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Great Expectations: Is Change In The Works For City Council?

22 October 2003
City Newspaper

By Chad Oliveiri

Ten candidates, four seats. The ballot might be telling you that broad changes are in the offing for Rochester City Council this election season. But don’t believe the hype. Change and City Council don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Democrats dominate voters in the city of Rochester. And City Council, to a member, mirrors its constituents. Aside from a couple of exceptions, City Council has been run by Democrats for an entire generation.

Besides, there’s really no heap of city issues that would lead to broad changes on council. Unlike the cash-strapped county, the city of Rochester is fiscally sound. And despite a brief downturn toward the end of summer, the city housing market, by and large, is doing quite well.

But that doesn’t mean the city is without its share of problems. The city’s property tax base continues to be eroded by suburban sprawl. Urban homicides, particularly over the summer, continue at an alarming rate. And downtown Rochester, despite making some nice progress in the market-rate housing market over the past several years, continues to be the “hole in the donut” — the center of our region by name only. Vacancies still line Main Street. And there isn’t exactly a waiting list for downtown office space. (The latest survey by the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation reports a 17.1 percent vacancy rate for Class A office space, and a 29 percent vacancy rate for Class B space.)

Rochester’s on the cusp of either a renaissance or a downward spiral. And you can see it throughout every council district. The approaching fast ferry holds the potential to dramatically transform the Northwest District. But so does the continued downsizing of Kodak. In the South District, new economic development initiatives like Brooks Landing should spur development along Genesee Street. And a few big downtown projects — MCC’s Advanced Technology Center, a transit center, and a performing arts center — could either cause more harm or become a catalyst for a positive transformation, depending on who you talk to. Crime, drugs, and murder continue to plague the Northwest and North Districts.

Of course, City Council doesn’t have a lot of direct control over any of these issues. But it does establish policies that have the potential to shape the city. By ruling on zoning legislation and approving every aspect of the city budget — including the large portion that funds the City School District — City Council does much more than preside over street closings and trash collection.

Following is a distillation of interviews conducted with the candidates in City Council’s contested races.

East District

Green Party candidate Jason Crane and Citizens for Change Party candidate Anthony Giordano are challenging 16-year incumbent and City Council president Lois Giess, a Democrat.

Drugs and violence, says Giess, continue to be the main concerns of her constituents. “When you get to the neighborhood level, that’s the issue,” she says.

Giess served on the drug task force with Rochester Police Chief Robert Duffy, and she thinks the group determined the correct strategy for dealing with drugs.

“It really is not just enforcement. You really have to have the prevention and education as well as the enforcement,” she says. “And if we can’t stop the demand side, we just seem to be swimming upstream on the other side. The police are eager to do something about it, but it just moves.”

As one of the councilmembers who approved the city’s new zoning code last year, Giess is excited about implementing the new code and seeing a resurgence of downtown activity.

“We’ve had some success with downtown housing, the East End, St. Paul, some of the things happening at High Falls. But over time we’ve watched the office population shift a block south, and the hole in the donut continues to be there,” Giess says.

Giess and the rest of City Council support the idea of a transit center at Main and Clinton, with two caveats: that buses are stationed below ground, and that a “punch through” be made on Stone Street, one block west of North Clinton on East Main.

“People naturally look to where they can see, and where they feel safe about going,” she says. “I thought maybe this will give that corner an opportunity to develop. When you approach it from any angle right now, it’s not inviting.”

Giess says the best way for council to battle poverty is to attract more jobs to the city. She has worked with council on “a strategy of developing industrial parks in the city,” and she supports Greater Rochester Enterprise, a public-private entity dedicated to attracting businesses to the entire region.

Jason Crane breaks his decision to run for city council down into three numbers: 10, 80, and 16.

“You cannot revive a city with a soccer stadium and a bus terminal when you have 10.1 percent unemployment and 80 percent of kids in the city school district living in poverty,” he says. “It just can’t be done. To my mind, the headline on every newspaper every day should read ’10 percent unemployment, 80 percent child poverty. What are we doing about it?’ until somebody starts talking about it.”

