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Our Last 50 Referrers

« Ever-Expanding, Ever-Contracting | Main | Bill Kauffman, An Introduction »

October 13, 2006

The Reviver?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In yet another bit of wishful thinking, er, in yet another attempt to revive its ailing downtown, Rochester, New York is investing $270 million of taxpayer money in a gigantic Moshe Safdie-designed complex. (You can explore the project further here.)

Offhand design critique: too white, too many swoops, too much glass, and 'waaaaay too big a helping of that modernist obsession, "natural light." (Modernists seem to dislike the idea of buildings as shelter. Too traditional, I suppose.) Whiteness, swoopiness, glassiness, excess dazzle ... There's a lot of that particular combo around these days, isn't there?

Fast hunch about the complex's prospects: Ain't gonna work as planned.

Quick question: Does it really make sense to be spending 270 million public dollars on this kind of thing?



posted by Michael at October 13, 2006


Isn't Rochester about a quarter million people? Cause a thousand bucks a person is a ton.

And no, urban revival stuff like this generally doesn't pay off.

Posted by: ptm on October 13, 2006 12:24 PM

"urban revival stuff like this generally doesn't pay off."

Yes, generally very true. One exception that perhaps proves the rule: Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Posted by: PA on October 13, 2006 1:02 PM

You have to admit it's versatile, or (almost) all things to all people. Under one glass roof, you can catch a bus, go to college, attend a play, and go shopping. If they threw in a jail, hospital, and zoo, maybe they could knock down the rest of downtown Rochester and save on street paving costs.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 13, 2006 3:29 PM

How does this architecture help to "revive" a city? Any city. Do people walk through it and suddenly have epiphanies?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 13, 2006 5:34 PM

Dang Kevin Costner...caused all sorts of normally sane folks to believe in the mystical "Build It and They Will Come" Church.

Who the heck are "they" and how do they "get here"?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 13, 2006 5:34 PM

Maybe this will revive downtown Rochester like the Renaissance Center revived downtown Detroit.

Posted by: Bill on October 13, 2006 5:55 PM

Where duh bruhdas gawna hang?

Posted by: ricpic on October 13, 2006 6:20 PM

Outside light makes people happy and saves a lot of energy. I believe this is one reason why modern architecture has been so successful(most of the time). It did address the idea of natural light=happy people and it saves on energy. As far as the design shape, this architecture can do a lot for a city. I am from Milwaukee, and our Milwaukee Art Museum(by Calatrava) has done wonders for the city. Of course some people dislike it, but most people approve.

Posted by: david on October 13, 2006 6:55 PM

PTM -- Seems like an awful lot per person, no? Why not either save it, or just give it out as cash?

PA -- Figuring out why a few renewal projects work while dozens flop would be a lot of fun. I wonder if anyone's done such a study.

Rick -- Or maybe they'll eventually manage to enclose all of downtown Rochester in whiteness and glass!

Charlton -- I think that must be it!

Cowtown Pattie -- What a good question. Remember the vogue about a decade ago for convention centers? That was a hoot too. Rochester and Lexington were all going to attract thousands of businesspeople for conventions and thereby revive downtown. I should snoop around and see how those projects fared.

Bill -- There's something creepy about calling them "Renaissance Centers" at all, isn't there?

Ricpic -- If they're big enough, whereever they damn well want to.

David -- I think there are a lot of reasons why modernism has prospered, though I don't think many of them are good reasons. (Much of it has to do with the bureaucratic mindset. Very few real people, as in individuals, have opted for Modernist buildings where their own lives are concerned.) As far as light goes, I don't think it's a matter of light is either good or bad. Sometimes it's nice, sometimes it's too much. Some buildings are too dark, some buildings are far too open. Mies' Farnsworth House steamed up and needed to have its curtains adjusted all day long to moderate the sun. People who live in Mies' Chicago apartment buildings find themselves hiding from their own windows because there's just too much of them. Modernists are obsessed with "opening up" whatever they happen to be working on. It's recently resulted in a lot of glass and metal-strap cubes. That's a little too much natural light for anyone. A few modernist showpieces turn out to be good curiosities and draws, but Modernism's batting average has been amazingly poor. As America's cities filled up with modernist buildings, people left those cities in droves. Coincidence? Many don't think so.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 7:15 PM

"As America's cities filled up with modernist buildings, people left those cities in droves."

