Rochester's Broad Street Aqueduct

Let's not give up on returning the Erie Canal
to downtown

By Jim Durfee

This article first appeared in the Rochester Business Journal

Rochester Business Journal
March 16, 2012

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. ..."

Daniel Burnham, architect of the Chicago World's Fair and Columbian Exposition, to whom the above quote is attributed, would have agreed that the Erie Canal Historic District master plan, which proposes to bring the Erie Canal back through the center city, is no little plan.

Some time ago I was reminded of Burnham's admonition in a blogger's response on a local website. The comment referred to a City Council presentation outlining the remarkable and visionary proposal, which would shut down a section of Broad Street to vehicular traffic and re-establish boat traffic crossing the Genesee River on the 1842 aqueduct.

The underlying premise was, to many, audacious. The rewatered aqueduct was to be part of a $66 million public infrastructure and streetscape program, including a boulevard of fountains and reflecting pools along a redesigned West Broad Street. Originally the vision of Tom Grasso, president of the Erie Canal Historical Society, and a few other passionate advocates, the program imagined the complete transformation of an undervalued sector of the city. The plan would, in a very specific and compelling way, turn back the hands of time to a bygone era that defined Rochester.

The concept quickly captivated the Rochester community, and the city responded by engaging planning professionals to study the idea's potential. The goal was to formulate a plan that might duplicate success stories in cities like Providence and San Antonio. The plan that resulted was intended to be both compelling and achievable. It linked together revitalization projects involving underused historic structures such as old City Hall and the iconic Times Square building. The canal was to be re-established in certain parts of the newly designated district and reinterpreted in others.

The public part of the investment would provide the necessary thematic improvements linking 14 private projects. This private investment would establish the Canal District as a unique urban neighborhood for both residents and visitors. The city's consultants estimated that the project would stimulate an estimated $220 million in private development. Some 1,600 construction jobs would be created and annual real estate taxes generated by development investment in the Canal District would total $4.1 million.

The plan was unveiled in 2009 to wide acclaim. Rochester Magazine named it "Best idea of 2010." Mark Liu, editor of the magazine, wrote, "Of all the 'bests' around, it could be the most significant." Then mayor Robert Duffy praised the Broad Street project as "transformative," saying that it had the ability to jump-start development west of the Genesee.

The concept gathered momentum, and expectations for its implementation soared. Soon after the plan was published, the city hosted the World Canal Conference. The "Dinner in the Ditch" that took place in the abandoned aqueduct was, by most accounts, the event of the year, gathering enthusiastic reviews for its uniqueness as a community gathering space.

Unfortunately, since that time, events have conspired to take the idea so far off the radar screen that it now is seldom discussed. So what caused this ebbing away of commitment from such a promising endeavor? There are obvious answers: the virtual insolvency of the city's finances, the need to focus public investment in very discrete ways, a national economy that has been in recession. Still, it would be more than disappointing to lose sight of what this could mean for the city's longer-term prospects.

As it became apparent that other priorities were outcompeting the initiative for attention, an ad hoc committee was formed to discuss how the Canal District plan might be supported. The group-consisting of property owners, developers, real estate brokers, planners, economic development professionals and canal advocates-continues to discuss how best to support the plan.

Recent reinvestment in this district already has improved the chances for more rapid economic results. Nothnagle Realtors' establishment of its central headquarters at the intersection of Broad and Main streets could help anchor the western end of a new Erie Canal corridor. That project alone has created 200 construction jobs, and 100 workers now occupy the building.

Significant questions remain. To what extent will the rewatering be completely authentic? Some argue that authenticity is vital to the achievement of ultimate value and success. Others are concerned that some compromises are probably necessary and prudent to meet modern requirements. The current plan developed by TY Lin International, along with its urban planning consultant, Cooper Carry, is intended to achieve early success while preserving the option of full authenticity. It is a blueprint for phased work, and it is entirely possible that the first phase will be so dynamic that decisions about future phases will be obvious.

One could argue that Rochester has no feature more character-defining than its Erie Canal history. In the mid-1800s, the spectacle of water traffic crossing the Genesee River in the center of the city drew tourists from far and wide. The aqueduct was an awe-inspiring site, combining engineering and architecture in a structure that overcame and channeled natural forces. It can once again become an awe-inspiring community treasure if there is the will to make it happen.

So is this "big plan" worthy of our continued consideration? I believe the answer should be yes. We need transformative projects that are compelling to the next generation. This plan represents a chance to bolster our reputation for innovation and creativity. It has tangible prospects to draw substantial real estate investment to a part of the city that is languishing, and it proposes to capitalize on the past in creating something new and exciting.

If a way can be found to accomplish this, the public spaces and streetscapes that result will be uniquely Rochester and very cool.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at 3/16/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal.

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