Sixteen represents the number of years Giess has been in office.

“The idea that what we’ve been doing all these years can continue to be done and have a different result is obviously completely insane,” Crane says. “No one is talking about actually dealing with these hard issues on the street.”

To deal with street-level issues, Crane, the station manager for 90.1 and 105.1 WGMC-FM, would view his role as city councilperson as less legislative and more representative of his constituency. “One person should be the spokesperson for a mobilized, educated, informed, engaged populace,” he says “You get a bully pulpit as a result of being on the council, and many people in the neighborhoods can’t get access to that kind of mouthpiece.”

Crane recognizes the obvious linkages between poverty, drugs, and crime. And, like Giess, he feels these problems have to be tackled on a systemic level.

“Until we actually start addressing the root causes of these problems, until we start finding ways to give people rewarding jobs, to make their neighborhoods healthy to live in, we’ll be stuck,” Crane says.

Crane says the city has to try harder in its economic development efforts to link downtown’s various neighborhoods together. And he doesn’t necessarily think that more bars and nightclubs will lead to downtown’s revitalization. “You can put as many bars in High Falls as you want, but you’re not going to revitalize downtown through a beer glass,” he says.

Crane is proposing a “community enrichment endeavor” that would make tax incentives and micro-loans available to city businesses that meet requirements for job creation, wage provision, health care, and pollution prevention.

Crane would also like to see the city using “economic development officers” who would connect small businesses with legal and financial advice, and take responsibility for a block or street to ensure good lighting, safe sidewalks, and proper marketing.

Anthony Giordano laments what he calls the loss of any “direct, personal representation” of people in the East District. Thus, he’s forwarding a very hands-on approach to City Council.

Giordano says his background as a marketing major — he’s the owner of Olde-Fashioned Anthony’s Premium Birch Beer — gives him an advantage when working to attract businesses to the city.

“I know the best way how to bring in people to these parts of the city, and that’ll bring in jobs and it’ll revitalize this part of the city,” he says.

Giordano, a Republican and former student trustee for the MCC board of trustees, says he generally supports any development that would bring “jobs and money into the city.” But he has a few specific ideas: an Amtrak terminal and apartments in downtown’s former Art-Craft Optical Co. building, a grocery store and movie theater for Midtown Plaza, and the location of MCC’s proposed Tech Center to the corner of East Avenue and Chestnut Street.

Northwest District

Sure, Rochester’s manufacturing sector is shrinking. But not in Bob Stevenson’s district. The 16-year incumbent is proud of the efforts he’s made through the city’s zoning laws to help keep and attract manufacturing plants to the northwest, which contains 90 percent of the city land zoned for manufacturing.

“Jobs are the most important thing,” he says, referring to zoning changes he facilitated to help keep 127 jobs — and add nearly 20 more — at Upstate Milk.

The other big challenges, Stevenson says, are dealing with the downsizing of Kodak and using state money to address the many brownfields in his district.

“They’re taking down a quarter of a million square feet in warehouse space,” Stevenson says of Kodak. “They’ve taken an awful lot of property off the tax rolls. Rochester’s lost about $1 billion in the last 15 years off the tax rolls. Kodak’s a good share of it.”

While many local businesses in the Northwest District have suffered during long-term construction projects along Lake Avenue and elsewhere, Stevenson says “the traditional places down there have been fine.”

The arrival of a fast ferry will coincide with work Stevenson has done since 1986 on local waterfront revitalization programs.

Asked about crime and poverty, Stevenson refers to the work he’s done on the Fulton Avenue Revitalization Project.

“We’re very proud of that,” he says. “When we started five years ago, Fulton was in the pits. There was a hooker behind every tree every night.”

Through the revitalization project, Stevenson has worked to demolish deteriorated properties, construct new housing, and make street improvements.

But Stevenson says his work can’t stop there.

“Rochester is the socio-economic sump of Monroe County,” he says. “Monroe County is over 600 square miles. The city is 36 square miles. Ninety-one percent of the people on public assistance are concentrated within those 36 square miles. You can’t put that many people without a job in one place and not expect any trouble.”

