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Midtown Plaza may have killed downtown Rochester.

An interesting article in Atlantic Cities profiles Victor Greun, Midtown’s architect and the inventor of enclosed shopping malls. Greun was a huge advocate of cities and thought malls could help downtowns. Instead, his invention helped create suburbia and kill downtowns:

He hated suburbia. He thought his ideas would revitalize cities. He wanted to bring urban density to the suburbs. And he envisioned shopping malls as our best chance at containing sprawl.


Gruen wanted to create better versions of the American downtown in the suburbs. He wanted these places to be civic centers as much as commercial ones, with day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls and public art. He wanted the shopping mall to be for suburbia what the public square was to old European cities.


But his idea helped set off a chain reaction that recurred in cities everywhere. Suburban malls drew consumers who found shopping and parking in the city too difficult. They contributed to a boom in development that enabled not just shopping dollars, but whole households to relocate to suburbia. Cities, eying this exodus, tore down buildings and tried unsuccessfully to recreate the ease of parking and the shopping experience people found in the suburbs. And this only further hastened their decline.

Midtown opened in 1962. Once the novel concept of an indoor mall spread to the suburbs, the die was cast. Midtown thrived for twenty years before suburbanization took a huge tool. Now it’s been torn down.

The article also pointed out the heyday of the mall is over. In 1990, 19 malls opened in the U.S., including Irondequoit Mall. A new mall hasn’t opened since 2006 and many malls are in decline.

Greun’s legacy is clearly not what he envisioned.

Links of the Day:

– The city parking scandal raises a lot of questions. Why did the city wait so long to remove the director and how on earth did things get so bad? You can read the audit here.

– A missing dog was spotted stranded in the Niagara River near the falls by a Rochester veterinarian. The dog was rescued.

– This is pretty disgusting. Penn State awarded Joe Paterno $5.5 million as the scandal played out.

20 Responses to Midtown Plaza Killed Downtown

  1. July 14, 2012 at 1:17 pm RaChaCha responds:

    Interesting topic. Just last night we were showing TED Talk videos (’cause that’s what we do here in Buffalo — think the big thoughts), including Ellen Dunham-Jones’ excellent talk, Retrofitting Suburbia: http://www.ted.com/speakers/ellen_dunham_jones.html

    Her talk touches on suburban plazas and malls, including a number of malls around the country that are undergoing “retrofitting.” Ironically, many are being “repurposed” into exactly the kind of “town centers” many suburbs never had. So in that very roundabout way, they may be, in the end, fulfilling Gruen’s vision.

    As for Midtown Plaza, its creation was a signature post-war civic accomplishment for Rochester. It’s wholesale demolition — which is NOT what the ULI recommended — without a planned reuse, may turn out to be a civic blunder as monumental as Midtown’s original creation.

  2. July 14, 2012 at 1:20 pm katie responds:

    Convolutedd traffic patterns and high parking prices killed downtown….unless you took a bus it took you forever to wend your way thru traffic….only to be charged a ridiculas sum for parking while you shop….

  3. July 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm Edward Richards responds:

    The concept for a mall like Midtown was an idea ahead of its time. It worked. But now, we need to rethink something more enjoyable than a mundane business park.

  4. Part of what killed Midtown was the fact that it turned into a hangout for truant teenagers, which many shoppers found to be intimidating. When I was a teenager in the 1960’s, loitering was not allowed at Midtown. The loitering is now taking place at Marketplace Mall, which could likewise be a deterrent to shoppers. (I predict Marketplace will be the next mall casualty.)

  5. You have the horse (the after-effects of suburbanization) in front of the cart(suburbanization).
    Midtown Plaza, as a specific project, actually shored up downtown retail in Rochester far longer than Syracuse or Buffalo were able to with their downtown districts.
    Suburban development, cheap cars and cheap gas are what killed virtually EVERY downtown in American after WWII.
    The malls were just an indicator of where the money was going.

  6. July 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm Orielly responds:

    Midtown didn’t kill downtown. By the time it was built the die had long been cast. New Large strip malls at South Town and in Greece had proven burb shopping centers worked. Better Malls covered walking between stores where built in Greece in a matter of a few years. Heck eastview was built by 1970.

    Paid parking, Crime, in the city coupled with closer free parking, no crime, covered shopping in the burbs did Roch and most downtown shopping areas in.

  7. July 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm lynn e responds:

    Midtown was built to revitalize downtown and it was much beloved. i think it was one of the first malls. The city rejected the buliding of Marketplace downtown and a movie theater complex so it went to Henrietta. Kids didn’t kill midtown but lack of shoppers did. Workers aren’t downtown anymore.

  8. July 14, 2012 at 2:37 pm James responds:

    What killed downtown is that especially in Rochester there is almost no benefit to living downtown. Families don’t want to live there, the schools are miserable. Students don’t want to live there, there is no quick way to get to U of R or RIT (or Naz or SJFC). 20somethings would rather live in the South Wedge, the East End, or one of the suburbs.

  9. July 14, 2012 at 3:07 pm Carlos Mercado responds:

    Very interesting article in “Atlantic Cities” and your blog. My early years were when Downtown still reigned supreme, then I saw the decline of center cities and the rise of suburbia. Now, in my retirement years, I am seeing the rebirth of cities and the blighting of suburbia. We chose a very expesive approach to land use and will now have to rethink it. Be interesting to see what happens.

  10. Don’t forget the skywalks and the common area maintenance charges for malls that only the highest brand-name, non-anchor stores can afford any more.

    Enclosed malls are a thing of the past being replaced by outdoor pod malls like the one built in Webster. Note that in our major mall rennovations soft-goods retail space is mostly replaced with eateries with nationally branded names having entrances directly to the parking lots as well as the interior of the mall.

