• The Rochesterian in Your Inbox:

    Join 638 other subscribers

Rendering of College Town

Rendering of College Town

 

University of Rochester undergrads think College Town is too far. The Campus Times reports:

Although students have voiced concerns about College Town’s distance from campus and the possibility of construction delays, developers are confident in the project’s success.

(snip)

The bookstore’s distance from campus is also concerning for students.

“I’m not looking forward to the fact that it’s 15 minutes away, and it’s going to be freezing outside,” Stolove said. “So the only way is going to be to use the bus schedule.”

(snip)

…there will be changes to the transportation system: a new bike trail and shuttles to and from College Town to lessen any inconvenience the distance from the bookstore may cause students.

(City of Rochester Economic Development Specialist) McCarthy also noted that students aren’t visiting the bookstore on a daily basis.

“The bookstore typically has cyclical heavy use at the beginning and ends of semesters, rather than providing a day-to-day service,” he said. “Also, walking is good for us.”

Cry me a river.

College Town is one mile from the heart of campus. At Cornell, my dorm was 1.5 miles from Ithaca’s College Town. It was a walk over steep hills. U of R students have it pretty easy. There are still dining halls, food stands and convenience stores right on campus for students.

But College Town isn’t just for U of R undergrads. It’s also for the 12,000 people who work at the medical center, which is much closer. And, it’s for the larger Rochester community, whose taxpayers are giving and loaning this project millions of dollars.

A little walk – along flat terrain – won’t hurt the undergrads. They won’t remember what it was like before they had more amenities. They won’t want to.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– What really happened with Wegmans and the Teamsters? The workers lost their guaranteed pensions under the threat of losing their jobs. 

– Senator Michael Nozzolio and his law firm, Harris Beach, are again under scrutiny, thanks to the Moreland Commission. Harris Beach is fighting the commission’s request to get more information about clients that do business with government. Check out this 2004 story about Nozzolio, the firm and pay-to-play questions.

– Have you ever heard of the “Regents Research Fund?” This group of privately-employed and funded people advises the State Education Department. Yes, they have the “reform” agenda.

– New York’s move to computerized testing could exacerbate the gulf between haves and have-nots.

– Common Core really is a curriculum – and New York tax dollars could be supplying the nation with material.

– Fewer flights, higher airfares out of Rochester and airports across the country.

Rochester’s food trucks are in limbo.

– Former Rochester news anchor Kyle Clark, now in Denver, goes off on viewers who send in pictures of snow-covered patio furniture.

College Town and City Gate sites are .7 miles from each other.

College Town and City Gate sites are .7 miles from each other.

 

The massive CityGate and College Town projects are less than a mile away from each other in the city. This has major significance.

Combined, the two projects represent $350 million in investment, 400 apartments, 300 hotel rooms and about 750,000 square feet of retail space.

First, this area of the city has been dramatically under-served. The University of Rochester has 20,000 workers and thousands more students. There are many medical and social services offices in the area. Monroe Community College is nearby. The Strong-Highland and Brighton neighborhoods are dense and rather wealthy. Mt. Hope, Elmwood, South/E. Henrietta and Westfall and major thoroughfares. It’s right off Route 390.

It’s shocking a critical mass of retail hasn’t sprouted up until now. The two projects should complement each other and do well.

Rendering of College Town

Rendering of College Town

Are we seeing a return of retail to the city? The fact Costco is anchoring CityGate is a huge vote of confidence. (Costco, by the way, is known for taking care of its workers.) It makes so much sense to build storefronts near where people live and work. It also makes so much sense to include housing in these developments.

But our community is not growing a fast clip. Despite what the developers will tell you, retail doesn’t create growth. We don’t suddenly have more money to spend when new stores open. Growth is created when good-paying jobs come to town. We haven’t seen much of that. This is why CityGate and College Town may take away from retail traffic in Henrietta. They may hurt restaurants in the South Wedge or Park Ave. or Corn Hill Landing. The bodies have to come from somewhere.

Over time, we’ll see the impact of CityGate and College Town. I suspect it will be positive for the city and could signal a return to the center.

Links of the Day:

– When does “street violence” become “domestic terrorism?”Eloquent essay about how we ignore urban gun violence.

 

– Why isn’t the New Orleans Mother’s Day Parade shooting a national tragedy?

