Letter explaining my concerns over Senior / Recreation Center Proposal

Here is a letter I prepared to communicate with my constituents explaining why I do not support this project as it currently stands.

We have a facility in Rochester that has been built in a piecemeal fashion.  Each piece has some utility, but we ended up with an inefficient, unattractive facility, badly in need of updating.  For once I’m not talking about the Mayo Civic Center!  While we now have an attractive, efficient, and functional solution for our Civic Center we may be about to repeat the same mistakes, 2 miles to the North.

Our current recreation center is a host for many children and adults in our community.  The mechanical and building shell are inefficient at best.  While the facility offers 2 ice sheets, a 50-meter pool, and a gym, all are showing their age.  From the street, the dated precast concrete forms create a pedestrian eyesore and underutilize what should be a prime urban site.

Our current senior center is enjoyed by about 15% of our seniors.  While the location is good, the historic building in which it is housed is no longer sufficiently functional.  Merging the recreation and senior centers is a concept that has been successful in many communities and will be in Rochester as well.

While I am excited for a new community center, the process and product that I have seen are not befitting of a first class community.  The current proposal combines failures to adhere to the budget, properly engage the community, address current energy shortcomings, utilize a prime site, apply basic urban design concepts, and design for future transit.  My greatest fear was that we would spend $20 million on an obsolete building and end up with a bigger obsolete building.  It turns out the actual request was to do this for $22.3 million.  My bad…

Do we need to move fast because of building inflation?  No, we just saved $350k on a street project because we delayed it by one year and got smarter.  Doing it right the first time is always cheaper.

I understand that we were dealt a poor hand.  This was to be a $26 million dollar project until Rep. Greg Davids saw fit to overrule Rochester citizens.  Now at $20 million, perhaps the full project is not feasible.  At least fans of responsible government can sleep well at night knowing that Davids’ changes are currently allowing Rochester sales tax dollars to be used to subsidize luxury home sprawl in other communities.

Without consulting the council, a decision was made to try to create maximum space at a lower quality standard.  Improving or modernizing the existing inefficient utilities has been all but ignored. This decision could punish taxpayers for decades to come.

From the beginning, I asked that a site master plan and transit access be considered for the site.  This request was frequently repeated and came without objection from the council or community.  This step was never taken and when I asked why, the staff answer was that “You were the only person that wanted it.”  This is disappointing…

We are ignoring the incredible potential of a major node along what is to be one of our future transit spines.   The site at Elton Hills and Broadway might one day support hotel, affordable housing, senior housing, restaurants, a transit hub, or even retail.  Instead we want it to exclusively support surface parking.  While the riverfront has environmental issues from a previous dump, the Broadway side of the site is outstanding for mixed-use redevelopment.  Future tax generation along the corridor would help to sustain operations at the combined center.  The current proposal will likely preclude redevelopment at a future date.  When I asked the director of the senior center if they had searched out senior housing or restaurant partners before asking us for an extra $2.3 million the answer was no.

The actions taken on this project to date run counter to our goals of engaging seniors and the community.  A request was made for the city council to endorse a project ($2.3 million over budget) after only a series of private last minute meetings.  $2.3 million moved in the dark of night is not what I stand for. Even Senior Center patrons and board members were in the dark. When I asked if our Committee on Urban Design and Environment (CUDE), our Energy Commission, or even our Parks Board had reviewed the plan, the answer was no.

We have $20 million for recreation and senior center projects, but no requirements on how those dollars are shared.  We can come up with a better design than one that places the backside of a new building and a service access on a major street, while permanently crippling the efficiency of transit operations in the area.  Reducing the scope of the project to ensure quality is a better choice than building more space without regards to sustainability.

It is only when we have a smart vetted plan that I would consider seeking additional funds.  Perhaps we need to go back to the state and ask them to undo Davids’ cuts to do this right.  Regardless, I remain committed to doing this project right, the first time, even if it means we do less.

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