It's a little more complicated, though I do not deny either that (a) Modernism is ugly as heck or (b) people hate living in Modernist buildings. (The two don't have to go together; the Mona Lisa's pretty but I wouldn't want to live there.)

I'd argue that crime was what drove people away. The poor responsible for much of the crime (as well as being victims of it) were housed by bureaucrats in big Modernist projects, so it's not surprising you'd associate the two.

Posted by: SFG on October 13, 2006 9:31 PM

I agree that many modernist buildings do not necessarily work well for residential, but they do seem to have there place for business/office buildings. They are able to adapt to different uses relatively easy.

I'm also curious of how people define modernism. On this site, it seems to be used as a term referring to anything built in the last 50-60 years. And what do people consider good architecture? What would be a better design than what Moshe Safdie came up with? Just curious.

Posted by: david on October 13, 2006 10:19 PM

SFG -- The association between urban crime and the modernist re-doing of center cities is pretty tight. Jane Jacobs makes much of this in "Death and Life of Great Cities." The buildings, after all, don't just stand there in isolation. They affect street life and neighborhood life. Replace traditional blocks with modernist towers and plazas and nearly everyone gets depressed and hostile.

David -- Others will speak for themselves, but I use "modernism" in a *very* broad sense. For me, there's "traditional" architecture (basically everything done up till the 20th century -- classical, demotic, baroque, gothic, etc), and then "modernism," which split off from traditionalism and has become its own separate line of development, even as traditionalism continued. Hardcore modernists, living inside the modernist worldview, tend to see "modernism" as just the strict-right-angles-flat-planes stuff of a very limited period and its current revival. And then it turns into post-modernism, and then into decon, etc etc. For me, it's all modernism (and subsets of modernism). I do that because I like to stress that modernism isn't everything, and that there's much non-modernist architecture-and-urbanism going on. The modernist crowd is so addicted to their "architecture is modernism" ethos that they look at Christopher Alexander or New Urbanism and say, "Why, sputter sputter, that's not architecture!" Of course it's architecture. It just isn't modernist architecture. I hate the idea that some people aren't aware that there's an alternative to the modernist-establishment thing. There's a choice, darn it. (Actually many choices.) As far as the Rochester development goes, my first question would be "Do they need this development at all?" I suspect they'd do better to spend the money, if spend the money they must, on such basics as crime-minimizing, garbage pickups, and business-friendly law-tweaking. It's a common dream of bureaucrats that they can turn a city around with a big top-down project. 99% of the time they're wrong. Better to get out of people's way than to impose bureaucratic dreams on them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2006 10:34 PM

a warm hello from another Calatrava fan. I became one when I visited Milwaukee and our hosts showed us the Art Museum.
He is as close to god as architect in this century could be.

As to Rochester Center (unfortunately named...but that's a usual American gigantomania...see the word Academy) - I like the renderings. What it will be in reality, is completely different song.

Posted by: Tat on October 13, 2006 11:02 PM

Judging only by the illustrations on your first link (to the local paper), the proposed project looks a lot like typical current airport architecture.

I last flew into Rochester in 1982 and my foggy recollection was that the terminal was kinda dated. Maybe they could simply move the new project out there and kill two birds with one Safdie.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 13, 2006 11:28 PM

Convention centers are a complicated issue by themselves. They've been greatly overbuilt, with too many cities having too many such facilities, and it's not surprising that many centers are big money-losers.
On the other hand, New York clearly needs a modern convention center in order to stem the losses of the lucative convention business to cities such as Las Vegas and Orlando (both of which have magnificent world-class convention centers). The Javits Center is hoplessly small and obsolete. In typical New York fashion, of course, the plans to expand the Javits Center never seem to get beyond the talking phase. Meanwhile more and more mega-conventions just go elsewhere.

Posted by: Peter on October 14, 2006 9:16 AM

As a Rochesterian, my issue isn't with the design. I think the design is great, it's the cost that bothers me. We still have the defunct "Fast Ferry" that was supposed to "revitalize" Rochester from a few years back. That waste brought to us by Mayor Orangutan cost the city some $50 mil when you include in the cost of the port built just for it. Not a bad price for a ferry service that ran for about 7 weeks before shutting down. For $230 mil, we're thinking we'll probably get about 6 months usage out of this waste before it becomes the final museum-like home for the ferry. We'll call it "The Rochester Museum Of Government Pork Projects That Went Nowhere". Since the ferry's been sitting in the harbor for over a year unused, I have no doubt we'll still have it by then.

