Rochester is dealing with what can only be described as a development craze.
Speculation, market demand, and long term planning have formed a conflagration growing larger by the day. It is hard to remember back just a couple of years in the heart of the recession when nothing much of anything was being proposed. Today there are literally developments being proposed on almost every block of downtown. But downtown is not the only place that is subject to this pressure. Further out, closer to what can be considered our major “gateway” on 2nd Street SW, there are multiple projects being proposed as well.
There are two projects that have garnered the majority of attention these past few months. For very different reasons, there have been neighborhood opposition to the project proposals. There have also been many in favor of at least one of them. But both have struggled mightily with the design challenge of fitting in a dense, mixed-use building into the existing urban fabric of two downtown-adjacent neighborhoods.
The one that I think has the most to learn from is the Miracle Market Mixed-Use proposal on the existing Miracle Mile site. The challenge with this project was a common problem among urban design aficionados: Where is the front? Or rather: Where should the front be?
The Miracle Mile site is a 12 acre parcel located along Highway 52 and the Kutzky Park Neighborhood. The vintage 1950’s strip mall was constructed at a time when Highway 52 was nothing more than a 2-lane highway meandering around downtown Rochester.
Today, Highway 52 is a 6 lane divided highway with on/off ramps at Civic Center Drive and 2nd Street SW on either side of the Miracle Mile. The project proposal is not for the entire parcel, it is for the southern half that abuts 1st Street SW. The project has proposed a national chain grocery store (Fresh Thyme) and commercial/retail space, and residential apartments above. It is a much needed “fresh” approach to this prime location. With its proximity to the neighborhood, it seemed like a likely choice for a grocery store to accommodate the thousands of residents of Kutzky Park.
But wait, where is the front door? If you guessed on the west side, well you win a prize. The original proposal had major signage and the “front” facing west and Highway 52 with the back services facing the neighborhood to the east. This missed opportunity was pointed out to the developer during a review by the City of Rochester’s Committee on Urban Design and Environment.
Well that was the beginning of what was, to put it lightly, a contentious several week exchange between developer and neighborhood. When the project came forward for official review, it had not changed much. There was major concern from neighborhood leaders and residents about this lack of engagement with 16th Avenue that faced their homes. Why does that have to be the back of the building? Why can’t it face the other way? Why can’t it face both ways? This back and forth (and it was not as amicable as I make it seem) led to a list of “concessions” from the developer. The tone of which could not have been more disingenuous.
The crux of this debate (and one that I have had with several of my colleagues as well) is how to treat the “back” of a building in these urban sites. There is pressure for access on all four sides of many of these urban sites but the realities of access, site circulation, loading, trash hauling, and utilities requires some less desirable aesthetics. But the trick is to mitigate the impact of those realities. Not to brazenly display them to a lesser facade. In this instance, on the verge of building a 75-year building, it seems short sided to have an urban development face a major highway and not a growing, densifying, urban residential neighborhood. Notwithstanding the fact that where the signage for the “front” is proposed to be placed, is a location where it would be too late to actually exit at the access ramp in both the north and south directions.
To illustrate the potential for this change of “face,” members of the Kutzky Park Neighborhood even put together their own version of what the street (16th Ave) could become if only this development would engage the neighborhood side in a more meaningful way.
The project was delayed last month in anticipation of an election cycle that may change the likely votes for this project. It comes back in front of the City Council later in November and I think there is still hope that they can value the concerns of the neighborhood that care very much to orient the building toward the long term interests (and potential future customers) of the residents.