Arian Horbovetz is a Strong Towns member based in upstate New York. He blogs at the Urban Phoenix. The following essay is reprinted from his blog.
Every time a new vacancy is announced in Rochester’s ambitious retail venture known as College Town, more and more residents pile on to social media to rant about the project’s imminent failure. Surrounding lower income neighborhoods, a city that has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation and misuse of subsidies—among others—are cited reasons why this $100 million-plus mixed-use project is quickly being condemned as another in a long line of bad development decisions the city has entertained. To some extent, these are certainly causes of College Town’s struggles.
The real struggle for any project like this, however, is one that very few people talk about. It is a lack of connective tissue to Rochester residents, University of Rochester Medical Center employees and U of R on-campus students who might utilize and patronize College Town’s establishments. It is a set of existing traffic barriers, surrounded by a sea of neighborhoods that are not likely to support the kind of businesses the facility houses. It is the false impression that if you back a dump truck of development money into an area that is not ready for it, it will instantly lift the neighborhood.
College Town, like so many other attempts in so many cities across our nation, is a Money Island. It is a massive mid-to-high-end living and restaurant/retail investment surrounded by a sea that is not equipped to support it. Furthermore, this sort of island lacks the number of “boats” (going big on the metaphors here) necessary to ferry folks from other areas needed to sustain it. In essence, College Town is a beautiful project and a great idea… The fact that it is plopped down in the middle of a neighborhood that isn’t ready to support it with no creative or practical connectivity to the parts of Rochester that might patronize it is the reason this project has struggled from the start. A deeper look into this reality gives us a picture of why massive development endeavors alone cannot be the engines of change in emerging urban areas.
GEOGRAPHY & DEMOGRAPHICS
College Town replaced a series of outdated administrative buildings on the east end of The University of Rochester Medical Center campus. In an attempt to visually enhance the area surrounding Rochester’s largest employer, as well as add vibrancy to an otherwise socioeconomically depressed area, College Town would be the welcoming face, ushering in University of Rochester students, as well as Medical Center employees.
But again, the problem facing this project began before it started: the surrounding neighborhoods range from $20,000 – $40,000 annual household income, with a few exceptions here and there.
The Medical Center “backs up” to College Town making the two relatively close in proximity. A short 5 minute walk from almost anywhere on the Med Center campus will easily land you in the midst of the CT action. However, most of the parking for hospital employees is nowhere near the area. A huge percentage of employees are shuttled in from outlying parking lots miles away from College Town.
The University of Rochester college campus is a different story. With the assumption that students are far more likely to be on foot, the distance between on-campus student housing and College Town is over a mile, taking approximately 25 minutes each way. Furthermore, this trek is along a stretch of Elmwood Ave, a 4-lane, 20,000+ daily traffic-count road where cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and traffic calming features are inadequate at best.
While certainly possible, a walk along Elmwood is not a particularly inviting one. Pedestrians from the University campus could take the “long way” to College Town via Crittenden, which is very much a boulevard designed for walkability and cycling, but it adds time and distance to the route.
In any event, College Town is simply too far from the college campus to be an option for food in between classes or a quick bite to eat or a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
College Town is also located on the city fringe, about halfway in between Center City Rochester and the busy, retail and chain restaurant super-giant suburb of Henrietta. Between Center City and CT is the bohemian neighborhood, The South Wedge. “The Wedge,” and nearby Park Ave, are two of Rochester’s most popular shop and eat local destinations, with refurbished old buildings and unique houses, giving an authentic Rochester feel as you walk the streets. This is in stark contrast to the “just built” feel of College Town.
Remember Elmwood Ave? Elmwood crosses Mount Hope, another 20,000+ traffic count 4-lane road at College Town’s Northeast corner. This intersection, which I have traverse hundreds of times, acts as a pedestrian and cycling shield with an unwelcoming and often dangerous feel for pedestrians. Crossing these streets, while possible, is less than pleasant, a big issue for an area that must rely on walkability to survive.
One more point on Mount Hope and Elmwood: These two streets/roads streak North/South and East/West respectively, funneling U of R employees and students from the surrounding neighborhoods into the area. Neither present a particularly hospitable pedestrian experience, and both are downright dangerous for cyclists with little or no shoulder, to say nothing about a designated bike lane.
WHY THE ABOVE MATTERS
To be successful, College Town needs to have a blend of different groups of patrons. First and foremost, hospital employees and university students should be a huge piece of the CT business revenue. But offsite parking for hospital employees and a 25 minute hike for students via a street made for efficient car travel rather than a welcoming pedestrian experience likely causes both of these to come up short.
How about the surrounding neighborhoods? For their lower income residents, the affordable dining and beverage options nearby are more appealing, and many of them have a much greater sense of local “flavor" than the offerings at College Towns.
How about College Town as a destination for suburbanites looking for a fun night out or weekend adventure? CT comes up short again, as it offers nothing in the way of retail shopping (yet), and features a small and ever-dwindling array of dining and drinking options. While connected closely to each other, College Town is likely not a place where visitors would target multiple places to eat and drink in an evening.
In sum, College Town is too far from the U of R, it’s nowhere near Medical Center parking lots, it’s too expensive for the surrounding neighborhoods and doesn’t provide a unique or authentic experience for visitors to want to engage. While the area itself is quite walkable with wide sidewalks and traffic calming, it is surrounded by heavy traffic congestion, uninviting pedestrian infrastructure and disconnected as well as borderline unsafe cycling routes. Unlike popular Rochester neighborhoods like Park Ave and The South Wedge which are very accessible by means other than cars, College Town is on an island in a sea of heavy traffic congestion and wide roads.
Despite the failings mentioned above, College Town has some positives coming. Elmwood is not far away from being remade, complete with greatly improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.
RTS Bus Service has done all they can to increase their presence in college town with several new a shiny bus stops complete with digital screens, heat lamps and bike racks. However, like most U.S. cities, Rochester’s bus system predominantly serves its poorer residents, a demographic that is not likely to patronize the generally mid-to-higher-end experience College Town employs.
More construction in the area, including nearby City Gate and the ever-growing footprint that is the Medical Center will likely feed College Town’s future. But the infancy of College Town is a clear warning to the often-touted belief that large scale development projects alone can transform neighborhoods. Rather, a balance of proper multi-use connectivity with the rest of the area and an incremental development approach can lift an area slowly and sustainably without creating yet another “Money Island.”
(All photos courtesy of Arian David Photography unless otherwise noted.)