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Mayor Tom Richards delivered the 2012 State of the City address Monday night, the first of his administration.

Richards was matter-of-fact and plain-spoken. He’s not trying to solve the world’s problems. He acknowledged he can’t solve all the city’s problems. Sometimes being mayor “means just doing what you can.”

On Education:

The mayor shows great compassion and a hint of sadness when talking about city school children:

Someone loves these children…We have so many good kids. We have so many good teachers. Yet, when you look into the eyes of those students, you cannot help but remember the statistics. Less than half of them will make it to graduation. How could we have come to that? How can we be failing them so badly?

Richards, who admitted he didn’t have any solutions, offered up what he can do: provide city help with truancy and youth services coordination. He also offered up some sage wisdom not heeded by his predecessors in City Hall or Central Office.

We must be dependable and stable—like adults are supposed to be. Our children must be able to depend on us. At its most fundamental level, this need for dependability—for stability—should not be overcome by some debate over educational philosophy. Or by which group of adults gets to decide which philosophy is correct. It means that we pick some fundamental programs and approaches and that we stick to them.

This is not just a message for the School District, but also for those who want to help. This is where the failed good intentions come in. I question how helpful it is, that with the best of intentions we try to push on the school system a constant barrage of the newest ideas and programs. Dependability and stability trump the theoretical optimal.

Was that a knock on the current brand of education reform and mayoral control?

On Public Safety:

Richards said a lot of public safety is the public feeling safe, no matter what the statistics say about how fast a fire truck arrives or falling crime rates.

But public safety personnel are super-expensive and eat up much of the city budget. As he crafts his budget for the next fiscal year, he issued a warning.

Public Safety is important, often the most important, but it is not sacrosanct. That we need to provide public safety is beyond challenge. That we need to do it the way we always have done it is not. This approach can be threatening. Especially to those who believe that no departmental organization, work rule or benefit should change. The Mayor is sometimes the agent of that threat. My response is that we need to work together to balance the need for public safety and our financial stability or we will wind up losing both.

On Saving Cities:

Richards said the city has a major structural deficit. The city cannot tax its way out of the problem, nor can development occur fast enough to generate new revenue.

Cities do not exist to produce a balanced budget. They are vehicles for delivering services that create and preserve the quality of life that attracts people to urban centers. Cities will first face cultural and social bankruptcy before they encounter financial bankruptcy. We will be forced to cut services that make city living attractive, negatively impacting our quality of life. Libraries, recreation centers, festivals, fireworks and much of the investment that you saw earlier in this presentation are the sorts of things that get cut on the way to bankruptcy. And it is just such cuts that force those who would consider living in our city to make other choices.

(snip)

If we don’t get control of the system, there is a real danger of the innocent getting shot with the guilty. It is not a matter of finding fault. It is a matter of dealing with the problem that we must admit we all have. Government is not the gift that keeps on giving. It can break and when it does, we will all get hurt.

Next month when Richards unveils his 2012-13 budget, we will see what kind of control he has in mind. We’ll see what he can do. But that also means we’ll see what he can’t.

City of Rochester, Communication Bureau

 

Gibbs St. is the heart of the Jazz Festival. For nine days, the city closes the small stretch between E. Main St. and East Ave. There’s a stage, tables and chairs and vendors.

Why not permanently close that block of Gibbs to traffic?

“I would be all for it,” said Mike Calabrese, owner of Java’s. “It’s such a special street.”

Think about it.

The city could put up a small stage. Have benches and tables and chairs. Perhaps put in cobblestone and some grass. It wouldn’t take much to give Gibbs St. a courtyard feel, because it’s so small. I bet it would be packed every night.

Closing downtown thoroughfares to traffic doesn’t always work. Buffalo’s Main Street pedestrian mall is considered a failure. But Gibbs is so compact, it could be very successful.

The city would only lose a couple dozen parking spaces and there’s a garage less than a block away. Calabrese said his morning coffee rush might suffer a bit, but he’d make up the business from the new visitors.

Calabrese said the University of Rochester owns much of the property on the block and has talked for many years about making it a pedestrian-only street. He said bus access for big events is an issue, but Main St. can certainly accommodate a number of large vehicles.

