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Thinking big 

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized."

Chicago architect and Grade-A dreamer Daniel Burnham may or may not have said that, depending on which source you believe. Regardless, I love the statement, particularly because of its appropriateness to cities and city planning (which is what Burnham was referring to when he said it, if he said it). And so it pops into my mind every once in a while, when I read about some new development plan. Burnham had big plans and big dreams about Chicago, some of which came true and helped make it the impressive lakefront city that it is.

If we don't dream big, if we are timid, we miss opportunities. We don't inspire. We think small. And we create small, safe stuff.

The question is, when are big dreams worth pursuing? And when are they irresponsible risks?

One current case in point: the plan to build a theater for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League at Medley Centre, formerly known as Irondequoit Mall.

RBTL chair Arnie Rothschild, who's been the driving force behind the push for a new theater from the get-go, wanted the theater to be on the Midtown site, downtown. But he couldn't convince city officials that RBTL had enough money to build and operate a theater, and Mayor Tom Richards was afraid that city taxpayers would end up holding the bag.

So RBTL will head to Irondequoit – if. And while Rothschild disagrees, seems to me there's a really big "if" involved. As our Jeremy Moule lays out elsewhere this week, according to Rothschild, Medley Centre owner Scott Congel has agreed to build the theater and have RBTL operate it. But Congel announced in 2008 that he would turn Medley Centre into a grand, multi-purpose development, with retail, a hotel, restaurants, and apartments. None of that has begun yet.

So should we sniff and snicker? Or does this thing have potential? Is this something good for Greater Rochester? Is it thinking big?

I've never thought that redeveloping Irondequoit Mall was good for Greater Rochester. Our population isn't growing. We don't seem able to accept that, but facts are facts. All the construction we're getting in the suburbs – the retail explosion around Eastview Mall, the Reserve development eating up open space in Brighton, the redevelopment of Irondequoit Mall – all of that, if it's successful, will come at the expense of existing retail, residential, and office development elsewhere. We're just shifting stuff. Facts are facts.

You can look at this as simple capitalism at work. Survival of the fittest. And yes, it's an example of that. But it's also an example of thinking small. Focusing on individual businesses and little, individual parcels of land that make up the five counties of Greater Rochester.

If we looked at the bigger picture, if we tried to plan the kind of community that would be the healthiest, the strongest, the most attractive and most livable, would we design a place where beautiful open space was replaced by development that population trends didn't support? Would we design a community in which government encouraged one suburb to rob from another?

Would we design a community where taxpayers subsidized suburban shopping malls because the developers couldn't make it if we didn't?

It's foolish to dream too big – and to anchor our dreams in gossamer. But once in a while, we ought to dream and plan really big – not big projects, but big ideas. And underlying all of our dreams ought to be a big picture, a thoughtful, this is what we want to be – and what we could be, long-range view.

If we were really making big plans, we wouldn't even be talking about a theater at Irondequoit Mall – or planning to try to rescue that shopping complex. (If we had been making really big plans for the past 40 years, we'd have a thriving Midtown.)

What kind of community do we want?

Isn't that important?

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