Imagine broad boulevards, tree-lined sidewalks and flower-covered meridians in place of the cracked cement and rusted steel of the inner loop.
For the east side of the highway that surrounds the city center —4,430 feet of it, to be exact—that is the plan: to make a neighborhood out of sunken and looping highways that private developers and city residents can make their own.
It is a rare and long-awaited chance to fill the chasm between downtown and some of its adjacent neighborhoods. Instead of making the center city more accessible, which was its original intent in the 1950s, the Inner Loop today cuts downtown off from the very people who can sustain its businesses, says Erik Frisch, transportation specialist at the city of Rochester’s architecture and engineering bureau.
“It was designed at a time when our downtown was overwhelmed with traffic congestion, and there was near-unanimous sentiment that the traffic threatened the viability of downtown. The thought was that widening streets, building new expressways, and developing large parking facilities, would restore order to the traffic chaos, and bring the downtown area into a new era of prosperity,” Frisch says.
He adds: “Unfortunately, as we have learned, this rush to reorder the city to serve the car only hastened the city’s decline over the past 50+ years. I think this is due in large part because the changes were so unbalanced toward cars and away from other modes: walking, biking, and transit.”
Walkability in cities is as much about balance as it is about giving people choices to stroll, to ride their bikes, walk their dogs, or drive their cars, says Jonie Monroe, executive director at the Rochester Regional Community Design Center. In the 1960s, the trend in American society, she says, was to emphasize faster auto transportation over thoughtful urban planning. The problem, she says, is that the mentality persists today.
She says the risk that poses to the Inner Loop project is that we reproduce the Inner Loop on the ground and squander the rare chance to integrate walkability into the infrastructure of these new boulevards.
“I call it the ‘Ghost of the Inner Loop,’” Monroe says. “We can’t seem to get away from it.”
“Walkability in cities is as much about balance as it is about giving people choices to stroll, to ride their bikes, walk their dogs, or drive their cars...”
A LITTLE HISTORY
The city has been mulling ways to deal with the Inner Loop and the geographic divisions it creates for some 20 years, over much of which time organizations such as RRCDC have been amassing research, renderings and guidelines through charrettes, workshops, and lectures, etc. to lay the groundwork for the project happening now.
What finally made the Inner Loop East project possible was nearly $18 million in federal grant money, which the city had long sought to reconfigure the expressway, specifically the one-mile segment of it that stretches from East Main Street at the north to South Clinton Avenue at the south.
The city matched the grant with nearly $6 million in funding, for a project total of $23.6 million, slightly more than the most recent cost estimate for the project. Released in March, the city’s report pegged total costs, including contingency costs, at nearly $23 million.
The most up-to-date designs were made public in March 2014, with construction slated to start in October 2014, and a scheduled completion date of November 2017.
Watching the three-minute Inner Loop East simulation video on YouTube, the vision looks too good to be true—especially the sunny blue skies. Walkability in a climate such as ours, experts say, is one of many major considerations necessary to make a city environment truly walkable.
The Inner Loop East transformation project will replace a section of the grade-separated expressway and replace it with a single two-way city street with on-street parking, wide sidewalks, a generous tree canopy, landscaping, and a physically separated two-way cycle track.
Pedestrian crossing points between downtown and the neighborhoods will increase from four via bridges to nine marked crosswalks. No longer will there be a need to cross bridges and multiple sets of traffic lights to get between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Jeff Speck, an expert on walkability and city planning, visited Rochester in January as part of the RRCDC’s ongoing Reshaping Rochester lecture series. He has visited an American city every week as part of a lecture circuit to explain the importance of prioritizing walkability in city planning.
“I was reminded as we walked around (Rochester), everywhere I go, everyone thinks they have the worst weather in America. We’re too hot, too cold; we’re too windy or too rainy. I always remind cities that what we can learn from other cities to make them more walkable, like Quebec City in the winter, New Orleans in the summer; Chicago in the wind and Portland in the rain.
“(Here) when we (toured) the nicest streets, when we were on East Ave., on that little street where the music school is located, Gibbs Street, all of a sudden it was warm again,” Speck says. “There is a climatic aspect to that that you’re actually sheltered, but there also is a sense of being entertained and properly enclosed in a nice space while you’re walking that makes well-designed streets comfortable in any weather.”
Local experts on the subject point to other walkable neighborhoods in the South Wedge and Park Avenue neighborhoods as well as ARTWalk on University Avenue.
But in downtown Rochester, Frisch says, walkability is sorely lacking. Although there are sidewalks, street trees, density, and mixed uses, he says, much of downtown is not a very welcoming place to walk, mainly due to empty storefronts or inactive first-floor uses that do nothing to engage pedestrians and instead create a sense of isolation.
In Europe, Brown notes, smaller streets, combined with smaller trucks, service vehicles, and smaller, more pedestrian-friendly buses, allow for narrower roads that lend more space to pedestrians. “Our whole philosophy needs to change—as well as our allocation of space for the pedestrian and trees,” Brown says.
