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The vital center: river talk 

Stand beside the Genesee River in the middle of downtown --- the several hundred yard stretch from East Main north to Andrews Street --- and you feel the impure thoughts welling up. Is this a river or a canal? What's in that soup of muddy water and driftwood? Is this a living stream or a "dead zone" caused by post-industrial neglect?

            And what about the "parkland" here, with its stolid ramps, excessive pavement, and ceremonial tufts of lawn? Is it meant to be inviting? How did the Senecas' zon-esche-o (beautiful valley) descend to this?

            Rochesterians of a certain age marvel that the river is visible today --- so different from long ago, when unbroken ranks of buildings lined the Main Street bridge. But now the question is, will the river be attractive enough that people will want to get close to it and take more than a peek?

            Water quality aside, the river downtown has its seductions: views of the 90-foot High Falls, for example, and the rocky chutes below the Court Street dam. But other beauties are pure potential.

And potential has gotten a lot of people talking.

            On October 2, the city of Rochester's Economic Development department, neighbors from Sector 5 (Corn Hill and Central Business District), and consultant Bergmann Associates held a "Downtown Design Workshop" at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The workshop let people convey their ideas for rehabbing Genesee Crossroads Park (between the Federal Building and the river), the Crossroads parking garage, and several public walkways along the river nearby.

            Practically anything goes at this conceptual stage --- grand schemes or modest suggestions. And all ideas are only penciled in. According to city officials, Bergmann Associates is digesting the public comments and will issue recommendations by the end of December.

            Public funding is iffy these days, but in this case the pump has been primed. "The city does have some money, a total of about $4 million," says Tony Hubbard of the city's Economic Development department. This sum, he says, is targeted for improvements to the parking garage, a largely underground affair which opens onto Andrews Street. In particular, the money will help solve a riddle: what to do with the open ground that sits on the garage's flat roof.

            Fashun Ku, the city's Economic Development commissioner, says the workshop focused on several design issues and locations.

            First, he says, planners must "see to it that the river becomes much more accessible to the people, more visible." This, he says, will require attention to the "blank wall" people see when they look toward the river from State Street and other vantage points. One problem, according to Ku: The high railings along the river's edge are too massive; they could be replaced by railings that wouldn't block views of the water.

            Ku echoes some general concerns about the Sister Cities Bridge, a pedestrian crossing just north of Main Street that honors Rochester's urban partners worldwide. The structure's profile, Ku and others say, obscures part of the river. But the bridge is an established presence, and it would be a big project to remove or replace it.

            Some areas next to the river are now "wasted," says Ku. He'd like to see improvements to "the space along the river so that programmed activities can be much more effective," à la San Antonio's "Riverwalk." We could even see things like a concert with a moored barge for a stage.

            We need more housing close to the river, says Ku, plus "something that would create a better business environment" for downtown hotels and commerce.

So what do the people have to say?

            Park Avenue area resident Gay Lynne Levy has plenty of ideas. The 26-year-old, who's got a degree in urban planning and will soon take a master's at the University at Buffalo, works with the federal AmeriCorps-VISTA program and serves as the Common Good Planning Center's Social Equity Educator. Levy thus wore several official hats when she attended the workshop. But she also came as one who loves downtown for its "tons of great eating places" and attractions like the Little Theatre. (She doesn't own a car, and downtown is a natural destination by bus.)

            At the workshop, says Levy, "our group discussed the Sheraton [Four Points] Hotel, how they need to incorporate their parking where it's more aesthetically pleasing." (The hotel has a covered driveway parallel to the riverbank.) She says there's a need for "high-end and low-end housing" in the immediate area, too. "More vegetation is needed," she says. "It's all cement, and it needs something else."

            Levy also says she has a friend who lives in the apartment building at 125 St. Paul Street (corner of Andrews), a high-rise whose back door is practically on the river. The often-maligned structure, she says, "is actually very nice when you get into the apartments; they're nicely furnished and have great views."

            Ed Vesneske, a Park-East resident who used to own property downtown, also was at the workshop. He was involved with the Coalition for Downtown, and today he's a board member of the Rochester Contemporary gallery on East Avenue near Broadway. Vesneske is, you might say, a minimalist. He favors some minor adjustments to the downtown river corridor, not a major rebuilding of the riverwalks or nearby buildings.

            "The high-cost things may be very grand," Vesneske says. But the real key, he says, "is trying to involve people more... I do like the idea of putting various current attractions together: the High Falls, the St. Paul area." He says more pedestrian links are necessary between sites like these, which are so near yet so far from each other. "They do have connections," he says, "but [the connections] are not obvious." What to do? "Street lights are important in themselves," he says, as are "signage and subtler things."

            "One of the assets that Rochester has is its beautiful physical layout," says Vesneske. "You can walk west to east with ease," he says. But there are disincentives, some large like the Inner Loop, some small like the "skyway" system that channels pedestrians between downtown office buildings. "Simply getting people out of the skyways and getting them down to the river shouldn't be a monumental task," says Vesneske. He says he hopes that downtown, and especially the riverside, will someday attract the flâneur, the walker-wanderer (or Whitmanesque loafer-loiterer) who thrives in human profusion and intimacy.

            Vesneske points to little matters that need attention --- like some benches on the east-bank walkway, just south of Andrews, that time and neglect have almost dismantled. But he also mentions the human factor.

            "As much as the physical changes that need to be made, the marketing is important," he says. "I think continuous events, artists, [and] public art could help the utilization of the area." He maintains the riverside is inherently more attractive than some trendier places. "People will gladly sit and suck up fumes on Park Avenue," he says. "Why would it be insurmountable to have them do it in a more attractive area with beautiful architecture and views?"

John Lovenheim, a Sector 5 co-chair and Grove Place resident, says the recent workshop carried on work long in progress. The workshop, he says, "spins off the Sector 5 charrette we had a couple of years ago; most of the points were echoed with more refinement and detail."

            Lovenheim sees flaws to be fixed. "Part of the problem with Crossroads Park is that it's multi-level," he says. There should be two levels at most, he says, "so you're not going up and down constantly."

            "The garage has to be worked on," says Lovenheim. "What goes on underneath doesn't bother me," he says, "but it really creates a barrier between the city and the river."

            What about the question of large-scale redevelopment versus small?

            "It's a matter of compromise" and cost-benefit analysis, says Lovenheim. Attitude is paramount. "The whole thing can be done in a more urban-friendly manner," he says.

            "People [once] thought that cities were bad," Lovenheim says, noting that some urban-center parks were designed to make people imagine they were out in the country. But today, he says, that's one attitude that's definitely shifted. "I think we've learned," he says, "not to separate ourselves from the city but to integrate ourselves in the city."


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