A look back at eight years of downtown development

Durfee RBJ

Jim Durfee retired as vice president and design principal at Bergmann at the end of 2018.  He is an architect and past president of the American Institute of Architects Rochester Chapter, and has served on various boards including the Landmark Society of Western New York, the Memorial Art Gallery, and the Architectural Foundation of Greater Rochester.

Almost eight years ago, the Rochester Business Journal began publishing my column.  My goal has been to share stories that speak to Rochester’s potential through the lens of a design professional.  I have consistently focused on the positive because I believe in the power of design thought to be uplifting.

I wanted those that have followed my column to know that I will be taking an extended break from editor’s deadlines to pursue another writing challenge.  I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts on design and its impact on our community.  From the importance of re-investing in Rochester’s quality building stock to revealing little known engineering feats, I have endeavored to offer the business relationship a wide range of topics and a different perspective.

As I look back on what I have written over the years, several early columns stand out.  Whether it was the responses received from readers of the joy of seeing an observed trend borne out, these columns have resonated:

“Key Downtown Landmarks – A New Lease on Life” Eight years ago, my first column highlighted three projects that were highly visible, impactful and symbolic of future promise. Kodak Tower, The Powers Building and City Hall each had unveiled a comprehensive refurbishment of its entire exterior.  At a time when we anxiously looked for signs confirming an economic resurgence, this kind of spending commitment took on added significance.

Since 2010, the re-investment in signature structures blossomed.  The Kodak building now houses MCC’s new downtown campus, and the Sibley Building is well on its way to restoring its former grandeur.  Chase Tower is in the midst of being “re-tooled” into a live-work environment.  Tower 280 reclaimed the original Midtown Tower, knitting together building fragments at its base into a strikingly modern composition.  These are but a few larger examples of an amazing ongoing reinvestments in signature building.

“Midtown” There remains a fondness for all that Midtown Plaza was.  At the same time, there were aspects of Rochester’s unique mixed-use complex that had become antithetical to modern urban design thought.  The new urban district that has been created where Midtown once stood is showing its potential, enhancing and reconnecting the urban fabric of our community.  The transformation from enclosed urban fortress to open district, with fully constructed buildings and streets, is living up to its promise.

“Loft Living” This column was a precursor to several others. I discussed how established neighborhoods within the downtown area had set the tone for how we think about urban lofts.  Amazingly, the trend toward converting these buildings for loft living has continued unabated, allowing us to preserve a sense of history while at the same time building a new and exciting downtown environment.

“Transit” In 2011, I discussed the factors that had combined to cause facilities totaling more than $80 million to be under design at the same time, including a new rail station and bus transit center.  Transit ridership was on the rise, reversing an extended period of decline for passenger rail and regional bus service in Rochester.  Each of these has now been completed, becoming a successful and vibrant part of the community.

“Regional Economic Development Councils” In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he and his administration would be re-tooling the approach to statewide economic development.  I reviewed the new structure and how the 10 newly established Regional Economic Development Councils were challenged to create a consensus-driven road map for the investments of public funds.  This new way of doing business has continued, with a high level of commitment from our local leaders.

“Erie Canal Plans” This column reviewed a visionary proposal that would shut down a section of Broad Street to vehicular traffic and possibly re-establish boat traffic (!) crossing the Genesee on the original 1842 aqueduct structure.  The underlying premise was, to many, audacious.  The re-watered aqueduct was to be part of a $66 million public infrastructure and streetscape, including a Boulevard of Fountains and reflecting pools along a redesigned West Broad Street.  The concept captivated the Rochester community.  The city, in response, recently engaged planning professionals to study not just the idea’s potential, but its actual implementation.

“Little Know Engineering Feats” The Wings of Progress atop the Times Square Building, The Albert Paley Sculpture at B&L Tower, The Court Street Dam … My column in 2011 revealed the insightful engineering behind these truly remarkable accomplishments.  This brought to light the fact that, very often, enlightened engineering solutions are what really makes things work.

“The Birth and Death of Rochester’s Skyway System” In 2011, Rochester had reached a crossroads regarding the future of its Skyway system.  With the demolition of Midtown, the bridges that formed the Skyway system’s hub were removed.  While there remained differing opinions regarding whether the system might be continued, the city administration signaled its intent, stating that it would not contribute funding toward future connections that do not fit the planned vision for Rochester’s public realm.

“Landmark Society Impact” 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of one of our community’s most unlikely economic engines. My column reviewed how important the Landmark Society has been to our region.  Founded in 1937, it is one of the oldest preservation organizations in the United States, and one of the most progressive.  Historic Preservation groups are sometimes criticized for focusing their energy on stemming the march of progress.  Here in Rochester the Landmark Society has positively positioned itself as partner, dealmaker and economic force.

I am grateful to the RBJ for recognizing the value of design and its potential interest for the design community.  There is always more to consider and to write about.  I look forward to having my colleagues carry the conversation forward.

Jim has graciously provided access to these articles and more, which can be viewed here.

Image credits

Durfee RBJ

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