But there was a dark side we have yet to deal with. A look at the racial and economic undercurrents of urban planning and development.
It took years to make it happen but once it did, everything changed
I live in Rochester, NY, a metro area of around one million people on the shores of Lake Ontario. We’re a racially diverse city with a large urban population of black and brown people and a major economic divide. This is not new- in the early sixties we had race riots over police violence and civil rights (shades of 2020, not much has changed).
One of the effects of racial unrest and the divide between poverty and relative wealth was the building of a sunken highway loop around our downtown area that effectively served as a boundary, a kind of defensible moat. This was common in northern cities at the time when massive freeways were routed through poor neighborhoods, destroying their fabric and any connections to better hoods. Literal barriers to upward mobility.
This highway loop, known as The Inner Loop, has always been controversial. When it was built, downtown was a true business hub with massive traffic, a wonderful shopping and entertainment district, and large numbers of people working. But with the rise of suburban sprawl and mall and car culture our downtown died and stayed dead for thirty years. A common story in cities like ours.
A call for filling in The Loop
About ten years ago there became enough political momentum to begin seriously thinking about eliminating this road barrier that divided downtown from great residential neighborhoods and poor ones. In this it was egalitarian. But the road was not being used as it had been in the past.
Traffic downtown in general was way down and this moat looked more and more like a dinosaur or rather, the skeleton of one. Somehow wheels turned and it was decided to fill in one half of it, the half that divided the ‘good’ neighborhoods from downtown. A politically expedient move. Filling in a six lane, 1.5 mile section of freeway would remove several bridges and free up about 12 acres of land for development, in what was once again becoming a prime area.
The rise of downtown residential living
In those thirty years of urban morbidity a generational change took place. Gen X and millennials liked urban living and renting became more and more desirable as the car culture began to lose its allure. But there was little downtown residential available, just empty office buildings and former retail spaces. But the potential was there and it was cheap.
How cheap? One developer I know bought a 26 story office tower, with six elevators, built in the seventies, for $5.5 million. That is not a typo. This place was not a wreck, in fact a major bank still had several floors of offices in it. At that price it would be hard not to eventually make money. He started converting floors to residential units with incredible views and floor to ceiling windows and they got snapped up. The lower half of the building began to fill with tech companies and ad agencies, drawn by our talent pool from over 17 colleges and universities.
This began a gold rush for vacant buildings within the loop until nearly all were snapped up. There were the inevitable developer failures and scams but there were also an increasingly large number of success stories.
Meanwhile the dump trucks were rolling in and the bridges being taken down
While this was happening within the loop, half the loop was gradually disappearing. A boulevard with trees and a dedicated bike path were created along the edge of the former freeway route and the rest divided into parcels for mixed use development. At last count there are eight completed or under construction building projects comprising hundreds of new apartments, retail space, and office space.
For a medium size city like Rochester, this has literally changed the fabric of downtown. Walkable neighborhoods have emerged, unfortunately sidelined by Covid, but poised for a big burst of interest when streetlife is real again. The buildings have been filling up.
In about a square mile of center city we have added thousands of apartments and lofts
The revitalization has triggered public works projects including $50 million dollars invested in rebuilding our downtown riverfront into a recreation corridor. The transformation is already remarkable. But there remains one more big challenge: the other half of The Loop, the section bordering the very poor black and brown neighborhoods to the north.
Reconnecting all the residents, not just the affluent white ones
In our city there is a dirty little secret no one talks about. With roughly a fifty-fifty split between people of color and whites, there is little to no social interaction between races. White people know few black people and black and Latino know few whites, despite working together and living a literal stone’s throw from each other.
A glaring symbol of this is that other half of our moat. There is talk of filling it in but progress is slow. Old prejustices die hard on both sides. This year BLM here became a rallying cry for both whites and blacks. We had many protests and one night of rioting and looting that, fortunately, was not repeated.
The job is half done
When I walk around this new emerging downtown, growing even as Covid shutdowns make everything silent, I see these two halves in a graphic fashion. One side looks like a new modern city, the other a ghost town. We have proven as a city that we can rebuild the easier part, but now we need to tackle the hard part and eliminate barriers, both symbolic and physical.
But our success says this can get done. We have a model. It just needs more urgency. Maybe once the pandemic and this year are behind us we can start looking forward again. I’m optimistic.