– There’s a reason Rochester’s Xerox Tower looks a lot like the former Twin Towers.

– Despite what the CDC says, I’m not worried about poop in the pool. I swim 12,000 yards a week and have never, ever gotten sick.

Rendering of College Town

Rendering of College Town

 

College Town is taking shape. At a groundbreaking ceremony this week, the list of tenants was named:

  • 150 apartments
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Moe’s Southwest Grill,
  • Corner Bakery and Cafe
  • Flight Wine Bar
  • Benucci’s
  • Saxby’s Coffee & Yogurtland
  • Flower City Provisions
  • Hilton Garden Inn & Conference Center

The $100 million project will also have a 1,560-space parking garage.

The project got a $20 million government loan, to paid back with money that would have gone to the city’s property taxes. It also benefits from $17 million in infrastructure improvements and a $4 million state grant.

The project claims it will generate $49 million in sales and income taxes over the next 10 years. That kind of math assumes we weren’t going to go out and spend our money elsewhere in the community. It assumes the 320 workers wouldn’t have found other low-paying retail jobs. Retail is not good economic development.

The number to look it as how much College Town will be paying in property taxes. Its PILOT calls for $4.8 million over the next 10 years. Not enough for the city to recoup its investment over that time period. (At the end of those 10 years, the roads will probably need repaving, too.) Meantime, the city is crying to Albany that it can’t raise enough revenue in property taxes.

I truly believe this project will be wonderful for the University of Rochester and Mt. Hope neighborhood. But given the fact the retail space is already leased out by tenants catering to a well-to-do crowd, it’s hard to believe this project couldn’t have happened on its own without such heavy taxpayer investment.

Links of the Day:

 

– Many students struggled with the new state tests and couldn’t finish.

A Buffalo suburb gets hip to public transit.

Just call it “The Wire: Albany Edition.”

– In Gloversville, Sno Cone Joe is charged with stalking Mr. Ding-A-Ling.

– I was a guest on The Wease Show and talked about the other side of the Spider-Man shoot. Listen here.

New York’s recently enacted budget makes it harder for local industrial development agencies to award tax breaks for retail projects.

Or so it says.

The new rules are pretty easy to get around. The state carved out three exceptions. A project has to be a tourist destination, the good or service is not currently provided in the area or the project is in an economically distressed area.

A 20,000-square foot grocery store planned for the University of Rochester’s College Town has applied for sales tax breaks of $180,000 on its $2.7 million project. Which exception is COMIDA using? College Town is clearly not a tourist destination. College Town is also not in an economically distressed area, as the Strong-Highland area is one of the city’s most desirable.

COMIDA’s analysis of the application says the “project qualifies because it will provide a product or service to the area that otherwise would not be available.” I’m not sure how all of the doctors at Strong and students at U of R have been able to survive since the Mt. Hope Wegmans closed. There’s a Tops 2 miles away, as well as a CVS and dollar store within walking distance. What’s more, the University of Rochester has a food store on campus, called the Hillside Market. Check out the picture of Hillside below and tell me that doesn’t look like a grocery store.

Hillside Market

Hillside Market

I’m sure the grocery store will be a welcome addition, but at 20,000 square feet, it’s no Wegmans. It will be slightly larger than the Trader Joe’s in Pittsford.

Already, IDA’s are figuring out how to bypass the rules. A Costco in Syracuse and a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Batavia were deemed tourist attractions.

It’s important to remember why the state wanted to rein in retail tax breaks. These projects are not economic development tools. They create low-wage jobs, often would have happened anyway and create an unequal playing field.

Update: Mayor Tom Richards says the neighborhood has been clamoring for a grocery store and the project fits the bill.

Links of the Day:

– Gitsis is getting a name change and makeover. It will now serve specialty coffees and close in the overnight hours.

– Rochester was really good at throwing out beautiful architecture for bland buildings.

– People with disabilities worry about how state budget cuts will affect their lives.

– In Bronx County, defendants often wait several years to go on trial. Justice system is broken.

– The Boston Globe visits Buffalo and finds a city “brimming with energy.”

You’ve never seen subway stations like these.

Would you take the bus to work if it was easier? How about free?

People don’t use public transit because it takes too long to reach a destination, they have to transfer buses, the times are not convenient or the bus stops are not near their homes. People also like to run errands before and after work. Those are all very legitimate reasons not to take the bus.

