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Parcel 5: a historic opportunity

As published in the Rochester Beacon

High Street in the UK. Main Street in the U.S. A simple, one-syllable word conveys the importance a thoroughfare has for an entire community. Rochester’s Main Street intersects Clinton Avenue, named for the New York governor who masterminded the development of the Erie Canal, key to Rochester’s emergence as a pre-eminent city in the first half of the 19thcentury.

It is this stretch of Main Street that became Rochester’s main business district, until suburbanization hollowed out the city’s inner core. It was here that the city and business leaders decided to develop Midtown Plaza in 1958. Opening in 1962, it immediately attracted international attention.

This was an era when our community was more integrated. The city’s neighborhoods were showing signs of segregation after the influx of African Americans during the Great Migration and arrival of waves of transplants from Puerto Rico. But residents of all ethnic backgrounds shopped together and walked the same sidewalks. Midtown Plaza was public and open to the entire community in ways that, unfortunately, feel unfamiliar today. Nostalgic traditions, like visiting the Clock of Nations or taking the kids for a monorail ride during Christmas, were enjoyed by all members of our community. After years of neglect, our downtown is reemerging, almost phoenix-like. (In this case, it’s rising from gravel, not ashes.) The plaza was demolished and the main section of Midtown is now known as Parcel 5. The volume of activity around the vacant lot is increasing. New city residents occupy neighboring buildings converted from office space to residential units; professionals work at innovative companies relocating downtown, and fashionable restaurants are opening to cater to a clientele that is returning to the city it shunned for decades. As we negotiate this transformation, we must remember the city residents who never left. The city of Rochester’s population is majority “people of color” and disproportionately impoverished. As we decide how to redevelop Parcel 5, we have an opportunity to make a statement by embracing diversity and nurturing greater understanding between races and classes.

One of Rochester’s great historical legacies is Frederick Law Olmsted’s park system, including Highland, Genesee Valley and Seneca parks. He even designed Washington Square Park, only two blocks from Parcel 5. Olmsted was born nearly 200 years ago to an affluent Northern family. He began his career as a journalist, traveling to the pre-Civil War south, writing about slavery and the Southern economy. He became an abolitionist and wrote extensively about social class and egalitarian ideals. He also partnered with Calvert Vaux in response to a request for proposal to design New York’s Central Park in 1858. They won. And, with this masterpiece he enunciated the principles that influenced his work as our country’s greatest landscape architect.

Olmsted understood the role that public space could play in nurturing a more democratic society that is based on freedom and equality. He endeavored to create a natural environment conducive to pleasure and accessible to all—rich and poor alike. Using a modern idiom, his parks embraced “social equity.”

Mayor Lovely Warren recently obtained City Council approval to seek financial support for a project entitled “Parcel 5 Public Space.” The state funding mechanism involves a multistep process that will require detailed public disclosures. It is my understanding that the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council will determine if the proposal is presented to the state funding authorities in Empire State Development. Some of their deliberations will be held in sessions open to the public. Presently, it is difficult to form any specific response to the concept because so little information has been shared.

I have been advocating for a transparent and inclusive approach for several years. We can learn from other post-industrial cities similar to our own, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Columbus, to identify best practices applicable to designing Parcel 5. We can incorporate the work of leading contemporary urbanists, some of whom are already familiar with, or even live in, Rochester. We can use contemporary techniques to integrate public opinion and ideas in ways that were not available to Olmsted. These might include charrettes or public forums similar to those conducted with the ROC the Riverway project. Or an online voting process, as New York recently used to determine the design of our new license plate. I am confident public input will deliver the best result for the entire community. It is the most democratic approach.

Rochesterians are again displaying their deep connection to this one-acre lot near the corner of Main Street and Clinton Avenue. Workers enjoy lunch at one of the several food trucks parked there throughout the week; pedestrians stroll through the open space on their way to a destination; and vast crowds congregate to enjoy a festival event. We shouldn’t be surprised, given its history as the city center. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with our past. Let’s perpetuate the magnificent elements and, most importantly, prevent repeating our past errors. Parcel 5 belongs to the public. Let’s reclaim it.

Richard A. Glaser is co-founder of RocGrowth and People for Parcel 5.