“They keep talking about it, but it never happens,” Calabrese said.

Maybe now is the time.

The Buffalo Bills plan to spend $200 million in upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium. What if the city, state and team took a much bigger leap and located the stadium downtown?

Guest columnist Michael Peroha writes in the Buffalo News:

Rather than spend public funds on an aging stadium located in the suburbs, it would make much more sense to make a strategic investment in Buffalo by building a multiuse center on the site of the current Coca-Cola Field and surrounding area. This location is ideal for a project that could be called the Buffalo Niagara Gateway Center, which would be comprised of a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, a modern train station, a mass transit hub, as well as retail and cultural venues to complement Canalside.

This site is in the heart of downtown, a block from the Metro line and directly across Exchange Street from the current, very modest Amtrak train station. The Buffalo Niagara Gateway Center could transform this location into the focal point of transportation downtown, the gateway to Western New York.

A downtown stadium – provided it is walkable and connected to amenities – could provide far more economic benefits than the current stadium. Would you be more likely to attend a game if you could hop on Amtrak and get dropped off right at the venue? Would you be more likely to walk around downtown and try out bars and restaurants and perhaps book a hotel room after a Bills game?

But new stadiums can cost $1 billion and there’s little appetite for spending that kind of money on a sports team. Where would Buffalo get a billion bucks?

Oh wait….

Links of the Day:

- Time Warner Cable is experiencing an massive outage in the Rochester area. There are no numbers, but the issue appears to be widespread.

I was struck by how many people were complaining about not having television. I didn’t care about that! How do I get online? Fortunately, my phone is also a hotspot, but I have to be careful to not to eat too much data.

A new survey indicates I’m probably in the minority. More people would rather give up social networking than television. Obviously, people use the Internet for more than Facebook or Twitter, but the study shows people are still very attached to their TVs.

- Sex trafficking exists in Rochester. The Democrat and Chronicle looks at the case of Thomas Cramer, described as a “400-pound pimp.”

- The state trooper at the center of a prostitution probe has been in trouble before. He was suspended for hitting a woman while off duty.

- Buffalo area nuns are furious at the Vatican crackdown on American nuns.

- Governor Andrew Cuomo’s cool reception to campaign finance reform could be an indication he has an eye on the White House.

- Irondequoit boaters…a scene from “Animal House?”

Links of the Day:

- New York City released more than 870,000 photographs from its municipal archives, putting them in an online database. The Atlantic compiled some favorites, including this one:

New York City Municipal Archives

;

Did you know Rochester also has an extensive online database of historical photographs? It’s hosted by the library system. You can get lost searching for landmarks. Check out these images of the Sibley Building. (I suggest doing your own search and browsing the 1940’s window displays, including Toyland!)

Armistice Day

;

1939

;

Kids talking to Santa, 1914

;

Man repairing clock tower, 1910

;

- Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to call everything he does “historic.”

- Upstate New York is its own state, according to an “invisible boundary map” of American culture.

Researchers looked at cell phone communication, where people relocate, how they vote and what sports team they watch to create the map. They also looked at whether we say “pop” or “soda.” (We are in pop-land.)

For the most part, Upstate is its own territory. Quick, someone tell Joe Robach!

- Corn Hill Landing sits on the site of an old metal factory.

- This is why we care about the talking pineapple.

- Buffalo has no fashion sense.

When you think of a graffiti artist, Ian Wilson is not the guy who comes to mind.

The Brooklyn native is a 38-year-old radiologist at University of Rochester Medical Center. Urban wall art happens to be his passion.

“I grew up around graffiti artists. My brother used to paint the subways in the 80s,” Wilson said.

Last summer, Wilson gathered a team of artists from around the world and Rochester to for an event painting murals around town. He found many willing building owners.

“Rochester has a lot of walls,” he said. “This place is pretty gray half the year. (The murals) add color and imagery to the city.”

Image from TEDx Rochester

In July, Wilson is organizing a second wall-painting extravaganza around the Public Market. He calls it “Wall Therapy.” He’s bringing in artists from Africa, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Belgium. He’d like Rochester to be known for wall art.

