University of Rochester’s Reversal on an OImsted Landscape

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Landslide

University of Rochester’s Reversal on an OImsted Landscape

University of Rochester’s Reversal on an OImsted Landscape
Nov 07, 2022

On Tuesday October 25, 2022, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) released Landslide 2022: The Olmsted Design Legacy featuring threatened nationally significant North American Olmsted-designed landscapes. Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, N.Y. was included in the report and digital exhibition due to a proposed construction project on 1.5 acres of the park controlled by the University of Rochester. On October 26, 2022, Mr. Michael Chihoski, Senior Associate Vice President, University Facilities and Services, University of Rochester sent a letter to TCLF that said the University had “decided against locating our operations center building” in the section of the park TCLF had indicated as threatened. The letter also noted the University’s “strong commitment to the preservation of Genesee Valley Park.”

This is welcome news.

However, the University also stated that they didn’t believe the proposed construction “would disturb the park at all.” Nevertheless, they claimed that any future development of the threatened site would be “aligned with the preservation and stewardship of Genesee Valley Park.”

In response, TCLF’s President and CEO, Charles A. Birnbaum, sent a letter to Mr. Chihoski on October 31, 2022, commending the University’s decision, but noted an inherent contradiction in the University’s statements:

Concerning future development, we are interested to learn about the guidelines the University uses when planning work in a historically significant site. We see the following statements from the University as inconsistent and contradictory: “we don’t think that constructing a facilities operation on this portion of University property would disturb the park at all ...” and “any future proposed development of this particular parcel will be aligned with the preservation and stewardship of Genesee Valley Park.” This suggests, based on the University’s claim that it would not “disturb the park at all,” that construction of the proposed “operations center building” would or was determined to be “aligned with the preservation and stewardship of Genesee Valley Park.”

TCLF asked the following questions:

What are the overarching principles and guidelines that inform planning and development at the University’s section of this historically significant park? What are the qualifications of the individual and/or team that determines the impact of a proposed project on a historically significant landscape, qualifications sufficient to substantiate the claim that the proposed “operations building center” would not “disturb the park at all”? How has the University’s “strong commitment to the preservation of Genesee Valley Park” been documented, codified, and/or otherwise memorialized? To the extent that the University’s “strong commitment to the preservation of Genesee Valley Park” been documented, codified, and/or otherwise memorialized, how is this overseen and enforced?

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Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, NY - Photo by Sofia Charro - courtesy West8, 2021

 

On November 2, 2022, the University’s Mr. Chihowski replied; his email cover note says: “Please see the attached letter that I hope answers the questions that [Birnbaum] raised.” The letter “briefly describe[s] the University’s relationship to Genesee Valley Park,” but does not respond to nearly all of TCLF’s specific questions.  The letter states that: “University of Rochester campus development is regulated under City of Rochester Planned Development District #10 (PD 10).” In response, Birnbaum noted in a letter of November 7, that a search of PD 10 for terms used in the University’s October 26 letter yields no mention of “Olmsted,” “stewardship,” “Genesee Valley Park,” or “park” (though there are twenty references to “parking”); nor any mention of “landscape” or “landscape architecture.” Moreover, the only mention of “preservation” is in relationship to “antennas on buildings” [H (1)].

While the news about the University’s reversal is good, the door is still open to further development. In addition, the University has not answered specific questions TCLF has raised concerning stewardship of the Olmsted-designed Genesee Valley Park. Consequently, the University’s commitment that any future development would be “aligned with the preservation and stewardship of Genesee Valley Park” is at best opaque … or as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle put it: “The value of that pledge is unclear.”