But not everyone can feasibly drive to work at the University of Rochester. It has more than 20,000 workers and it’s growing. Parking is finite. Roads are jammed. Not everyone has a vehicle. Not everyone wants a vehicle. Gas is expensive. It hurts the environment.

The College Town project on Mt. Hope Ave. was supposed to have a transit center. But it was scrapped. Meanwhile the college is pushing for its own personal $100 million exit ramp on 390. Given that heaps of (unnecessary?) tax dollars are going into College Town, I called the transportation priorities a travesty.

My faith has been somewhat restored, although I still think the onramp project is ridiculous. The U of R and RGRTA are partnering to get more workers to take the bus. I did this story for 13WHAM:

“We’re partnering with them to make the destinations easier to get to and to make a way to view public transportation much more attractive,” said RGRTA CEO Bill Carpenter.

RGRTA visited the University of Washington in Seattle, which pays for workers to use the bus. RGRTA and the U of R are studying where workers live and where routes make the most sense. It’s possible some routes could bypass the downtown transfer point.

(snip)

“What we will be doing is making it easier for them, whether it’s how our routes are designed or how the fare is paid,” said Carpenter. “We like people to get to work. We’re going to try to make it more convenient. We will make it more convenient for them.”

This is a positive development. It make sense to make public transit more user friendly for the area’s largest employer. Not everyone will choose to take the bus. But there could be an arterial in the city or suburbs where it makes sense for RGRTA to run a direct route to the college. At this point, the entities are figuring out demand. It’s a smart way to approach how to service the customer.

In questioning the heaps of tax dollars going to University of Rochester’s College Town project, I’ve pointed out the Mt. Hope Ave. corridor is not distressed. Typically, you think of HUD loans and grants going to support places that are economically challenged.

Census data for 2010 shows us the area is doing far better than the rest of the city. In several census tracts surrounding the project, unemployment ranges from 4.8 percent to 11.5 percent unemployment. Median household income falls between $27,018 to $51,875. Poverty rates fall between 20.3 percent and 38 percent. (Keep in mind, there’s a heavy student population.) The average home lists for more than $100,000.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the river in several census tracts surrounding the Brooks Landing project, unemployment is between 17 percent and 23 percent. Median household income is between $14,022 and $29,422. The poverty rate falls between 37.5 percent and 50.4 percent. The median sale price for homes is under $65,000. In the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood, homes sell for less than $40,000.

The Brooks Landing project has also received substantial tax incentives and other support. There’s no question the Plymouth Ave. corridor is benefiting, as the college’s success is finally crossing the river. It took a boost from government and the college to make that happen.

But Mt. Hope Ave. doesn’t need a boost. It’s an extremely busy commercial corridor in a neighborhood with high property values and low unemployment. The College Town developers are getting a $20 million loan, to be paid back with their property taxes, as sweet a deal as we’ve seen in ages. If I’m the landlord of Bruegger’s, Starbucks, Chipotle and McDonald’s across the street, I’d be banging on City Hall’s door’s asking for the same deal to level the playing field.

I bet College Town will be great for the college and the city. I’m just at a loss to explain why taxpayers are paying one-third of this $100 million behemoth.

Links of the Day: 

– This cafe and deli seems like a great addition to Plymouth Ave. I walk the corridor often and it’s great to see vacant storefronts getting rehabbed.

– Wegmans is building a cheese-aging facility in Chili.

Will apple cider hit $8 a gallon?

– College rankings are a racket with implications beyond simple prestige.

“You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic.”

Taxpayers are pouring gobs of money into the University of Rochester’s College Town project, which will consist of a huge number of parking spaces and no transit center.

The Democrat and Chronicle reports taxpayers will shell out $30.7 million of the $100 million project featuring apartments, a hotel and retail. That includes a $20 million federal loan that will be paid back primarily with the development’s property taxes. It also includes infrastructure improvements and a $4 million state grant the project suddenly “needs.”

I’ve long questioned why taxpayers are paying one-third of the cost of College Town. While I believe this will be an incredible addition to the corridor, this is not an economically distressed area. It’s going on prime real estate in a nice neighborhood right next to a rich college. Fifty-percent of the retail space is already leased, meaning there’s already demand for this site. This is not the kind of development that needed such an extensive push from government.

