Revitalization “Charette” / The MidTown Question

If you’re inclined to go find out what’s going on, the “charette” is still happening until 5:30pm today. I was there about the time when it first got started, and spent some time milling around like everyone else and checking out all the different tables.

My impression of the event? Well, certainly well-intentioned, but perhaps an event planner might have helped. I am glad the city decided to allow people to voice their opinions on the new plans for the city, but it could probably have been done more effectively next time. For one, this meeting was largely about civic planning and architecture, two things most of us know little to nothing about in practical terms. Having said that, it is tough to know exactly what they were looking for us to say and what would be the most helpful to them, and that was reflected in the aimless meandering of the attending citizens. We want to help, but what to suggest? Most of us lack even the basic vocabulary, even if we know what we like without knowing the names.

A better plan might have been to have had an MC of sorts on a small amp speaking about what is going on and what they want to accomplish, encouraging people to come talk to the planners. Not someone blasting out the rest of the conversation, but actively drawing people into the conversation and adding “conversation starters” to help the flow be more constructive. Perhaps better and more compelling signage might have been a bonus.

Apart from that, it was definitely interesting. I’ve got a few pictures of the event on, you can check them out on the little badge along the center-right column of this blog. The city is being divided, for the sake of focus, into five districts, a map of which can be viewed here. The idea is for people to begin thinking of the various areas of downtown as contiguous wholes, rather than the somewhat distant islands they sometimes seem. One region covers the “Center City” area (sounds like someone’s been in Philadelphia), one that focuses on Main Street where it bisects the Inner Loop, one that focuses on that part of Downtown between Main Street and Corn Hill, another that encompasses the East End part of Downtown and a northern section including St. Paul and North Avenue areas.

As you can see, each of the little zones was given it’s own table, and there was a fair amount of interest in each area, with people milling around and chatting. In fact, most of the interesting information I got was from chatting with the other citizens, not from talking to the planners, who didn’t really seem to have much of an idea what to talk about.

Generally, most people seemed to sense that the linchpin of Downtown revitalization was indeed the Midtown Mall area, and did not seem at all keen on the various ideas for it (casino, theater, Italian marketplace). It seems as if, especially among the more senior members of our population, Midtown Mall represents a genuine meeting place and useful center which has largely gone into disrepair rather than disuse. The same can be said for much of Downtown Rochester. Then again, there is every possibility that the folks gathered there would have been in the mall anyway, and therefore are not the most objective subject group.

But which is more important: objectivity or investment? If there are people who have a personally commitment and investment in having a marketplace available to them in Downtown, perhaps these are the voices that we need to listen to. Certainly, it would be better to listen to those who actually use the area than to listen to developers, who to be perfectly honest are salesmen looking to sell a product.

The problem with maintaining MidTown Mall as a mall or marketplace of some sort comes back, once again, to the same old problem we’ve always had with Midtown: how do we keep it safe and crime-free when malls by their very nature tend not to be entirely safe places, and a mall right next to a major bus route are inclined to be even less so?

In truth, the overriding question that must be answered is exactly this, regardless of what plan they put in place for MidTown Mall. In some way or another, the question of security must be answered before all others. This time, perhaps, having a former cop as mayor might help. Certainly, he must understand the tension between the mall and the police department, between whom many discussions have taken place, never really successfully. Even if they go for the Italian themed market idea, someone’s going to need to mind the meatballs.

It will likely require a genuine partnership between the city, the police force and whomsoever takes ownership of the mall. By this I mean that plans need to be discussed for addressing security and a triage for maintaining order, with commitments and expectations which are achievable by all parties.

This does not mean that the cops need to become mall security, but it does mean that at least a token force of police officers aught to be patrolling the areas outside of the building, and they should probably be “beat cops,” as much as I understand that this is an expensive proposition.

The city, meanwhile, needs to do what it has seemed loath to do for much of anything: advertise. I realize that we are in one of the largest media markets in the country, and therefore an extremely expensive one. Nevertheless, people need to know that there is a reason to come downtown. Argue and disagree with me though you might, I never saw one stitch of advertisement for the Fast Ferry, and I suspect that hurt it’s chances for success. Maybe the city could help sponsor local bands and jazz groups to play in the market and give people a reason to show up.

On the developer’s side of things, they need to see to it that any stores that occupy space in MidTown do so with the understanding that they will need to sign leases of at least a few years. As it stands now, I was informed by someone in attendence, MidTown leases store space on month-to-month basis. I suspect that, in an attempt to keep businesses from fleeing, former owners have thusfar chosen to keep leases limited, but this is not good for the long-term viability of the mall. Perhaps with a concerted effort by all interested parties, longer leases and greater stability can be achieved.

It would almost seem as though *anything* would be preferable to the current alternative. I remember walking through Sibley’s Department Store’s abandoned mortal coil, smelling the smells of decades of use. Then I remember when all but a very narrow, lonely passageway was walled off with sheet-rock. But at least back then, the walls were covered with decorative promises of things to come. Not any more. Now, this would appear to be the home “Crip City,” which I take to be an urban-fashion store of some sort. I would have presumed the Crips had better artists than this, but everyone needs to outsource, these days. And this must presumably be the back room where all the money is.

Meanwhile, the Sibley Tower is looking just as forlorn and lonely as MidTown. The foyer area is occupied by people with folding tables selling toilet paper and cereal. I’m not kidding people, look at this picture. This is right next to the freakin’ clock/light thing, man!

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.