“It’s a benefit to any city when you can stimulate the imagination. That’s the power of mural art, to elicit a visceral reaction. That’s what art does.”

Wilson has been funding the bulk of the project, kicking in most of the $16,000 needed last year. Next year, he’d like to find walls along El Camino Trail.

“Where should art live? It can live in public.”

Links of the Day:

Facebook image published in Times Union

- Why is it that everyone caught up in a scandal has a damning Facebook page?

The Buffalo area state trooper at the center of a prostitution investigation has a bunch of questionable photos of himself, reports the Albany Times Union:

(Titus) Taggart’s Facebook page depicts several photographs in which he is holding what appears to be bottles of alcohol. One photo depicts a sexually charged cartoon rendering of a woman holding a gun and wearing a police uniform augmented with lingerie. The depiction shows the woman standing in front of a heart that is adorned with yellow police tape and the words “busted.”

Taggart and two Rochester area troopers are suspended.

A Forbes columnist advises people to protect their pages before getting caught up in a scandal. Hey, you never know. Taggart’s page has been taken down, but not before the Times Union grabbed every photo.

Trust me, the privacy settings are not that hard!

- Kodak released its first-quarter earnings, which show a loss of $366 million. I hope to have more perspective later in the day. So far, analysts have some questions.

- Medley Centre must be “demalled.” The Democrat and Chronicle has a great update (or non-update) on what’s happening with the property. The developer’s plans are on the right track, but he doesn’t appear to have financing.

- Irondequoit police alerted the community to a man in a black van who approached a girl and offered her a ride. What a kidnapper stereotype! I often wonder if these reports are fabricated or exaggerated by children scared by years of stranger danger training.

Ever notice how these men who allegedly approach children almost never materialize? When was the last time a kid was snatched by a scary man in a van around here? (Never…) Kids are going to come in contact with adults and some of them are creeps. Just move on, like this girl did.

Update: Irondequoit police found the scary van driver! He’s not a would-be kidnapper, after all.

- The Democrat and Chronicle has a new food and drink section called Flavors and a business section called ROCNext.

- People like food porn.

A large development is planned at Canal Ponds Office Park in Gates.

The $24 million, 21-acre, canal-side project would be called Gateway Landing and feature 168 “luxury” apartments and some retail. This would be the first of three phases. The developer is Morgan Management.

“Certainly it will create jobs, just the construction piece of this alone. In addition it will help develop the area. There is a small retail component. There is a phase two and phase three to the project that will bring more commercial development to the area,” said Gates Town Supervisor Mark Assini. “Part of the agreement is we will have public access to the waterfront.”

The project is applying for tax breaks with the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency.

Gateway Landing would get tax abatements worth $2.4 million over 10 years. The county estimates the benefit in sales and income taxes and payments in lieu of taxes will be $7.1 million.

The number of construction jobs created is estimated at 223. The number of permanent jobs is nine. Only one job is required by the PILOT.

Assini sees the project as a major step in the development of the canal-front.  There’s no doubt it will bring in additional revenue and residents to the town. But should taxpayers be subsidizing luxury apartments in the suburbs?

“This is an area that needs upscale housing to bring growth and stability to the west side. We want to plant a seed for that area so that we see some growth. There’s enough acreage there to see development along the canal,” said Assini. “There’s nothing there right now. There’s no revenue other than the taxes on the property.”

The two documents below are COMIDA’s cost-benefit analysis of the project and renderings and maps.

Xerox has a new promotional video called “A World Made Simpler…by Xerox.”

Xerox uses document imagery throughout the video, as if wanting to remind us of its rich heritage in the copy machine business. But the video is absolutely not about documents. It touts the company’s shift into being a service provider that creates systems for paying for the bus, monitoring traffic, setting up call centers and helping your doctor access your health data.

I was left wondering what Xerox does. When a company wants to be known less for making things and more for what it provides, it becomes harder to define.

