UR-RIT Corridor: Rochester’s New Economic Center of Gravity

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerIn Triumph of the City, Harvard economist Ed 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 like Nathan is in the same room, but you can’t go out for a beer after the meeting.)

Taking one step further, 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 term of real estate, salaries, taxes, etc. 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 the 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 Mechanic’s Institute, were established in Rochester’s 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 I390 interchange. Recently endorsed by Governor Cuomo, the Kendrick Road exit will address problems of congestion and poor design in the E/W Henrietta exit 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 site’s eastern boundary. Ready highway access is assured by I390 and the NYS Thruway.  Adjacent to this site, the airport is also a considerable asset, given the size of the metro area: Rochester International hosts eight major carriers serving 14 nonstop destinations; ticket prices are already below average for the nation and may fall further after Southwest absorbs Airtran.  And just to the west is the Genesee Valley Park, one of our Frederick Law Olmstead-designed public parks.

How does the new interchange promote economic development? It improves traffic circulation, certainly. Better access to UR, less congestion on E/W Henrietta roads, and fewer accidents are good things but the interchange only improves the economy directly 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 NC 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 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.