Through his many hours spent walking through neighborhoods with Pac-Tac groups, Stevenson, a former city school teacher, has confronted much of this trouble first-hand. And he says most of it goes back to drugs.

The only way to lick narcotics, he says, is to take the profit out.

“There aren’t too many options,” he says. “I’m not saying legalization. All I’m saying is, you have to find a way of taking the profit out of it. Obviously, putting people in jail and throwing the key away doesn’t work.”

Luis Perez is a Republican with a master’s in social work. He’s a compassionate neighborhood leader who sees the value in helping the underprivileged. But he also wants city government to operate more efficiently, without increasing burdens on taxpayers.

He decries what he calls the city council’s “lack of a voice” when city water rates were hiked to help shore up a city budget.

“Why aren’t there a couple of people who pound on the table and say ‘we can’t do this’? They’re so in one boat,” Perez says. “There’s such a lack of ideas.”

Perez, an assistant pastor with Bethel Christian Fellowship, says he realizes that a balanced budget often means having to make decisions between raising taxes and cutting services. But the city, he says, must live within its means.

“It’s not a bottomless pit,” he says. “You have to come to the realization that this is the amount of money we have to spend. We have to make some tough decisions.”

Long-term construction projects in the Northwest District have brought local businesses to a point where “they need help,” Perez says. “We’ve been talking to those business owners, and I think there needs to be some reaching out to them in a tangible way. With the potential of major change or opportunity with the fast ferry coming, that there must be some outreach to them. We have to plan for it to be successful.”

Perez’s first priority, though, is dealing with crime.

“We have to have a police budget that reflects seasonal demands,” he says. “This year is a classic example. Once again, we’re two or three months into the spring and summer before they say ‘My lord, what are we going to do about all these murders?’ Why didn’t they strategize during the winter? It’s got to be about visibility. It’s got to be about relationships. We need to have police walking the beat in those high crime areas.”

South District

Three political newcomers are running for the South District seat being vacated by Tony Thompson.

The Democratic Party’s nominee is Adam McFadden.

McFadden says he’s campaigning on three major issues: the lack of commercial development in the southwest portion of the district, the increasing murder rate in the district, and improving city schools.

He sees the South District as holding plenty of potential for local businesses, some of which are already thriving. But parking is a problem, he says.

“When the commercial strips in the South District were created in the early 1900s, it was more of a horse-and-buggy operation,” McFadden says. “There wasn’t any adequate parking, so there’s no adequate parking right now for a lot of commercial strips because no one ever thought that cars would come into play.”

McFadden, a controller with SofiTEC, Inc, doesn’t think city council can reduce violence. “But what council can do is put the necessary pressures on the police department to make sure it has a policing plan that helps address some of the nonviolent crimes that potentially lead to violence.”

Regarding the city school district: McFadden supports pending legislation that would give more power to the superintendent and would require the school board to get the mayor’s approval of the district’s budget format.

“I don’t mind a school board providing oversight, I don’t mind the school board setting the policy of the district,” he says. “But I do mind the school board putting its nose in the hiring practices of the district.”

Opposing McFadden are write-in candidate Harry Davis and Republican John Smith.

Davis’s campaign has focused mainly on opposing the downtown transit center and proposing that the city fill the Inner Loop. He is a proponent of workers’ rights and regenerative development and green design.

“Green design and making cities livable by building in them again is huge,” he says. “People need to know we have global warming now. Sprawl exacerbates global warming. If sprawl goes out toward the virgin countryside it devalues rebuilding the infrastructure in the city.”

Smith, a bus driver with Laidlaw, is concerned with what he calls “the lack of businesses throughout the city.”

“I really don’t have the magic touch to put it right back on track just like that,” Smith says of the city’s business climate. “If we get back on track it’s going to take a while. But I think it’s really going to have to start from the leadership.”

When addressing violent crime, Smith says it’s important for offenders to “know the Lord.”

“That there is a savior, and people should not continue to do wrong and think it is always OK to do wrong,” he says. “I think people that are sitting in jail should really be given a Bible.”

Jennifer Weiss contributed to this report.

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