More importantly, the evolving Xerox brand has major implications for Rochester, its technology center. It could mean fewer jobs and lower-wage jobs. In a quote that resonates, Ursula Burns told the Democrat and Chronicle recently:

While Rochester will remain the headquarters and primary hub of Xerox’s technology business, Burns said, “The thing that made Xerox ‘Xerox’ in Rochester, which was the maker of technology, will not be the exclamation point after that.”

Links of the Day:

- Bausch + Lomb’s CEO talked to the Wall Street Journal about his two-year tenure. Brent Saunders said when he arrived in Rochester, he introduced himself at headquarters and hit the road with sales staff and attended conferences.

The goal: to figure out what had gone wrong at the iconic eye-care products maker.

(snip)

Eventually, Mr. Saunders says he realized that fixing Bausch would require mending the company’s fragmented bureaucracy and lessening its reliance on the contact lenses and cleaning solutions that Bausch was known for. “It was a company stuck in the mud,” he recalls.

Today, Mr. Saunders says Bausch has turned the corner.

Saunders moved staff out of downtown’s B+L building and back to N. Goodman St. The company is shifting away from relying on contact lenses to expanding pharmaceuticals and surgical products. B+L to may go public again.

- Could we see a 2016 presidential primary featuring Andrew Cuomo versus Hillary Clinton? Politico asks the question:

The not-so-idle chatter has real-world impact in New York political circles, raising the tantalizing possibility of a civil war among the state’s two biggest political titans in 2016. If Clinton does decide to run, will Cuomo — driven, politically popular and keenly aware of strong political moments — also barrel ahead? Or will Clinton, with her national network of donors and base of support, clear the field?

“I think he’ll think twice about going against her,” predicted Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor under New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, and a longtime ally of the Clintons. “He’s still a young man and could wait around awhile.”

- A list of the state’s top tax scofflaws features East End bar owner Ronnie Davis. He has complained about state tax audits of restaurants.

- Should your dog be watching TV?

- You can major in video games at RIT.

Links of the Day:

- The outcry over New York State exams is growing. 

First, there was the ridiculous talking pineapple question. Then it turned out some students were exposed to a question about a talking yam before taking the test. Along the way, a runaway dog who wanted to be a gardener made an appearance. Now, the state is saying a couple questions on the math test don’t add up:

But the state Education Department told principals Monday that one question on the fourth grade math test has two right answers and one question on the eighth grade test has no right answer.

Department spokesman Tom Dunn says the errors are just typos and the questions will not count.

Confidence in the tests has sunk so low, some parents in the Buffalo area are opting to pull their children out of the assessments:

A growing chorus of parents, teachers and administrators across the state notes that the state has outsourced the testing to Pearson, a company with a $32 million contract, and calling for accountability.

That frustration is feeding the growing parent movement to opt out of the tests.

“A lot of it has to do with trust from the field on how these tests are being put together, and by whom,” said Springville Superintendent Paul Connelly. “What we know for sure is the state Education Department is being shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. You can’t even get anybody to answer the telephone half the time. They just don’t have the staff. Things get lost, and they fall through the cracks.”

In Connelly’s district, eight children — including Cerrone’s daughter — opted out of the testing last week and this week.

And these are the tests that will be used to evaluate student and teacher performance. East High principal Anibal Soler noted he is getting complaints from staff concerned about test quality and how the tests will be used to judge their teaching abilities.

Interim Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said it’s wrong students are tested in April, right after spring break and before the school year is finished. He said we need assessments, but they must be reasonable and appropriate.

- The neglected Niagara Falls State Park will get $25 million in improvements

- Dissolving a village costs money. Just ask Albion, Oswego County.

- A day in the life of Bob Lonsberrydoesn’t sound very fun.

- Rochester is a hot golf destination.

Rochester school board member Mary Adams objected to the search process for a new superintendent, but will vote for Bolgen Vargas. She explained her reluctant support for him in an insightful email:

For the record, the reason I decided to support entering into superintendent contract negotiations with Dr. Vargas is that I believe extending the search process will not result in a better candidate, and there is a real possibility of ending up with a much worse candidate. With due respect to board colleagues, the reality is there is nothing I can think of that would influence the current board to implement a new community search process that would improve the outcome.

