Standing on the East Avenue Bridge overlooking mountains of sand toppling light poles that once illuminated a submerged urban highway, Robyn and I learned about the great planning projects taking place in Rochester, New York. Jason Haremza, AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners), the City’s Senior Planner/Urban Design Specialist, graciously agreed to meet with us with just hours’ notice on the East Avenue Bridge over the former Inner Loop East to give us the details about “one of our coolest projects (expressway removal)” currently taking place in Rochester. Jason was quick to note that the Inner Loop East Transformation Project has been a team effort within City Hall, and amongst City, County, State, and Federal agencies.
Inner Loop East Project
Inner Loop East Project Current Conditions
The Inner Loop East Transformation Project entails filling-in a submerged highway that opened in 1965 for which the designed demand never materialized. The highway, which varied from 8-10 lanes (including ramps), carried around 8,000 vehicles per day. For comparison, a typical urban arterial with 5 lanes (two lanes in each direction with a middle turn lane) can have a daily traffic count of more than 40,000 vehicles per day.
As the wind howled by and the loaders moved earth below us, Jason explained how plans for removing the Inner Loop had come up repeatedly over the past 25 years because it was seen as a moat-like barrier between Downtown Rochester and the surrounding vibrant, densely-populated neighborhoods. The project will re-create an existing parallel street into a “complete street”, a street which serves the needs of all potential users, including those walking, biking and driving. This will be accomplished by providing sidewalks with a landscaped buffer from the street, reconnecting previously disconnected grid sections for increased pedestrian permeability, and installing Rochester’s first, two-way protected bike lane.
Inner Loop East Conditions September 2014
In addition to the streetscape improvements, the project will also return around eight acres of land to the city tax base as “shovel ready” development sites within an already dense urban framework. Jason said they expect development to occur not only on the new eight acres of land, but as well as infill development along the roads that bordered the previous freeway as the area becomes asset for the community rather than a challenge. The new at-grade streets will have long-term maintenance costs that are far less than the multiple bridges and retaining walls of the sunken expressway.
Jason, while reluctant to use the phrase and after a pause, said the project really is a win-win-win for the city. First, it is reconnecting neighborhoods that have long been defined and separated by the Inner Loop. Second, old infrastructure is being removed which would have required millions of dollars in reconstruction costs over the near future for a roadway which functioned at a fraction of its design capacity. Finally the Inner Loop East Transformation Project is providing development opportunity within the city, which has seen its downtown population nearly double over the past decade. You can come see the completed project for yourself in December 2017.
As the wind continued its attempt to blow away our papers, Jason touched on the redevelopment of Midtown Plaza, a former enclosed mall in downtown which opened in 1962 as the first of its kind. While the project realized early success, by the late 1990’s it was largely vacant. Plans for renovations/removal were complicated by the presence of asbestos which can be costly to remove as it is known to cause cancer when disturbed. Around 2007 the city received funds from the state to assist with asbestos removal and work began on reshaping the eight acre site. The historic street grid was restored in the area which had been unfriendly to pedestrians, along with new roads to increase pedestrian permeability to the site. An existing 17 story building was retained and is being repurposed as a mixed-use building, as well as providing “shovel ready” development opportunity around the site.
Midtown Plaza Redevelopment
The final project Jason touched on was College Town, a project that aimed to redevelop Mt. Hope Avenue along the University of Rochester campus. Development along Mt. Hope Avenue largely occurred in and around the 1950’s, which resulted in an auto-oriented roadway which was hostile to pedestrians. The city worked with neighborhood and business organizations as well as the university to develop a vision for the area, which resulted in transforming the two block stretch of Mt. Hope Avenue from a suburban-like arterial roadway to an urban street with mixed use development and pedestrian amenities such as landscaping, pedestrian-scale lighting, seating, and visually appealing development. Many people have indicated that the project was major improvement upon what was previously there, helping to create a “front door” to the university campus.
Mt. Hope Avenue and Elmwood Avenue, April 2012
While Robyn and I had mixed feelings after initially visiting the College Town development due to its suburban feel and abundance of chain stores, we both agreed that it was a major improvement over what was previously there after seeing the before and after on Google Street View. Though there are things that could have been done better, it is hard to disagree that it is a major step forward for the University and the City.
Before we parted ways we asked Jason for a photo, for which he gave a “Robert Moses” pose (very fitting for the context of the site!). It was great to see some of the projects that Rochester is currently undertaking in an effort to improve the quality of life for its residents. We both want to thank Jason for taking the time to meet with us, especially on such short notice! It was a great start to our planner interviews, and we look forward to hearing what other cities are working on in the near future.
*Photos from City of Rochester, Google Maps and Author