Now that the city is so deep into this project, it should have demanded a transit facility. Plans call for a 1,525-space parking garage. Meanwhile, an $8.3 million transit center with 10 to 12 bus bays was scuttled because it didn’t “fit the developers’ needs,” according to RGRTA’s CEO.

This is a travesty. The U of R is the area’s largest employer and taxpayers are footing the bill to bring ever more cars to the area without any kind of plan to encourage public transit.   We’re paying to install a new exit on Route 390, expand Mt. Hope Ave. and subsidize parking for students and staff at College Town. None of these measures will make traffic flow more smoothly. They’ll just bring more and more cars. The least the city and the college could have done was install some bus bays.

U of R President Joel Seligman called the approval of the $20 million federal loan for the College Town project a “red letter day” for the city because of its economic development potential. The D&C reports:

The economic benefits of College Town, according to its developers, include 985 construction jobs and 582 permanent jobs. College Town is projected to have an annual payroll of $26.4 million, with 275 of those jobs being in retail businesses and 250 being office jobs, some with UR. Annual sales would be an estimated $30.2 million.

The U of R jobs likely would have been created anyway. If you divide the 275 retail jobs by $30.7 million, that’s $111,636 tax dollars per job. It will take a retail worker four years to make up the money. Subsidizing retail jobs is simply bad for taxpayers.

If we’re going to essentially pay developers to build in our city, we should focus on projects that generate immediate property tax revenue, create well-paying jobs and encourage public transit. This one fails on all counts.

Links of the Day:

– The Wall Street Journal reports Antonio Perez clung to inkjet printers in the early days of the company’s bankruptcy.

– Crime-ridden Camden, N.J. is dissolving its police forcein a bid to fight crime.

– Broadcasting car chases live on TV is nothing but “mayhem porn” and has no news value.

I’m in shock the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council listed the College Town project as one of 10 priorities for state funding. The council is requesting $4 million for the $90 million development on 16 acres along Mt. Hope Ave.

The proposal says 50 percent of the retail space of the soon-to-be-built apartment, office and hotel complex has already been rented. Agreements between the college and the developers have been signed. A groundbreaking is set for November. This is a highly desirable location.

IS THIS MONEY REALLY NEEDED?

Don’t forget, the city offered to loan the project $20 million and let the developer pay it back using money that would have gone for property taxes. Tax dollars are also paying for $17 million in infrastructure improvements to the area.

U of R president Joel Seligman is co-chair of the council and three of the top priority projects are for the University of Rochester, including College Town. Since U of R is the area’s largest employer and an educational institution, I suppose that’s to be expected. But College Town, as great as this will be for the city, doesn’t strike me as a project needing a lift.

Midtown Tower is also listed as a top priority. The council is requesting $4 million. For some reason, this went from a $72 million to a $15 million rehab. I’m confused.

The priority projects:

  • Eastman Business Park
  • University of Rochester Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation (supercomputer)
  • Golisano Institute of Sustainability at RIT
  • Pathstone Finger Lakes Enterprise Fund (fund to aid small businesses)
  • Midtown Tower
  • College Town
  • Multiple Pathways to Middle Skills Jobs (MCC)
  • Finger Lakes Business Accelerator Cooperative
  • Science Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park (Genesee County proposed nanotech park)
  • Seneca AgBio Green Energy Park

The Regional Economic Development Council system pits regions around the state against each other in a competition for funding. Rochester didn’t make out very well last time. The Finger Lakes council is hoping this list gets more notice.

Rochester’s City Council insisted the College Town project include affordable housing in exchange for a $20 million taxpayer-backed loan. President Lovely Warren said developers wanting public money should make sure their projects are open to all.

Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association leaders were livid. Richard Rowe, owner of Rowe’s Photo, wrote to City Council:

Our community does not lack “affordable housing,” however “affordable” is defined. Our community already cares for citizens in need and we are also blessed with good housing inventory at low prices, compared to other cities.

Whenever we encumber an investment with the words “affordable,” “low income,” “subsidized” and/or “controlled,” somebody is leaving money on the table and someone else is paying for the privilege.

Only 10 of the 150 apartments at College Town will be for low to moderate income residents. The Urban Land Institute says moderate income is usually defined as 80 to 120 percent of an area’s median income and low income is defined as 50 to 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Will these 10 units threaten the project’s viability and be a scourge on the neighborhood?

