The Inner Loop Project for Dummies

By Arian Horbovetz

I’m an enormous supporter of the Inner Loop East Transformation Project in Rochester, and have been since the idea’s inception.  Despite my enthusiasm, almost nobody I talk to in our city quite understands what’s happening with this endeavor and why this enormous project is even taking place.

By no means am I a civil engineer or an urban planner.  I like to think of these as sort of hobbies of mine (borderline geeky-obsessions, just ask my friends).  For whatever reason, I really enjoy reading books, blogs and articles written by some of the greatest minds in these fields.  The truth is, projects like the Inner Loop East have been happening all over the country with tremendous success… Rochester is simply following a model that has a high rate of return on investment.

To best explain the what, why and how,  I’ll try my best to answer some questions and comments I’ve heard from fellow Rochestarians regarding the project.

“So what exactly are they doing?”

The City of Rochester is filling in the eastern section of the Inner Loop, which used to be below city level.  The project will basically bring this portion of the former expressway up to the height of the rest of the city.  After they the bring the area up to “grade,” they will create what’s called a “complete street,” giving convenient and safe access to cars, bicycles and pedestrians while creating up to 800,000 square feet of mixed use development space in Rochester’s popular East End.

“Why are they doing it?”

OK here’s the tough one to swallow.  I know you like to get places fast.  I mean, who doesn’t love Rochester’s driver-friendly network of high-speed roads and highways?

But what if I told you that we have definitive data to show that easy-access highways like the Inner Loop have actually caused the demise of urban areas across the country?  Yes that’s right, our desire to get to work 4 minutes faster is a huge reason for the downfall of urban America, including downtown Rochester, for the last several decades.

It’s a simple concept, though not always obvious.  When you’re driving around the Inner Loop, or any major expressway for that matter, do you see that new restaurant or shop that opened?  Do you notice the beautiful neighborhoods of our city, or experience the energy of your community?  Of course not… because your only goal is to get to work on time, so you’re taking the Inner Loop, bypassing the heart of Rochester as you speed toward your workday.

What countless studies have shown is that highways like the Inner Loop have strangled the life out of our urban areas.  Think of the Inner Loop as a sort of moat around the castle that is Rochester, hindering anyone from entering and experiencing all that our city has to offer.  Maybe it gets you to where you need to go a bit faster, but the damage it has done to the prosperity of the city as a whole far outweighs the benefit of a few extra minutes of morning sleep.

Bringing the east side of the Inner Loop up to street level and reducing traffic speed to 30mph creates a much richer environment for urban commercial and residential growth.  Again, this is not an opinion, this model has been almost universally effective in stimulating economic resurgence in cities all over the country.

“What’s a Complete Street?”

The Inner Loop East will be replaced by a complete street, which means 30mph roads and parallel parking for cars, bike lanes and bike infrastructure for cyclists (even if you aren’t a cyclist, these amenities are seen as inviting and almost universally usher an increase in foot traffic and economic growth) and plenty of sidewalk space for pedestrians to safely and comfortably move about.  Complete streets have been shown to dramatically increase economic prosperity in urban areas, with the side benefit of making streets safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians.  They tend to be much more visually attractive as well, another huge reason complete streets are becoming increasingly popular in cities looking to improve their downtowns.

The idea is this… back in the day, city streets used to be for everyone, not just cars.  Folks who wanted cruise the area on foot and cyclists who wanted to get to their destination blended with cars and public transportation in a safe, convenient fashion.  Over time, streets and roads became completely dominated by the automobile.  What research has found is that going back to the “old days” of mixed-use city streets makes our urban areas more vibrant and inviting, raising the quality of life in our downtown!

“Isn’t this just a waste of taxpayer money?”

Actually it’s going to save money!  This is the best part.  See, maintaining a highway with bridges and roads that have to handle high-speed traffic is super expensive.  It would have cost the City of Rochester more money to fix the aging infrastructure of the Inner Loop East than to bring it up to street level.  So if you’re a person that freaks out because a project that could greatly benefit Rochester as a whole costs you an extra $7.35 in taxes, fear not, you can put that Extra Value Meal-equivalent back in your pocket and then some!

“It’s the Fast Ferry all over again.”

It’s not.  Please stop talking.

“Why don’t they turn part of it into parking?”

Because whether you’re from the city or you’re visiting, nobody comes to downtown Rochester to see parking.

The truth is, Rochester has lots of parking compared to most cities.  There are many convenient garages, paid parking lots and of course, parallel parking spaces all over this city.  Are you always going to park right where you need to be?  No.  But you (most of you… no disrespect to our disabled community, we need to make sure we have access for everyone!) have legs.  If you can’t walk 1/8 of a mile from your parking space to where you need to go, you really need to hit the gym a bit more.  Would you rather have tons of parking or more space for cool shops, bars, restaurants and destinations?  And fear not, parking will no doubt be built into the new commercial and residential space that the project will create.

