met with boos when he said Sasaki is "not anticipating with this plan that parking is going to be 100 percent available." Sasaki recommends using shuttle service for large events at the harbor. The current plan also calls for parking under the new housing developments and for a public parking garage. Residents at the meeting said outsiders would never use shuttle services and that the garage would be an eyesore.

Carrozzi says he'd like to see the garage built mostly underground, with above-ground retail space. But that, says Vazquez, may be too expensive. "The lower you go, the more expensive it gets," he says, noting that underground parking can cost tens of thousands of dollars per spot. But Vazquez says the city is willing to look at land outside the immediate area. "When the time comes to develop parking, certainly we'll consider every option," he says.

"This is a master plan, not a blueprint,"Vazquez stresses. But for those loath to see development of any kind, each new draft of the port-development plan comes with a certain amount of heartache. In a heated exchange at last week's meeting, Hagopian said residents seemed to be asking for zero development. "Yes!" exclaimed the audience.

That, countered Hagopian, is not what Sasaki was commissioned to do.

Still, Carrozzi believes Charlotte can remain a beautiful lakefront area where old-timers and newcomers co-exist. Harmony is possible, he says, if whoever develops the land provides a detailed sketch of public-access routes. And, he adds, newcomers have to recognize that they don't have exclusive rights to the water. Developers or property owners, he says, have to "make it very, very clear that no matter what they charge for them [rental units], public areas there are going to be public areas."

And not everyone at the RobachCenter was upset the night of last week's meeting. Sitting outside, on a ledge overlooking the beach, was a man who identified himself only as Jim. The sun was setting over the lake, and the sky was a pinkish gold. Jim said he didn't understand all the fuss inside.

"Charlotte's beautiful," he says. "It'll always be beautiful."

Sasaki Associates' final plan is expected to be completed before late fall, as is a Supplemental Environmental Impact Study. Both will be released to the public at the same time they're presented to the mayor, city officials say, and hearings will be set for public comment.

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