Oh, and let's not forget their next plan: to turn main street into a canal so as to....well, we're still not sure what that's supposed to do aside from increase downtown traffic, but I'm sure our elected officials know best. They've certainly earned out confidence up 'til now...

Posted by: Upstate Guy on October 14, 2006 12:07 PM


You ask the question, "Does it really make sense to be spending 270 million public dollars on this kind of thing?"

Are you asking does Minneapolis need "a new bus terminal, a new Monroe Community College campus and a two-theater performing arts center" linked via enclosed public space along with retail space that can be leased? Or are you asking whether it makes sense to accomplish these purposes in a single, downtown building project?

As to the first question, I'd certainly argue that it makes sense for Minneapolis or many other mid-sized cities to develop an up to date bus terminal, an urban downtown community college campus and performing arts venues, endeavoring to make it lively and accessible by incorporating enclosed public space [the climate of Minneapolis isn't like that of Venice Beach or San Diego] and retail establishments.

As to the second, if you pretty much want to return to the 1880's and before for architectural models, can you offer a feasible and affordable model that would accommodate the goals of the program (the campus, theaters, etc.) AND your aesthetic criteria?

Posted by: Chris White on October 14, 2006 12:09 PM

Upstate Guy -- That's very funny. Maybe another thing to do would be to build a huge, gilded mausoleum and dump all the politicians into it.

Chris -- Rochester, actually. I have no idea whether Rochester really needs a new bus terminal or performing-arts center, whether MCC needs a new campus, or whether (or how much) the local government should be involved in any of those projects, if they're in fact needed. Given the record of these kinds of over-ambitious projects in Rochester (as Upstate Guy details), I'm pretty sure this particular plan ain't gonna work. No such plan -- not a one -- has ever worked in Rochester, including a similar '60s-style thing called "Midtown Plaza," famous at one point for being the first (I'm pretty sure) of the enclosed downtown malls, and now depressed and semi-abandoned. Local pols just can't stop dreaming these things up, though. As far as my aesthetic criteria go (that's a very dignified name! thanks!) ... Well, I wouldn't want to impose it on anyone else -- so why do the city managers (and Moshe Safdie) want to impose theirs on me? I'd rather see the city spend its money and energy on good sewage systems, schools, law enforcement, clean parks, throwing out stupid laws and regs, putting something like David Sucher's Three Rules into effect, and then letting people and developers build what they want. One or two might build in a Safdie-esque style, and that'd be OK -- they'd be on a human scale, and they might even liven up the neighborhood, not that I'm prone to cutting 'em much slack. Let people pursue their own ends in a clear and simple framework; let the aesthetics-thing emerge from that.

But imposing this kind of hyper-expensive ($270 mill -- that's a lot of dough for a small city!), one-size-fits-all, no-local-character project on a modest downtown is just plain dumb. Safe prediction: in ten years, it'll look run-down, maintenance will be a financial bear, and no one who visits it will venture more than a block away from it anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 14, 2006 12:39 PM

It's a terrible, terrible idea, and one we simply can't afford. Living here is like watching a train wreck in slo mo sometimes (and btw, the only reason it's got a bus terminal attached is so the pols can tap into transportation bill dollars).

What this city needs is modest investment in /upkeep of the infrastructure that makes Rochester such a fantastic choice for families. Period. This R.S. project is the fast ferry, all over again, except that it's 10 times the price and a lot harder to scuttle . . .

Posted by: Kirsten on October 14, 2006 9:11 PM

Rochester, sorry, I had a mental slip while typing. Don't get me wrong. This could be another classic boondoggle concocted by slippery city officials in collusion with favored developers. And it does seem true that certain cities repeatedly prove impervious to positive changes in what seems to be their innate character. That said, a community college campus and a bus terminal certainly seem to fit the criteria of desirable city infrastructure.

You complain about cities "imposing their aesthetic criteria." I'm a little confused. Virtually all municipalities have zoning regulations voted upon by the citizens. These might include David Sucher's Three Rules. (It would appear that the Rochester project does meet those Three Rules by the way.) Public hearings and design charettes etc. are part of the process. Municipal projects are generally more open to greater public comment and review than those of private developers. In short, every building reflects an aesthetic criterion determined by the interested parties (developers, chamber of commerce types, municipal government bureaucrats, neighborhood activists, etc.)

