Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A River Runs Through It

Though the vast majority of my life has been spent in upstate NY (the Binghamton area) the majority of my adult and, before The Landmark Society, the entirety of my professional life was spent in the Austin area of the Republic of Texas. In Texas seven years of living together equals a common law marriage so I like to think that my seven years of living in Texas has made me a common law Texan. In Texas two prominent cities fairly close to one another - Austin and San Antonio - each have a river running either through the middle of the city. Sound familiar? Yes indeed, Rochester has a river running through it as well. Just in the short time that I have lived here it seems that many people forget this fact until they drive over one of the bridges, and even then the thoughts are momentary.

Since being in Rochester I have heard people talking about capitalizing on the river, making it more of a focal point for the city, more of an the River Walk in San Antonio. When I hear people talking about a renewed focus on the river I silently cheer. When I hear the desired model for development is San Antonio I cringe.

It is true, the River Walk is a big tourist attraction and attracts a lot of tourist dollars but lets not be taken in by the flash and the hype and the tourists, let's take a closer look. San Antonio's economy is based on two things - tourism and the military. Because of this economic base the majority of jobs are in the service industry, minimum wage plus tips. Right now the military is big business (but we won't get into that). But how successful is tourism right now? With a recession approaching budgets are being slashed - both business and personal - tourism is an ephemeral business and one certain to be impacted by the current economic climate. The primary users of the River Walk won't be showing up in the same numbers this year. And, because it is a tourist destination, most people go once, maybe twice, but are not frequent users of the River Walk. Certainly it is not a place where the locals hang out.

Drive about 60 miles up IH35 and you are in Austin, with the Colorado River greenbelt. A hydroelectric damn to the northwest has slowed the river's pace in Austin where it is known as Town Lake. Rather than being utilized as a tourist attraction the area is more akin to Central Park in NYC. It is a bright green oasis in the middle of the city. Zoning laws prohibit development within a certain distance of the river so aside from the 1920's, Art Deco, Seaholm Power Plant, there are no buildings along the banks. But there are very active hike and bike trails, canoe rental stands, soccer fields, baseball fields, disc golf courses, gazebos, picnic benches, panoramic views to and from downtown, playgrounds, the Zilker Zephyr children's train and many little nooks and crannies perfect for fishing, reading, napping, you name it. Unless there is a good-old Texas thunderstorm going on these amenities are packed...and they are packed with Austinites, not tourists. Don't get me wrong, there are tourists, too, especially when Zilker Park is over run by the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But the river is being utilized as a resource and amenity for the area residents, something to be used and appreciated every day. Not as a tourist trap with $10 pints of Bud Light and $20 hamburgers.

This would be my chosen model for river development/redevelopment. Why don't I see canoes on the Genesee at Corn Hill Landing every day in the summer? Hike and bike trails that are enveloped in green space as often as possible and not in a sea of concrete. If we use the Genesee as a recreational amenity that will attract new residents than we have given it its highest and best use. If we slap some lipstick on it with over priced, kitschy restaurants and t-shirt stands how long will those businesses last? If we can extend the beauty of Turning Point Park into the rest of the city, turn it into a frequently used recreational area, then restaurants and shops will organically occur to service the users, just as they have in Austin.

I guess that is it in a organic use/reuse of the river rather than an inorganic use.

No, I'm not opinionated at all.

Please note, I am not trying to disparage the River Walk at all, I had many good times there. It is simply a difference in planning philosophy. If Rochester focuses on becoming a place that people really want to live than it will naturally be a place that people also want to visit.

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society

1 comment:

The Landmark Society of Western New York said...

Hi Rebecca - I have never been to Texas, but I totally agree with your post, especially your last sentence. It's an interesting counterpoint to Cindy's article about "real" versus "fake" vacation spots.

Ottawa is another city with what you might call an organically used waterfront, and makes use of it in all four seasons. I agree that we should not focus on what a visitor might or might not want to see once but what those of us who live in this area can use daily.

Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator