Even before we set foot in Rochester, we were warned about the “Legends building”. If the name sounded fantastical, the details were far more pedestrian: a humble yellow-brick, one-story building (which we later discovered were two separate constructions, enmeshed in a maze of doors and insensitive renovations) from the Great Depression, reused and gutted in every possible way: grocery store (the original use), town cinema, X-rated movie theater, restaurant, bar; now pending demolition after succumbing to the empty downtowns of the early-day lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic. The argument for demolition wasn’t so much about the buildings, but about reimagining a prime location slated for redevelopment. The fate of the “Legends” building was a symptom of Rochester’s divisions and anxieties for the future.
Located in the heart of Minnesota and surrounded by farmland, Rochester is living through a pivotal transition. It is also the home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic, the leading medical and research institution. The DMC (Destination Medical Center) is the entity that bridges the productive partnership between Mayo, a healthcare giant in both name and footprint, and the City of Rochester, the local government. This relationship has transformed the heart of Downtown with capital projects like Discovery Walk, a reimagining of the streetscape of the main axis between Mayo and the downtown area, the Downtown Waterfront Southeast Small Area Plan (60 acres), a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Corridor, and many others.
Our Small Area Plan is one of these initiatives: after a former redevelopment proposal known locally as the Bloom project, the City wanted to seize the opportunity to engage constituents in reimagining what this site, located at the foundational spot of Rochester (the Mill Reservation), could be. The “Legends” building was, from our outsider’s perspective, only one piece of the puzzle but also the one that ignited the most passionate reactions.
Opinions on the building’s future were divided, if well documented: some advocated for full preservation, seeing it as a remnant of a moment in history that has all but disappeared from the city fabric (the historical district is composed of 32 buildings and this one just fell outside the boundary). Others wanted to knock it down, concerned about missing the opportunities brought by the redevelopment value of a prime location. This position had already been validated by the City Council before we even started the project. Yet another group was perplexed by all the energy spent on the two small buildings (21,000 total SF), asking how such a “back of house” site could become anything significant.
Planning processes are large and complex. We started asking ourselves: how could we engage such dissimilar groups with stark, competing views? How could we arrive at a successful solution that wasn’t lukewarm, but visionary? Then we saw the second COVID winter wave lurking around the corner and decided to embed those constraints into the engagement strategy. The result: a five-session virtual conversation series labeled “Riverfront Talks” where we facilitated discussions in smaller break-out rooms, presented ideas about the site, and tested people’s tolerance for them. The topics explored the many lenses through which we were approaching the site: land use and open space, an equitable but economically viable vision, sustainability, and universal access to the waterfront. The “Legends” building was such a lightning rod that it warranted its own special session, in which we presented a nuanced, yet radical idea: that its future was not a zero-sum game and a whole spectrum of possibilities was available for discussion. These encompassed a full rehabilitation, and a full demolition but included other options such as partial demolition, the opening of the back portion of the buildings to include a terrace, a new addition, reconstruction of the even older mill building that was originally in this riverfront site, a new civic building, or a new mixed-use construction, which had been proposed before.
Unsurprisingly, this was one of our best-attended sessions. We anticipated that reviews would be mixed (everyone has their own opinions) but the crowd, which included some of the most passionate defenders of a full restoration, was surprisingly favorable to preserving a portion of the buildings so they could be repurposed with community-minded uses, such as incubator spaces, maker spaces or a community kitchen. The terrace idea was further developed into a winter garden when people expressed concerns about year-round access and a desire for a nurturing natural space during the heavy winter months.
The final plan matured some of these conclusions, and our economic development consultants (NEOO Partners) confirmed what we already suspected: that the old, unassuming buildings would give a better chance of success to small businesses since any type of new construction would make rents prohibitive for small tenants. Since the community had strongly affirmed their desire to “keep it local”, give a place downtown to small entrepreneurs, and bring an incubator atmosphere (already present in the newer medical-adjacent buildings) to the local economy, the decision was clear: the final plan would propose the partial-demolition option, with the inclusion of a terraced winter garden that could be plugged into Rochester’s skyway network and suggesting programming fit for small businesses that could grow out of the downtown fabric.
As designers, we sometimes work in cities where we are outsiders. We use that detachment to provide the necessary distance to be bold yet empathetic. In Rochester, that distance became productive thanks to the generosity of different members of the community, city officials, history buffs, the co-design group, and many more, who not only shared their concerns with us but also their personal research, anxieties, and imaginations, which in turn allowed us to envision a plan where the “Legends” building was turned inside out to complement the proposed riverfront terraced park and the incubator economy that Rochester is keen to foster for the future.
The Riverfront Small Area Plan was approved unanimously by the City Council for adoption into the Planning 2 Succeed Comprehensive Plan as a Level 3 Sub-Area/District Plan on July 18th, 2022.
- Project Completed: June 2022
- Client: City of Rochester, DMC
- Project Team: Gamble Associates (lead), SWA Group (Landscape Architecture), NEOO Partners (Economic Development and Community Engagement), omloop (Wayfinding and Signage).