Last week the New York Times ran afeature on Rochester’s plans to fill in its abandoned subway tunnel to save the cash-strapped city money. I don’t normally revisit stories I’ve written about, but the sheer volume of email I’ve received about this story, as well as my own feelings on the matter, allow me this one exception.
Since running a brief snippet on the subway plan, I’ve heard it all: There have been spectacular under-table allegations that a city councillor may financially benefit from the fill. There have been claims that this is really just a staggering political dogfight between would-be mayoral candidates with disparate visions for a revitalized Rochester. (I even heard claims, however far-fetched, that in a less democratic city, one might suspect some vote-buying is involved in this Tunnel Tale.)
Regardless, the tunnel-filling plan is a problem for a whole host of reasons, not the least disturbing of which is the city’s inability to realize that if they seal off the subway, they will only be committing one more in a series of grave missteps that have contributed to Rochester’s fall from American boom town to blighted downtown in the past half-century.
Rochester is unquestionably one of the nation’s best examples of the failures of 60s- and 70s-era urban renewal. Take the Inner Loop expressway, for instance. Heralded as a savior for Rochester when it was built, the highway ended up cutting off the business district from the rest of city, Grand Canyon-like. Even in daylight, downtown can feel eerily deserted thanks to the foresight of previous politicians. The area has never really recovered; whole swaths of razed land still lay empty. Forty years after its construction, eyes roll and heads wag at the mere mention of the elevated and sometimes-sunken roadway that courses around downtown.
And now comes controversy over the proposal to fill in the long-unused subway. Never mind that legitimate concerns have been expressed over the structural integrity of the city’s roughly-sketched plans (picture slumping streets and cost overruns). Will the vision of this generation’s leaders also cost the city dearly? In another 40 years, if Rochester fills its subway and rejects the hopes of the preservationist camp who want a museum or a bike trail or even a new light rail line, there is no doubt that the city built by George Eastman will once more be shaking its head.
The subway plan is but one in a whole host of options aimed at bringing back life to a moribund downtown. A major development called Renaissance Square is also planned and is being trumpeted as a modern-day fix for many of Rochester’s woes, especially transportation. The centerpiece of the $230 million Renaissance is an underground bus terminal, with a new campus for Monroe Community College and a new performing arts center also in the works. But why the plans for downtown investment make no mention of incorporating the old subway (somehow? anyhow?), certainly its most unique asset, is anybody’s guess.
Rochester residents are well-known for their preservation zeal, especially for old homes and historic sights. Now they have thrown their support into saving the subway, but you probably would not know that from the Times article, in which the writer seemed to downplay the number on the “Chill the Fill” side.Subway Erie Canal Revitalization, a group of thousands of community leaders from all walks of life who object to the city’s plans ÷ and no doubt to the inaction and grandstanding of politicians eager to get past this fall’s mayoral and city council elections ÷ presented a petition with 3,014 names to Rochester City Council on August 9, two days before the Timespiece ran. But there was no mention of that. They also hosted a recent walk-through of the tunnel that attracted over 300 curious Rochesterians, but that was not really mentioned, either.
Some took offence to the Times’ reference to Rochester’s crime rate, viewing it as an unnecessary jab at the city and unrelated to the tunnel project. Tangentially, though, itis related to the tunnel, but not everyone thinks this way and the Times certainly did not. Poor urban planning of the past has played a hand in making Rochester one of the country’s most economically and racially segregated cities, devoid of life downtown, with the crime to boot. Will these problems persist with this next urban renewal/cost-savings measure?
In the local Democrat & Chronicle recently, columnist Mark Hare gave his take on why the city shouldn’t fill the subway, even if plans for its reuse are, at the moment, completely up in the air. He said simply, “If we can save this piece of history, maybe it can become a piece of the future.”
• The gracious architecture of Rochester: a preservation success story