Criticism of and anger about the search process are legitimate. Critiques of Bolgen Vargas’s performance based on facts and evidence are justified and necessary.

Further, the sense of well-being and emotional security attached to Dr. Vargas, especially among staff working within the district and among political and institutional leaders is troubling. It bothers me because while the affective tone of the district has improved the essence of Jean-Claude Brizard’s policies and plans, with some exceptions, are being played out.

A word to supporters of Dr. Vargas:

If you find Dr. Vargas a welcomed contrast to Mr. Brizard, is it simply about your feelings? Please take the time to really assess current district efforts, priorities and intransigences. If we come up short, then you are obligated to challenge Dr. Vargas in the interest of our children and families. The most irresponsible thing we can do is give our leader a pass because he makes people feel calm and content.

I have been challenging Dr. Vargas and guess what? Even under challenge, he does not make you feel bad, though it has been a bit exhausting. Imagine if we all seriously challenged him — and supported when warranted — based on our collective commitment to Rochester’s children and families. This means finding time, working harder, taking risks and organizing from the base, whether teacher, parent, principal, retiree, student or elected official.

A word to opponents of Dr. Vargas:

There is no realistic mechanism to stop or reverse this decision that I can think of. The question now, with the well-being of our children and families the goal, is what’s next? Next to giving Dr. Vargas a pass because he is nice, the worst thing we can do is abandon the openings for improvement that exist by refusing to engage where possible for real change. However you decide to proceed – I hope with a set of focused, well thought out approaches — I will respect you.

Mary Adams

I wouldn’t be surprised if the selection of Bolgen Vargas as Rochester’s next school superintendent draws national attention.

How many other people go from guidance counselor to head of the state’s third-largest school district in one giant leap? Vargas has never served as a vice-principal, principal or district bureaucrat.

Turns out, there is precedent – right here in Rochester!

When Peter McWalters was made interim superintendent in 1985, taking the helm from Laval Wilson, he was a teacher on special assignment at Central Office. He’d participated in the 1980 teacher strike.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said no one ever thought McWalters would become the permanent superintendent, but he impressed people and was granted a state waiver (he didn’t have his administrative certification) to continue as the district’s leader.

McWalters, of course, is famous for negotiating a contract that increased teacher pay by 40 percent over three years. The 1987 deal landed Rochester in TIME magazine and national newspapers. The pay was supposed to be tied to accountability.

Four years later, it was clear there is no easy fix for urban education. The New York Times wrote:

Chastened reformers say they are trying to put into effect the lesson they have already learned: that the politics of reform — explaining it, selling it and involving the community in it — are just as important as its content.

“The public is disgusted,” said Peter McWalters, Rochester’s Superintendent of Schools. “So is the business leadership. Everyone out there is angry. They feel left out, alienated and unconnected. They don’t know whether I’m succeeding or failing.”

McWalters left Rochester in 1992 to become the education commissioner in Rhode Island and stayed there until 2009.

Like McWalters, Vargas is well-liked by the teachers union. That’s a problem for some parents and business leaders eager for more accountability and fiscal restraint.

Like McWalters, Vargas did not go the traditional route to become superintendent. (Vargas, however, has his doctorate and administrative certification.)

We’ll have to see if Vargas grows more like McWalters in the future. Will he have an out-of-the-box grand plan for reform? Will he leave for greener pastures after five or six years?

When asked if Vargas could change his leadership style and priorities now that he’s the top guy, Urbanski said with a smile, “Right, whoever heard of men changing after they get married?”

City of Rochester

Links of the Day:

- Rochester is really stepping up efforts to become a bicycle-friendly city. You may have noticed new bike lanes and sharrows around town. Other initiatives involve biking trails. The city is steadily building the Genesee Riverway Trail and will open a new bridge near the University of Rochester. The El Camino trail is nearing completion.

This week, the city issued a request for proposals for a design and construction of seven trail connections:

  • Harding / Brewster Park to Turning Point Park
  • St. Paul Street Trailhead
  • Vincent Street Open Space
  • Plymouth Avenue Greenway Connector
  • South Wedge Neighborhood Connectors (2 separate trail connections)
  • Genesee Valley Park Connector

The cost of the project is $1.5 million. Eighty percent of the money comes from federal sources. A couple years ago, the city developed a Bicycle Master Plan, outlining ways the city can improve bike access.