To truly change, he explains, people need to downsize the scale of their cars and their parking needs.
Integrating walkability in a project that starts from scratch should be easier than trying to add it later, but even with that advantage the stakes are as high as the variables and stakeholders are diverse. Taking everything into account to ensure the best outcome almost seems impossible.
When asked if the city has the resolve and expertise necessary to make walkability central to the project, architect Roger Brown, a founding member of RRCDC, is cautiously optimistic.
“Yes they do, but they are victims of the state and federal DOT who have dictated their auto-dominated mentality on to the Rochester city engineers in the name of traffic flow,” Brown says. “In the end the loop project will be a great improvement over what exists now, and they are listening to the Design Center and the community on issues of pedestrian walkability: primarily the inclusion of generous tree lawns, street trees, on-street parking, crosswalks, bike lanes, (or) in this case a cycle track, and the like.”
For the last 10 years, the New York State Department of Transportation has been involved in planning the Inner Loop East project, primarily by providing technical guidance, the city’s March 2014 design report states. The NYSDOT owns and maintains the existing Inner Loop Expressway facility and will benefit from removing the expressway from their infrastructure inventory, the report notes.
Frisch, the transportation specialist in the city’s architecture and engineering bureau, is central to the project. In the community, he is known as a major advocate for pedestrians and cyclists, especially.
Frisch gets it, Brown says, but he will need constant input from local designers who likewise advocate for the pedestrian realm.
To ensure an active walkable neighborhood for pedestrians and cyclists, experts say a special kind of private development is required— one that brings active storefronts to line these boulevards to keep them bustling. No one wants to stroll by blocks of surface parking lots or blank brick walls, Monroe says.
“In many ways, land use is a greater factor in walkability than the infrastructure itself,” Frisch says.
The city, as a result of a market study, estimates roughly six to nine acres of land can be used for mixed-use redevelopment, which could include 430,000 to 800,000 square feet of commercial and residential space.
“This translates to 300-600 housing units, 70,000-85,000 square feet of office space, and 50,000-85,000 square feet of retail,” Frisch says. “The density of the development is likely to be dictated by the manner that parking is handled on-site. If parking can be structured, the density will be greater.”
Parking is a big piece of the puzzle.
“I can safely say that we would not be making this investment if our goal was to build surface parking lots on the six acres of land that will be created,” Frisch says.
He adds: “We certainly hope to encourage a dense pattern of development and will seek to minimize the amount of parking that is within view of the surrounding streets.
Ideally, the development of this space would not only fill in the gaps between neighborhoods, it would raise local tax revenues and increase jobs. The city’s estimated benefit-cost ratio for the project is between 1.9 and 2.2.
But the city has yet to secure the land. In a February letter to the Rochester City Council, Mayor Lovely Warren requested easements on 16 properties totaling nearly 37,000 square feet, all to be donated by private owners.
Frisch explains: “This means that the owners are not requesting monetary compensation for these small corners of their respective properties. This is relatively standard for reconstruction projects, though the fact that they are all donations is another demonstration of the support for this project.”
These acquisitions, he says, are not necessary to complete the project, but they do make the project better, and, he adds, they all are moving forward.
The other, larger piece of the real estate puzzle for the project, he says, is the transfer of land from the NYSDOT to the city to facilitate the redevelopment.
State and federal funds provided 50 percent of the cost of the original acquisition of the land when the Inner Loop was built. Transfer of the land to any developer will require the city to sell parcels at fair market value, which must be approved by the NYSDOT to ensure that they and the Federal Highway Administration recoup their 50 percent interest. One problem, however, is determining fair market value..
Acquiring this land is not required for the project to move ahead, Frisch says, but will be required for the city ultimately to develop the land that is created. That process too, he says, is moving forward.
The city’s department of neighborhood and business development is responsible for developing guidelines for private development and issuing requests for proposals. Frisch says the intention is to have a dense mixed-use community along Union Street that will tie the two sides together. With one exception, he says, all of the land to be developed will be on the downtown or west side, while the east side will remain intact.
A physically separated two-cycle track is a key feature of the reconstruction project. It will be situated along the west side of the corridor connecting Chestnut Street with University Avenue.
The structure of the track, Frisch says, increasingly is viewed nationally as the ideal condition for encouraging cycling. The track also is expected to improve bike connections to the east side, including the South Wedge, Genesee Riverway Trail, Wadsworth Square, the east end and the Public Market.
RIGHTING A HISTORIC WRONG
By integrating walkability and bikeability, Frisch says, Rochester is correcting a historic error.
“Both are critical to Rochester’s future success,” he says. It’s more than just adding sidewalks or planting trees, experts emphasize. Walkability is as much about land use and urban design as it is about transportation infrastructure, Frisch says. Active storefronts also will be essential. Combining all in the right measure will require immense consideration, input and investment from the private sector.