The planners of Rochester’s 550-acre downtown makeover approach urban design in the same way that the Mayo Clinic approaches health care—with holistic thinking

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

The Mayo Clinic has become the world’s premier medical practice in part because of its distinctive delivery of care. Rather than see the body as a set of separate systems attended to by a disconnected set of specialties—something that has become all too common in modern health care—Mayo provides an integrated, multidisciplinary focus on the patient as a whole person, at a particular place and time in life.

Now the city outside its walls is poised to experience a radical overhaul that, if all comes together as planned, will create a healthier, more holistically designed built environment.

Over the last century, municipal governments have tended to treat cities in much the same way as traditional health care has treated bodies, as a set of separate systems—transportation, parks, public works—largely disconnected from each other, with separate budgets, uncoordinated plans, and competing priorities. While that disaggregated approach to governance may seem efficient, it has actually produced redundant operations and excessive costs that we can no longer afford. Rochester’s physical form reflects this disaggregation. Its grid of streets, lined by buildings with little relation to each other, accommodates the city’s disparate systems and maximizes people’s access to individual properties, but the city lacks an integration of its parts.

Which makes the master plan for Rochester’s 550-acre Destination Medical Center (DMC) such a game changer. The press has rightfully lauded the scale and ambition of this effort: With $585 million in public investment and several billion more in anticipated private funding, the project is slated to create some 35,000 to 45,000 new jobs—and to make Rochester, as the project’s name implies, a desirable destination for the world’s top medical personnel as well as a global pool of patients. But commentators have largely missed the main idea of the master plan: bringing the Mayo approach to health to the city of Rochester itself.

You see that most clearly in what Peter Cavaluzzi, FAIA, a principal in the New York firm Perkins Eastman and the lead urban designer of the DMC, has done in creating six districts to help energize Rochester. “We envisioned them as six places,” says Cavaluzzi, “focused on public spaces that people will want to be in.” The most centrally located place, the Heart of the City, will be the first to get done, with enhanced pedestrian spaces, an outdoor dining terrace, ice skating in winter, and a lighted canopy over the First Street–First Avenue intersection to draw people to the district. “The first phase of every project,” adds Cavaluzzi, “has to be large enough and bold enough to have an impact, but small enough that it can be achieved.” That seems likely here.

Other districts will follow. One of them—Discovery Square—will provide a place near the Mayo Medical School for technological development and entrepreneurial spin-offs from the school and the Mayo Clinic. That integration of research and practice, innovation and application, fits the Mayo model perfectly, and Discovery Square may, ultimately, do the most to secure the economic future of the city, as start-up companies emerge and grow. The Perkins Eastman master plan calls for an open space at the center of this district, above which skyways converge into an elevated glass building that, while a good idea, looks too big for the space and a bit ominous in the renderings.

Another big move in the master plan—the Downtown Waterfront—links the government center and the civic and art center with pedestrian-friendly plazas that open up to a widened Zumbro River, finally freed from its current flood-control channel to become a real asset for the city. This district’s sweeping set of bridges, embankments, and buildings will break Rochester’s insistent street grid and provide a place for community events and celebrations that today have few options for outdoor venues. A grand gesture like this doesn’t happen without controversy, however. Some have questioned the planned removal of the existing public library near the river, even though, as Cavaluzzi observes, the library had already begun to look at moving, having outgrown its small, nondescript building.

Three other districts frame the downtown. The Central Station district will provide a transportation hub for the region, with a central park greeting people arriving by mass transit, surrounded by new mixed-use development. While the building of key elements of this district could start soon, Central Station won’t reach its full potential until a planned high-speed rail line linking Rochester to the Twin Cities and the MSP Airport gets a go-ahead from the state. “The best and brightest want to live in authentic urban places where they can live in the downtown, walk to work, take transit, be on a bike path,” says Cavaluzzi of the role that multiple modes of transportation can play in attracting young talent.

At the other end of downtown, the master plan calls for an Educational and Recreational District, with a new campus for the University of Minnesota Rochester in an area adjacent to the existing track, baseball diamonds, and golf course of Soldiers Field. “We tried to extend and enhance what is already there,” says Cavaluzzi, although, by plugging in parts of a 2010 master plan of the city by Sasaki Associates, the new plan puts the campus several blocks south of the main action of the Destination Medical Center. Even further away stands the sixth district, St. Mary’s Place, which is designed to provide a new outdoor space and a transit station adjacent to the Mayo’s St. Mary’s Campus, and a gateway to downtown from the residential areas to the west.

As master plans go, this one is nothing if not thorough. Running more than 700 pages, with exhaustive analyses of everything from rush-hour traffic to hotel-room demand, the plan is an impressive piece of work. But for all of its technical heft, it also represents what Cavaluzzi calls “a dramatic paradigm shift away from building institutional health-care facilities to building the city,” which has become “the most advanced way to deliver health care and to promote a healthier population.” Like the Mayo’s integrated, multidisciplinary approach to medicine, the Perkins Eastman master plan addresses a range of issues from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, helping Rochester achieve its vision as “America’s City for Health,” says Lisa Clarke, the executive director of Rochester’s Economic Development Agency.

Of course, the success of city building, like that of patient care, requires more than a good plan. It demands good implementation, something made more likely with the DMC’s hiring of Patrick Seeb, the longtime executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, as director of economic development and place-making—two activities rarely mentioned in the same breath. Seeb brings to Rochester a legacy of involving diverse communities in the urban design process, which the DMC will very much need going forward.

The Perkins Eastman document sets out a vision for how to heal a city that has suffered from the urban illnesses of the late 20th century, such as too many cars and surface parking lots, too little density and diversity, and too few gathering places. Bringing the city back to health will take a lot of collaboration, cooperation, and participation from all sectors of the community—not just elected officials but also the electorate, not just the doctors but also the denizens of Rochester. The Mayo model needs to come to main street, and when it does, the efforts now under way in Rochester will truly become, as Cavaluzzi concludes, “not just an American story, but an international one.”