- Did you know New York beekeepers sometimes take their bees out of state to help pollinate crops? That could be one of the factors in bee diseases.

- Gym towel thefts are a problem. Why would anyone want one of those thin, little towels?

- Bears interrupt a Scranton, Pennsylvania TV newscast. The anchorman jokes perhaps a tiger will show up.

- HOW much does it cost to play Little League?

- Links of the Day:

- A second footbridge over the Genesee River connecting the University of Rochester and the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood will open in late June.

The “Rails-to-Trails” bridge is a piece of the old Erie Lackawanna railroad that was built in 1890. It will be part of the Genesee Riverway Trail. Converting it to a pedestrian bridge cost about $1.5 million.

The bridge is opening at a time when U of R-related development on the west side of the river is growing. A big riverfront apartment building will complete Brooks Landing. A few restaurants have opened.

While the U of R is supportive of the bridge, the Campus Times quotes a college official who doesn’t appear to think the bridge will lead to more students living on the west side or going downtown. His comments raise questions about will use the bridge:

“There is very little housing in the immediate vicinity of the west side of the bridge,” (Vice-President Richard Pfifer) said. “Crossing the Ford Street bridge to the north or the pedestrian bridge or Elmwood Bridge to the south offers very direct access to the River Campus and in each case those bridges are in closer proximity to housing that may be available. Accordingly, I doubt that the new bridge will have a significant increase on housing decisions.”

For similar reasons, Pifer added that he does not believe that the bridge will change the number of students who go downtown.

“Whether one crosses the new Rails-to-Trails bridge and uses the path on the west side of the river or uses the path on the east side of the river and crosses the Ford Street bridge, the distance to downtown is the same,” he said.

The article also cited safety concerns, saying the city wouldn’t allow a Blue Light security phone. City engineer Tom Hack told me that’s not true. Hack also said the bridge will be an important connector of the river trail of the east and west sides of the river. He believes people will use the bridge.

Perhaps the way to think about this bridge is as part of a recreation trail, rather than a utilitarian crossing.

Ecopy Rochester. According to RochesterSubway.com, the city bulldozed a community garden located on a vacant lot. It will be replanted this Sunday and the founder is looking for volunteers.

- Are job fairs worth the effort? The Buffalo News reports…maybe not.

- Poor swans. Someone destroyed the eggs of a Central New York swan family.

- Slactivists are a thing now.

Communications Bureau, City of Rochester

Links of the Day:

- The city released a summary of the mayor’s budget forums, attended by 170 people. Many complained about the back taxes owed by Wilmorite on the Sibley building:

Address the Sibley’s/Wilmorite tax delinquency.

“Collect property taxes owed to the City (Sibley’s).” (Edgerton)

“Wilmorite should not be able to walk away from paying taxes ($22m) – not being held accountable.” (Edgerton)

“Foreclose on Sibley’s.” (Adams)

“Collect unpaid City taxes from owners such as Wilmorite, Sibley’s etc.” (Cobbs Hill)

This issue will come to a head very soon. The company about to buy Sibley recently withdrew an application to COMIDA for tax breaks on the renovation. Mayor Tom Richards said that’s because “We want to get it all done at once.” He’s referring to a resolution on the sale, new tax breaks and old back taxes. The city isn’t likely going to get a lot of money out of the deal.

Participants also asked the city to stop subsidizing commercial developments through tax breaks and charge for parking at Ontario Beach Park, as well as Durand-Eastman. People were not enthusiastic about purchases for new surveillance cameras and asked the city to delay work in the port marina and Erie Harbor promenade. People do not want cuts to public safety.

- Some residents in Penfield are fighting a group home for veterans. “What if they snap?”

- No Child Left Behind mandates tutoring services for failing students. But the standards are lax, students aren’t getting the services and the services aren’t very good. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are wasted on the effort.

- The exploding deer population has become a problem in the City of Syracuse.