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To market, to market: The northeast quadrant

The northeast quadrant reads like a city realtor’s sample-book. You’ll find a collection of housing styles from 1900 to 1950 and a range of housing prices from the handyman’s special to the stately manor. The area extends from Main Street and the railroad tracks in the south, to the river in the west. The town lines of Irondequoit and Brighton make up its northern and eastern borders.

Look at a map of the northeast quadrant and you’ll see a big handprint. The palm is an industrial area just north of the Inner Loop, and six major commercial arterial streets are the fingers that extend through the rest of the quadrant --- St. Paul Street, Clinton Avenue, Joseph Avenue, Hudson Avenue, Portland Avenue, and Main Street. Residential neighborhoods rest between the major streets.

The northeast is a hotbed of grassroots activity --- thriving block clubs and neighborhood associations abound, guided by large umbrella organizations. To listen to northeast residents talk about the zoning code is to hear many of the same requests other city inhabitants have made: Downzone multi-family houses to single-family; and reexamine the village center commercial designation, which would allow 24-hour operations.

Those are citywide concerns, and the proposed code answers at least one request by downzoning houses in large areas of northeast residential districts to single-family. What’s unique to this quadrant is the Public Market Village, one of only two urban villages in Rochester; the other is Harbortown in Charlotte. The urban village is envisioned as a traditional mixed-use neighborhood, where people can live, work, and shop in a pedestrian-friendly area. To preserve and enhance the character of the circa-1905 neighborhood, the new code would include a distinct set of design standards.

The public market serves as a central square, as well as a source of jobs, says Hank Herrera of the North East Neighborhood Alliance (NENA). The Alliance is working to turn the Public Market Village --- bordered by North Goodman Street, Central Park, Scio Street, and the Inner Loop --- into a destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment. A micro-enterprise development program, initiated by NENA and the city, encourages residents to start their own home-based cottage industries --- from homemade foods to crafts and services.

The Public Market Village plan calls for the preservation of existing older houses, as well as the development of new, affordable housing on the sites of recently demolished houses. Two years ago, on NENA’s recommendation, the city razed several houses on Scio Street. The houses had been subdivided into so many units and maintained so poorly that they had become uninhabitable, Herrera says.

“It’s like measles,” says Northeast District City Councilmember Benjamin Douglas, describing the outbreak of chopped-up single-family houses throughout the northeast quadrant, rented out by what he calls “slumlords.” Downzoning throughout most of the quadrant would help neighborhoods return to their original design: small streets of owner-occupied single-family houses.

Beechwood, the area between Culver Road, North Goodman Street, East Main Street, and Bay Road, is a typical example of many northeast neighborhoods. Over the last 30 years, many homeowners divided their houses into two or more units, left for the suburbs, and became absentee landlords. Owner-occupancy plummeted; density skyrocketed --- until the supply of rental properties surpassed demand, leaving many houses vacant.

“Our neighborhood has incredible, big houses with a lot of natural character,” says Kyle Crandall of the Beechwood Neighborhood Association. “Our goal is to stop house conversions. Over the next 10 years we should see an increase in the number of single-family houses and homeowners, which will lead to more neighborhood stability and pride, as well as higher property values.” Landlords would benefit as well from fewer, better-maintained rental properties on the market, he says.

“If it were up to us, we’d have all single-family housing,” returning to the original character of northeast neighborhoods, says Herrera.

“We still need affordable, decent rental housing, especially for families,” says Brad Cherin, director of housing for the Group 14621 Neighborhood Association. Group 14621 wants to see more multi-family dwellings included in the new code. Planners hope to provide the right balance of housing --- single-family and multi-family, owner-occupied and rentals. Several multi-family areas would remain, but “placement must be judicious,” says Councilmember Douglas. “You can always upzone as time goes on and the need increases. Starting closer to ground zero is good; it’s always harder to go back once something is built. We’ll see how it goes.”

Like excess housing, there’s an oversupply of commercial areas in the northeast as well, says Assistant Director of Zoning Arthur Ientilucci. All the major arterials through the quadrant have businesses along nearly their entire length. Most are large stores with parking lots, a much different feel than the pedestrian-oriented commercial center envisioned in the proposed zoning code.

“A solid community used to create a demand for these commercial areas,” Douglas says, “but as the economy of many neighborhoods has declined, there’s not enough support for them any longer. Very few of the businesses are thriving.” There is a need to find other useful purposes for the commercial spaces, Douglas says, like specialty shops that are more conducive to pedestrian activity.

“Commercial strips that function best are surrounded by residential density,” Cherin says. “Park Avenue and Monroe Avenue are two of the most successful commercial areas in Rochester, and residents are bitching about parking. I’d love to have their problems. I say, ‘Take it! Enjoy it!’”

If most of the housing adjacent to commercial areas in the northeast is downzoned to single-family, Cherin says, there will be no opportunity to develop the density that feeds neighborhood businesses. “The value of a city comes when it supports a variety of intermingled, mixed uses. You take that away, you’re just another suburb.”

The Hudson-Joseph Business Association echoes Councilmember Douglas’ approach. The organization wants the city to encourage the development of small commercial areas by creating two types of business districts --- one pedestrian-oriented, in a residential area, whose shops close by midnight; and one car-oriented, which could accommodate 24-hour operations. Urban commercial development is a delicate balance, Cherin says. You want a strong set of regulations to ensure the safety of the surrounding neighborhood, but you don’t want the regulations to be so strict that they discourage new businesses.

Group 14621 and other organizations around the city are pleased that the proposed code offers a middle ground for potentially unsuitable businesses: a temporary permit. If neighbors are leery about a proposed business --- for example, a dance club near a residential neighborhood --- the city could grant the owner a permit for several months, giving neighbors a chance to evaluate the performance and “fit” of the business.

Keep talking

Body: In response to an appeal from the South East Area Coalition, the city has extended the official public comment period on the proposed zoning code. Originally scheduled from April 1 to May 15, the new deadline is now June 5. All questions and suggestions submitted to the Zoning Department by June 5 will be addressed in writing and included in the department’s recommendations to City Council later this year. Comments submitted after June 5 may not necessarily be incorporated into the department’s recommendations.

In addition to raising concerns, “it’s important to express what you like about the proposed code,” says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation. “If there is not enough support for certain changes, they may be eliminated. Other people may be writing in to oppose the very changes you approve.”

A public zoning information meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 13, at School 30, 36 Otis Street.

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