Parking is an issue in every city, but Rochester has plenty of places to park your car, you just might have to walk a few tenths of a mile on weekends, God forbid.  In the meantime, enjoy the stroll through your beautiful city! 🙂

“I don’t get it… how do slower roads and bike lanes make things better?”

I know it sounds really strange, but for the most part, cities prosper when people slow down and have the opportunity to appreciate their surroundings.  The faster we move, the less we have the chance to relate to our city for what it is…  a living, breathing entity  where quality of life, economic success and efficient transportation grow out of our connection with our urban environment.  So I ask you this… would you rather get to work a few minutes faster, or would you rather see Rochester take steps to increase economic prosperity, beautification and a better way of life for all of us?  Again, this isn’t my opinion, this entire project is based on hard data, research and already existing models.

We are headed in a positive direction… thank you for taking the time to learn the facts about why the Inner Loop Transformation Project is just the beginning in a long line of smart improvements the City of Rochester is making to lead us into the future.

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37 thoughts on “The Inner Loop Project for Dummies

  1. Arian,

    not a bad start to a wonderful commentary. Wish you would have reached out to individuals with a design background for input.

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    1. Hi Michael! Thanks for reading and for your comment. This was meant more as a basic conceptual explanation for those who know little to nothing about the project or about urban design. Kind of more of a quick “learn it in a minute” commentary. In general though, I find a wealth of information from designers like Jeff Spec and Samuel Schwartz (one of the most respected designers in the world!).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi There! Thanks for reading and for your comment. This was meant more as a basic conceptual explanation for those who know little to nothing about the project or about urban design. Kind of more of a quick “learn it in a minute” commentary. In general though, I find a wealth of information from designers like Jeff Spec and Samuel Schwartz (one of the most respected designers in the world!).

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      1. You talk about more shops and restaurant spaces. What about all the vacant commercial property there is there. They will be adding more and it will be a flop like everything else they do in downtown. Rochester. Waste of money

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      2. Frank thanks for the comment. The reason so many places around the inner loop are abandoned is BECAUSE of the inner loop itself. And I would take exception with your “flop” like everything else in downtown.. Not sure you’ve been downtown lately but things are really looking up. Respectfully, looking forward to proving you wrong 🙂

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  2. Great piece. And you don’t need to consult “design professionals” to have a valid and well articulated opinion of the city.

    My only comment is that slower roads and bike lanes do make things better. It’s not “strange”. Saying it’s strange just serves to reinforce the normalized dominance of the car. OK here’s the tough one to swallow. I know you like to get places fast. Who doesn’t love Rochester’s driver-friendly network of high-speed roads and highways? Me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. surely no need to consult design professionals, but rather ask for a second opinion from someone who has studied planning/design and could facilitate talking points to assist in articulating those points with proper terminology and word use, much like your response comment

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      1. Choo, unfortunately often the issue for me is time… I have a full-time job at the U of R, I’m a full-time time professional photographer and I run another blog other than this one, neither of which I get paid for haha. Sometimes you just have to say “this is the best I can do right now” and click publish haha. Also, as I stated above, the theme of this blog is to have a sort of informal conversation with the average Rochesterian. I find that, when blogging, people respond better when they feel like the writer is informally “talking” to them rather than something more structured. Good point though, I will try to be better in the future 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. nice this seems like an exciting new opportunity for the city to develop areas that you don’t feel safe in after dark. I’d love to feel the excitement of being robbed at gunpoint in all-new, gentrified areas!

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      1. Yes we will. It’s no fun hanging out with paranoid adults who are afraid of their own shadow. Good luck growing a set and/or cowering in fear in the suburbs Bill. lol

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      1. I live a block away from it on Broadway and although I don’t see a lot of violence, you do see a fair share of drug activity and vagrancy. I personally think it is just going to end up being overpriced lofts that no one will want to move into, but we will see. I’d rather not run half the ma and pa stores here out of business due to gentrification and lose jobs in my neighborhood. But hey, if you want bike lanes, knock yourself out.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, its not like Rochester has an exceedingly high murder rate, highest in the state (and pretty close to top in the nation). Its all good, everyone go hang out downtown after dark, we promise nothing will happen!

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      3. To “Reality”,

        For better or worse, Rochester’s violence is located in the neighborhoods north of center city and is largely gang related.

        While the area immediately surrounding this construction certainly isn’t the NYC Upper East Side of Rochester, its certainly not a slum either.

        It’s this attitude that’s one of Rochester’s biggest issues–people who are baselessly afraid of the city proper because they haven’t actually been there.