    The battle over the now defunct skywalk between Sib’s and McCurdy’s was legendary. It was resisted by the owners of midtown because they did not want to share their captured customers with an outfit that didn’t share the expenses of operating the mall.

    R, you hit it on the head with this article. There were a whole range of unintended consequences resulting from enclosing so much downtown retail space within a climate-controlled box. Good call on the article because with all the denial about the negative effects of public policy downtown redevelopment decisions around here its hard to see clearly where and what to do about its future.

    I know one thing, I’d put my money around the edges of what’s already a go – the east end and the SE section of the sunken ditch we call the Inner Loop.

  11. katie: good points.

  12. July 14, 2012 at 11:00 pm theodore kumlander responds:

    i think if the malls decline far enough the rents will go down and goverment office will move in along with medical and dental offices. the malls could be the town square of america but the rent is to high. also if malls are in decline why does wilmorite want more taxpayer money to expand?

  13. July 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm Edward Richards responds:

    “Midtown killed downtown”.

    The author sums it up … Downtown is dead.

    • ER: In the late ’50’s, city urban renewal decided to raze the properties that were built over both sides of the river on E. Main in order to open it up to view.

      Except for the beautiful Paley bridge railing, this was a huge mistake. The modest low-rise structures that were torn down house retro frontage retail stores that provided pedestrians a window shopping walk from one side of downtown to the other while protecting them from the winds that blow up the river from the north during the winter.

      The razing cut downtown into two districy more severely than before and limited the work-day lunch pedestrial traffic from the government/court/legal/finace west side to the more restaurant/retail/office east side.

      The city tries a free shuttle bus system on the regular RGRTA busses that traversed main St. but couldn’t get it to work due to folks not wanting to pay a fare when getting off after the Main St. free zone.

      Combining this with the “wall sidewalk facade” mentality of local developers of super-blocks in downtown, it’s a very unpleasant environment for retail.

      In typical “unintended consequence” fashion, poor downtown planning is never fessed-up to by the organizations that did it and the cost to reverse it it probably 10 x’s the cost it took to create it as we’re experiencing with Ren. Sq. estimates and Midtown realities.

      Even the locally designed Ren. Sq. revised final plan was going to put huge theater walls at the N.E. corner of Main & Clinton.

      We got this thing about walls in this town. It might come from the big red Kodak wall on W. Ridge and Lake.

  14. July 15, 2012 at 9:57 am Thomas responds:

    In 1962, as the new mall went up in downtown Rochester, they should have simultaneously built a “street car system to get people from Pittsford Plaza to Midtown and back once and hour. Not a bus system. or car. But a full fledge street car system, on tracks which would follow rt 31 to Monroe Ave right into a station near the Mall downtown. Hows that sound. I was born in 1963. Last of the boomers.

  15. Regarding your article, “Midtown Plaza Killed Downtown”, this is a popular, classist notion, that holds little water, and in the end, is a big cover-up for racism. While certainly suburban retail expansion has had an effect on downtowns across the U.S., Whites would rather rewrite recent American history, than tell the truth about what killed U.S. cities: Racism against Blacks migrating to northern cities. Let’s see: Midtown Mall opened in 1962; Rochester’s race riots occured in 1964: Which do you honestly think had a greater impact on the White exodus from Rochester. If you want to ever engage in truth telling about urban America in the last 50-70 years, listen to the lyrics of the Temptations, “Run Charlie Run”. Signed, Chris “Yes, our family built Eastview” Wilmot.

  16. July 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm RaChaCha responds:

    Hey Chris–

    Glad you weighed in. Since your family has been involved in mall/plaza development, I’m wondering if you’ve ever had the chance to see the TED Talk I referred to above, Retrofitting Suburbia: http://www.ted.com/speakers/ellen_dunham_jones.html (or similar ideas of “retrofitting” suburban malls and plazas–?

    If you have, I’d be curious what you think.

    As an aside: I agree, of course, that placing the blame for downtown’s demise on the Wilmot family (or any other developers who followed their customer base to where the lived) is silly. Gil McCurdy, on the other hand, whose family played a key role in building Midtown, didn’t have to close his downtown retail stores in the 1990s. Suburban competition certainly affected the profitability of downtown retail, but McCurdy’s decision to close was his choice — and a bad one for the community, IMO.

  17. July 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm Justaguy responds:

    Blaming anyone or anything other than our parade of poor leadership in this city for any and all of our problems is THE issue. As the parking garage story points out, we hire incompetents at every turn. Don’t blame sprawl. If we had had even remotely normal growth in Monroe County all of these decades the burbs would have been built as the population grew. Instead we have had policies and actions put in place by people who have no business being in gov’t, let alone running it. Ask Mr Porter (the currant and former mayor’s personal aide) what he has done for Rochester since singlehandedly moving the riots from the NE part of town to Corn Hill in 1964 (see the WXXI special on it). He was on the school board. Good job with that. Mayor’s office? Oh yeah, things are rosy. Is he a good guy now? Maybe. Does that qualify him for service in the top level of gov’t of the 3rd largest city in the 3rd largest state in the country? Um, no. It comes down to data in, data out. If idiots are inputting your data than don’t be surprised when the numbers don’t work out right. Keep bringing in friends, family, party members, business associates, etc., to run things and keep watching the drain be circled. Mr. Wilmont, you nailed it in your Smugtown Beacon story on a soon to vacant county legislature seat….. isn’t there ANYONE else out there. Anyone? Because the people who have run the show for the last 40 years have blown it at every turn. Race? Rochester has been a minority city for decades and the county is now close to 50/50 isn’t it, so stop looking in the rearview mirror for race based excuses and look forward. Forward to the days when civil service is just that, service. Not a stepping stone to more money or power.

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