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Finding her place(making)

Holly Masek

Holly Masek, executive director of Rochester Downtown Alliance.

Why the new RDA director left Boston for Rochester

Holly Masek has walked the old cities of Europe. She’s sat at streetside cafes and watched as people bustled past—walking, biking, driving. She’s debated public policy in Boston neighborhoods and led tour groups in the rainforest of Belize.

When Masek heard about what was happening in Rochester, Minnesota, she packed her bags and left her job in Boston.

“For someone in my field to be involved in a city where all these new people are coming in to work on these urban issues, all at once, and it’s so poised for change, and there are resources—there are not many opportunities like that,” Masek says while sitting in Rochester’s Cafe Steam on South Broadway.

In late June, Masek became the new executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance. She had spent the previous three years as a director of public realm (read: placemaking, community engagement, and tourism strategies) for a Boston-based property acquisition group. Her decade-plus of experience includes work in the hospitality industry, a postgraduate degree in urban planning, and work on all sides of public spaces—government, real estate, and consulting.

She’s a traveler by nature who has always wanted to bring back the best parts of those faraway places for the people in her own communities.

“The common thread has always been that I love to create experiences for people. Whether that was through running hotels, bringing people to volunteer projects in the rainforest, working for a consulting firm on parks ...” Masek says.

Masek is a New Hampshire native who has spent the bulk of her career—and earned the bulk of her education—in Boston. She earned her bachelor’s degree (in human geography) from Boston University and her master’s degree (in urban planning) from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Growing up, her family traveled, and she saw the kinds of places and public spaces that urban planners in the U.S. have, in the past couple of decades, been trying to emulate: dense, mixed-use, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

“I saw pretty quickly that there are ways to live other than a car-centric lifestyle, that you can go to European cities and sit in the middle of town and watch all this life go by. … It creates a different atmosphere, and I’ve always wanted to bring that to people,” she says.

In studying urban planning as a postgraduate student, Masek found she had a passion for the things that some of her peers overlooked—the street-level pedestrian experience around large-scale commercial or residential developments, for example.

Masek’s keen interest in such things led to work in redevelopment, consulting, and in real estate. In particular, she focused on the emerging field of placemaking. It’s a term with which Rochester residents should become more familiar in the midst of Destination Medical Center, the $5.6 billion economic development plan that’s just beginning to transform Rochester into a global destination for health and wellness.

And what exactly is placemaking? Masek answers as if she’s heard that question once or twice.

“It is the act of very intentionally altering a physical space as a way to improve your experience in it. That could be any range of things,” she says.

As Rochester plans its next 20 years of public and private development, placemaking will be at the center of the conversation. The Rochester Downtown Alliance’s 44-block district overlaps with much of the DMC area boundaries, and some of the RDA’s most treasured spaces have served as the canvases for the public and private planners working on DMC.

Part of the Masek’s responsibility as executive director will be to define the RDA’s role as the city grows and changes. The organization in the past has been successful with events (it is responsible for Thursdays Downtown, SocialICE, Fall Fest, and others). In the future, Masek says, the alliance may take on more work to influence the downtown experience.

An early example was “The Cove/Alley Block Party” in late June. The RDA worked with Cafe Steam, Canvas & Chardonnay, and other businesses to reclaim a downtown alley, turning the dark and uninviting space into a light, lively atmosphere with people gathered around music, art, and nightlife.

That type of activity is the sweet spot for the RDA, Masek explains. As a small organization, the alliance can see the concepts that larger organizations like the city government and DMC planners are working toward, and implement them quickly.

It’s also the sort of activity Masek seeks out in her personal life. Though she is a self-described introvert, she finds ways to bring people together. She eschews social media in favor of real, person-to-person social connections.

“I barely have Facebook and I only have it for work,” she says. “I hate that I even have a subscription to Netflix because I think that sort of thing takes you out of the world.”

Masek has seen more of the world than many have; and she’s seen just enough of Rochester to know this is where she wants to be.

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