I would wager that nearly everyone who adds a comment here could pick up their local paper and find a similar project. That is to say some public/private development project that will have noticeable effects (including an aesthetic effect) on the area. There will be different opinions about whether the effects are more good than bad, whether the players are generous and public spirited or stupid or venal. Depending on the city, how far along the project is and so on, you can go and vote against it next Thursday.

You say "Let people pursue their own ends in a clear and simple framework; let the aesthetics-thing emerge from that." I guess what I'm saying is that you've pretty much described the situation as it stands, but don't like the result. I cannot imagine a that a libertarian approach, meeting, say, just the Three Rules along with safety and engineering regulations, would give any better results.

Everyone who builds, to a greater or lesser degree, imposes their aesthetic on others. If you build a 15,000 square foot Tudoresque manse at the end of a cul-de-sac you've imposed your aesthetic in a massive way on your immediate neighbors in their 2,500 square foot 1980s ranch houses. They now appear cast as the serfs to your laird o' the manor. If Trump puts up a Tower somewhere it is the Donald's aesthetic that matters, not the neighbors.

Posted by: Chris White on October 15, 2006 12:40 PM

Chris, firstly we already have a bus terminal and college campus within a block of where they're planning on putting this. The plan is to just move them both. Because, apparently, moving them away from where there's already adequate parking and public transportation access is the best way to ensure it'll be used. :)

The big problem is this: Rochester's kinda unique in that our downtown area has practically zero residences. The area becomes pretty much a ghost town after 6PM. What little residential that exists within and just outside the downtown area is very low-rent, so in order to get downtown to enjoy the proposed "night life" you have to make sure to lock your doors and not stop to ask for directions lest you be picked up for some for of solicitation. With so many other small communities surrounding the city and providing safe and adequate nightlife for all, there's really no point in trying. And, let's be clear: when they say they're trying to "revitalize" the city, they're talking about giving it a nightlife, nothing more. The idea behind this project is "people will be down here for school and to take trips, perhaps they'd stay and hang at some clubs or something if they were there."

A better alternative might be: selling the ferry which has already cost the city something like $50 and is costing us a couple of hundred thousand per month just sitting in the harbor. Do something with the ferry terminal that we spent millions of dollars building and is now almost empty itself. Perhaps we can sell it to the native americans so they can put in a casino? Had we taken them up on their offer to do so in the first place (AND they offered to pay to build the terminal to get the right to build said casino), we would've shaved some off the price we laid out for this failure and provided people with some reason to actually ride the stupid thing from Toronto to Rochester. Rochester's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there. :)

Once you've got some revenue coming in, THEN you go start other projects. Or, is that too much to ask? And, just to be clear, the city did follow proper procedures in getting the ferry into town as well as this latest fiasco. They held meetings and gathered input and so on and so on...and then propmtly ignored all of the opposition to it (there were very few people actually FOR either) and did what they wanted. To paraphrase the immortal words of our former mayor: "the people of Rochester should mind their own business".

One last point on something Michael said: Rochester has the best garbage collection I've ever seen, to be perfectly honest. It's the one thing I think our former mayor did right. You can put ANYTHING out on the street, and they'll pick it up. I recently cut down two thirty foot trees from my yard and chopped 'em up. They were gone next trash day. Each garbage truck only has one guy who drives and collects the trash. He drives down, jumps out, puts the trash can on the lift and pushes a button. He then moves on to the next. If there's anything too big to move himself, he calls for a crane truck that shows up a little while later. It really is a model of efficiency in action.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on October 16, 2006 9:20 AM

Hmmm, perhaps what Rochester really needs is an aggressive round of Downtown residential condo development. Link the number of "luxury" or market rate units to a percentage of "affordable" units. I don't know enough about the specifics to make judgments about what vision for Rochester I'd support. Good chance I'd be with Upstate Guy on the basics and quibble about specifics.

Posted by: Chris White on October 16, 2006 7:29 PM

Well, as long as you're willing to agree, you're alright in my book! :) I would love to see my adopted town revitalized, I just don't think our current city government can figure out how and don't want to listen to reasonable solutions. Oh, well, isn't that the way things are everywhere?

Posted by: Upstate Guy on October 17, 2006 1:24 PM

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