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UR-RIT corridor: Rochester's new economic center of gravity

By KENT GARDNER
Policy Wonk
Rochester Business Journal
January 20, 2012

In "Triumph of the City," Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser attempts to explain why some cities-think New York or London or Bangalore-have prospered, even as the cost of communication has plummeted. The "death of distance" suggests the death of cities. Why do some defy the prognosis?
 
Glaeser reminds us that cities are "density, proximity, closeness. ... (T)heir success depends on the demand for physical closeness." He asserts that electronic communication is not a substitute for face-to-face contact, a proposition anyone who has endured a few conference calls will accept. Even sophisticated "virtual meeting" suites fall short. (Maybe it looks as if Nathan is in the same room, but you can't go out for a beer after the meeting.)
 
Going one step farther, Glaeser argues that the declining cost of communication, by creating access to vast new stores of knowledge, increases the demand for "face time" as we work together to make something of all of this information. Face time and electronic communication are complementary; each enhances the value of the other.
 
Some cities succeed while others fail. The economic base of the community is a key factor: Sectors based on innovation-say, software (Bangalore or San Francisco) or financial services (New York, London or Charlotte)-rely on urban "people density." The value of density outweighs the additional cost of an urban location in terms of real estate, salaries, taxes and so on. Sectors that are less knowledge-intensive may find that the benefits don't outweigh the costs and will locate outside cities.
 
This explains why technology leadership emerges from cities. New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Singapore, Shanghai and other tech leaders bring smart people together and spawn competitive companies with innovative cultures.
 
Is there a lesson here for Rochester? If proximity feeds innovation, let's explore ways to bring our smart people closer together. Unlike many college towns, our community is separated from our marquee academic institutions, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.
 
UR's campus is a place of splendid isolation: The main site is virtually walled off from the city to the north and west by the Genesee River, to the east by Mt. Hope Cemetery and to the south by Genesee Valley Park and I-390.
 
RIT's antecedents, the Rochester Atheneum and the Mechanics Institute, were established downtown. The first building of the combined institution was on Plymouth Avenue next to the Erie Canal. Although the relocation to Henrietta has served the university well (and has enabled the creation of a fabulous 5.6 million-square-foot facility), the campus is distinctly suburban and remote from the rest of the city.
 
It is UR's "splendid isolation" that prompted the notion of a new I-390 interchange. Recently endorsed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Kendrick Road exit will address problems of congestion and poor design at the exits for East and West Henrietta roads and will dramatically expand access to underutilized real estate south of the UR campus. If you trace the map southwest, you run right into RIT.
 
Might this be the Rochester economy's new "center of gravity?" Our "idea factories"-UR and RIT-anchor the north and south. Monroe Community College, a critical partner for tech-based manufacturing, marks the area's eastern boundary. Ready highway access is assured by I-390 and the Thruway.
 
The adjacent airport also is a considerable asset, given the size of the metro area: Greater Rochester International hosts eight major carriers serving 14 non-stop destinations; ticket prices are already below average for the nation and may fall further after Southwest absorbs AirTran. And just to the west is Genesee Valley Park, one of our Frederick Law Olmsted-designed public parks.
 
How does the new interchange promote economic development? It improves traffic circulation, certainly. Better access to UR, less congestion on East and West Henrietta roads and fewer accidents are good things, but the interchange improves the economy directly only through UR.
 
Extending south of Kendrick Road, however, is a former railroad right of way, now converted to a bicycle/walking trail. Jim Yarrington, who leads design and construction for RIT, points out that this right of way almost directly connects UR, RIT and downtown. He muses that this could be an upstate version of the Boston area's Massachusetts Avenue, which connects the universities and center city.
 
Just as Research Triangle Park in North Carolina spurred economic expansion through proximity to Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, the largely undeveloped real estate between our great universities-UR and RIT-is fertile ground for idea creation and knowledge-intensive business development.
 
This brings us back to Ed Glaeser: For all of our sophisticated "virtual" connections, physical proximity still matters. Yes, let's add an interchange on I-390. But let's also explore how that investment can catalyze development of a high-tech corridor that creates opportunities for our children and enhances the region's economic vitality.

Kent Gardner is president and chief economist of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.1/20/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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