        Rochester has a lot more to offer than these folks realize. Village Gate has nationally rated restaurants (Good Luck in particular). Tap and Mallet is one of the best beer bars in NY. Top notch arts and music; Rochester is well known for its urban art and Jazz Fest is a national event.

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  4. I really liked reading this article. As someone who moved here 6 years ago the only side of the story I’ve heard was “decades ago they cut a neighborhood in half, now they’re flip-flopping again. Crazy.”

    Seeing it explained in the article helped me so much to anticipate the outcome of the project. I’m from a big city of Europe. Over there downtowns are the most desired parts of towns. The best restaurants, bars, shops are all downtown.

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    1. Hi Eric! Thank for commenting. There are a bunch of sources I could site, but the best resources are books… Specifically Street Smart by former Traffic Commish of NYC Samuel Schwartz and Walkable City by Jeff Spec. So much good info there! 🙂 Cheers!

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  5. I heard that no one told the company that filled it in that it needed to support roads and buildings so they filled it with whatever and now it won’t support buildings without being excavated and refilled in. That isn’t gospel, just what I heard.

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  6. This is a fantastic explaination. I was reading about this city in South America a long time ago that closed all roads to cars within the city and they saw a huge drop in crime. Ever since then I’ve been in favor of anything that puts people in closer proximity. I’m excited about the project in Rochester despite being cynical as all hell and am truly shocked when people complain about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article – thanks Arian. While I too have whined about my easy access to the Little and Public Market going away, it will all be worth it for better bike lanes and cool shops/restaurants, let alone more green space and actual urban community. Thanks for taking the time to write this up!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the idea of bringing people back to downtown Rochester. If shops and restaurants, etc. begin to move into this area – and bicycle riders can enjoy – that will be terrific! It was the water park idea for part of this area that I read about early on – that didn’t make sense to me?
    Thanks for taking the time to revisit this project for the lay person! sk

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with much of what you’ve said and appreciate your saying it, but you seem to be working from the premise that new parking would likewise be at grade. I think filling in the ditch rather than covering it and using it for subterranean parking is a big missed opportunity. Maybe we can do so on the north side?

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    1. John, thank you for your comment. While the thought of underground parking has its appeal, it would likely have doubled or tripled (or more?) the cost of the project while limiting the potential of the space above. Furthermore, the idea is to also reduce future infrastructure maintenance costs, which is increased any time you build a structure on top of another structure.

      The truth is, the project as it is now is the best blend of low up front cost (actually saving money over Loop repair!) with strong backend potential. 🙂

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  10. Just because it’s worked for other cities, doesn’t mean it will work here.

    Rochester is a small city, with an over-abundance of great restaurants and stores. You can add all of the new places that you’d like for folks to go to, but the same small city population remains. The project also discourages folks from commuting in from the suburbs due to the increased traffic and slowe overall commute.

    Also expect a rise in theft with the inner loop no longer dividing the ghetto area from the nicer area. Easily being able to travel by bike and walk is not going to encourage University, Park Ave, and South Wedge folks to leave those coveted areas.. quite the contrary.

    Additionally, the idea that supporting the infrastructure of the inner loop over the years would be more expensive than literally tearing the entire structure down and rebuilding it is absurd. Sounds like pure rhetoric to try to get people on-board, just as corrupt Johnson did with his failed High Falls renovation projects that he had a personal stake in, the Ferry, the condos in freakin Charlotte… the list is endless.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Dan. While you’re right, there is no sure thing, I can assure you that fixing the inner loop would have cost (and would continue to cost) Rochestarians more money than filling the loop in. The numbers are there in black and white. Maintaining bridges and high-speed expressways is FAR more expensive than street-level roads. Not even close. And slowing speeds makes our streets safer. I would go into a dozen other ways this project will be of greater benefit from the alternative, but I’ll just finish by saying respectfully, I looking forward to proving the doubters wrong 😉

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    2. Thanks for the narrow-minded response, Dan.

      Please do a little bit of research as to the costs of maintaining and constructing infrastructure in America. This particular situation, which is similar to so many other in this country, was a choice to not invest any more into a poorly designed and planned highway. A choice had to be made as the structures were at the end of their lifespan: either rebuild it in the same fashion or remove and replace. Simple enough decision to make for most open-minded individuals.

      Could you please let the public know where you live that you forecast the ‘ghetto’ creeping into these ‘coveted’ areas in the city? I would venture a guess you are somewhere ‘safe’ in your suburban two-story single family lot. The reason why people live in Park Ave/SWedge/etc. is simply because of the diversity of uses, demographics, races that coexist in these walkable neighborhoods. You can’t simply paint on a coat of ‘character’, it is established by the built environment and enhanced by the inhabitants.

      Please, do us a favor and be apart of the suburbanites that won’t travel into the city out of ‘fear’.

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