Op-ed: Nine ideas to help implement the vision of DMC
Rochester is lousy with plans. We have vision documents and planning studies all around us. But the plans won't leap off the toy shop shelves and come to life at midnight. And while developers do like the certainty that comes from planning documents, if we as a city just sit back and wait for change, it won't be the kind of transformative change we desire in those aspirational documents.
It is imperative that we be proactive. It is time for us to figure out what we can do to possibly implement much of what is depicted in these prognosticating documents. There are myriad ways, but here are 9 that we think have merit:
9. Accept that Rochester is not someplace else
Rochester suffers, in some respects, because it does attract a cosmopolitan populace. The many citizen transplants and trailing spouses who live in Rochester have moved from other larger cities or urban areas or they have the means to travel around to exotic ports across the world. This leads to unattainable comparisons: "I was at this place in New York City," "There was this cafe in San Francisco," "In the warehouse district of (insert any city name)."
The problem is that we cannot be compared to those cities. We don't have a strong transit system or anything close to the population density that those other cities have. We have to stop comparing Rochester to Minneapolis, Chicago, or any other city with more than twice the population.
8. Create a Rochester community development department
Currently, the City of Rochester doesn't have a planning department. They have a shared department of planning with Olmsted County, which is so understaffed and underfunded that they don't actually perform any long-range planning.
Furthermore, there have been grievances and thus task forces established to improve our development processes. And we have been hearing an ever-increasing chorus for workforce housing.
All of these issues fall under the heading of community development, and it is long overdue for Rochester to establish a community development department to facilitate coordinated efforts toward growth and development issues in the city.
7. Establish a priority for transit-oriented-development projects
Because Rochester doesn't have a planning department, we often overlook the strong linkage between development patterns and transportation. Granted, there is some understanding that land use and transportation are interdependent, but the rationale for approving or denying project proposals does not take into account this symbiotic relationship.
We need to do a better job of tying the planning department review to a transportation/transit review and give priority to projects that locate themselves with existing or new connections to transit systems.
When you read about a developer proposing an "affordable housing project" at the furthest reaches of town (55th Street NW and 18th Ave NW) you need to understand the burden that places on those inhabitants due to a lack of transportation options.
6. A public works commission for all street projects
There is more surface area devoted to streets (public right-of-way) than all of the public parks combined. This fact is not that unusual. In most cities, this disparity is further amplified by larger population and employment centers which choke out most green space.
We have a park board, consisting of seven appointed individuals who govern over the policy and stewardship of our vital public lands. But what about the even larger amount of public land devoted to streets? That area is monopolized by our city traffic engineer and public works department with zero oversight by the public.
When a street is reconstructed, who from the public is allowed to weigh in on the design, the pedestrian amenities, the amount of space devoted to cars as compared to people? If we established a public commission (analogous to planning, parks, even historic preservation) then we have a greater assurance that our public spaces, are designed for everybody.
5. Hire an urban designer in public works
If a public commission for public works is a bridge too far, then at least hire someone with the skills and expertise for designing streets. Designing streets is very different than engineering roadways. Traffic engineers are hard to argue with. They seem to have impenetrable data and facts that point to safety and comfort. But they are using outdated platitudes which ignore the impact that humans have on the use of streets.
Having an urban designer on staff creates a counterbalance to the engineering perspective which excludes human beings from street design. Streets are more about economics than engineering, and so different strengths are required to fully complete each design.
4. Urban triage
The emergency room relies on triage to assess and prioritize every case that walks in the door in order to maximize their finite resources. We can and should do the exact same thing for our urban areas.
Not every street can support wide sidewalks, on-street parking, bike lanes, and permeable pavers. Or more to the point, if they did, it wouldn't solve the other missing elements that limit that street's efficacy. In some ways it is the inverse of the ER.
The patients who are the worst off, should be put on hold, and the patients who are closer to health should be improved with the least amount of effort.
It is more like the battlefield triage where the term first was coined: the worst off must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good. Targeting resources on the best streets, corridors, and districts leverages maximum impact. Leave the big box stores for another year or decade.
3. Front of the line for any brownfield/infill projects
If we want the private market to get serious about making large investments in urban areas to see the kind of visions of DMC come to fruition, then we have to initiate a market solution. Right now, the market dictates where growth occurs.
Where land is cheap and there are relatively few regulations, development is booming. Downtown — where land prices are high, abatement issues exist, and zoning makes it effectively impossible to do anything — there is not much happening.
If you set a policy that brownfield sites and/or infill redevelopment projects will automatically go to the front of the line for regulatory approval, you may create incentive for developers to target those areas first. It takes a long time to get through the system (planning, building safety, etc.) and to be assured a "front-of-the-line" pass for certain geographic areas may translate into saved time (= money).
2. Eliminate traffic projections
Currently our municipal large-scale planning documents use models for growth and for traffic. These models project into the future. The traffic models project an increase of 2 percent, each year. Compounded. Forever.
The result is that Civic Center Drive (that bisects Kutzky Park and is virtually impossible to cross on foot) is planned to be widened by one more lane on each side. Because of projected traffic. Traffic projections need to be thrown out. Because induced demand (or the increase in traffic due to greater capacity) will never alleviate traffic congestion.
What eliminates traffic congestion is a reduction in the amount of people driving, not widening the roadways. We need to wise up and realize that there is no need for traffic projections.
1. Tie parking to value, not cost
There is no such thing as free parking. Parking is subsidized by someone, either a property owner, tenant, or municipality. Even on-street parking (by using a meter) does not take into account the true value of parking.
It costs a quarter to park in a spot at 11:50 a.m. right before the lunch rush; and it costs a quarter to park in the same spot at 2:15 p.m. during siesta. Demand is far higher at 11:50 a.m, .and parking pricing should reflect that demand.
When we actually place the true price of parking on the public then we can really see the importance of investing in transit systems and alternative modes of travel. To park closer to a downtown hot spot, or to park at peak time, ought to cost more. This is not revolutionary; RPU charges you more for using power during peak times.
The additional money generated by such an action can be reinvested back into the public realm to improve the overall environment for downtown and other urban areas once we stop wasting it all on providing free parking.
Adam Ferrari is a licensed architect and the director of Design Rochester.
(Cover graphic: DMC Development Plan)