Mixed-income housing developments are now the norm. The days of herding low-income residents into “projects” are over. Cities are tearing down “projects,” which were often places filled with crime and hopelessness. Concentrating poverty has consequences, especially for schools and children.

The old housing project on Mt. Hope Avenue was torn down and replaced by Erie Harbor, where rents are quite high. Only 27 of the 131 apartments are set aside as affordable units, but the manager said they are not for “low income” families. The Hamilton high rise next door serves the poorest residents. The Erie Harbor apartments are renting fast, proving that having an affordable component doesn’t stop high-income residents from moving in.

Living in a city means living with people from all walks of life.

The Urban Land Institute wrote a paper called Mixed-Income Housing: Myth and Fact. Here is an excerpt:

…mixing incomes has become a popular way to supply affordable housing options, increase absorption in large planned developments, revitalize urban neighborhoods, and decrease the concentration of poverty in publicly assisted housing. When located close to job centers and services, mixed-income housing provides more than just another housing product—it also activates smart growth principles by reducing travel times and congestion.

A friend said to me, “If I’m paying $1,000 a month, why should the guy in the next apartment over be paying only $600?”

The answer is the guy makes a lot less money and probably doesn’t have as nice an apartment. The guy likely has a job and his tax dollars also helped finance the project. My friend’s attitude also assumes there is something special about these apartments. The only thing special about them is the location, which may have been inaccessible to poorer residents.

Staggered rents already exist throughout the city with the Section 8 program, which typically limits rent to 30 percent of a resident’s income. These lower-income residents just aren’t near you – until now.

Links of the Day:

– A developer wants to open a book store and retail shops on university-owned property near a college campus. The property is tax exempt and city officials are excited about getting it on the tax rolls again. The property is not in a distressed neighborhood. But the developer says it needs a hefty tax break to move forward.

This is what is happening at both the University of Rochester and Syracuse University.

The U of R wants to develop property on Mt. Hope Avenue. Its chosen developer has asked the city for a $20 million loan. But this isn’t just any loan. The city would borrow the money from the federal government and pay back the loan with a yet-to-be-determined portion of the developer’s payment in lieu of taxes. This is a fancy way of simply giving the developer money. Instead of paying a full load of taxes, the developer would be paying off construction costs.

Instead of sitting down with City Council – and the public – to explain what’s going on, the mayor dropped the bomb in the monthly legislation packet. He is postponing the measure to give himself more time to explain why he thinks it’s necessary.

The Syracuse University project is similar, though smaller in scope. A developer wants a 30-year tax break that would amount to an 83 percent reduction of his property tax bill. The project is surrounded by businesses who pay their full share. Officials in Syracuse are debating whether to approve the deal, according to the Post-Standard:

Critics, including former city Assessor John Gamage, say that’s an excessive break for development in an area of the city that is commercially desirable. No other project except the Carousel Center mall has been given a 30-year tax break.

”I feel very strongly that it’s a very bad giveaway,” Gamage said. “It’s just outrageous, in my opinion, and it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

(snip)

Councilor Pat Hogan said he was skeptical about the need for a lengthy tax exemption on University Hill. PILOTs should be reserved for use on difficult projects, he said.

“How can you not make money on this?” Hogan said.

(Developer Tom) Valenti, a former partner at The Pyramid Cos., agreed that University Hill is attractive to developers.

“But most of that land is owned by tax-exempt institutions,” he said. “If the city’s concern is that so much of its tax base is tied up in tax-exempt land, then isn’t this a great way to unlock that value?”

Developers smell the desperation of cities and have been trained to threaten projects unless they get what they want. They usually do. The rest of us pay.

– A High Falls gorge wall is unstable. This is upsetting and could have consequences for the festival site and the view.

– A political analyst said Kathleen Hochul will have to pull a “Houdini act” if she wants to stay in Congress. The Buffalo News has a great write-up of how redistricting affects Western New York.

– Syracuse and Buffalo are among the top 50 cities for bed bugs.

The University of Rochester’s College Town project plans to break ground in November – with the help of a $20 million city loan.

Legislation submitted to council asks for approval to let the city borrow $20 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The developers would enter a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement with the city. The city would use a portion of the PILOT funds to pay back the HUD loan.

The project would also get a $4 million state grant and $2.8 million in various economic development incentives. It would also get $3 million in infrastructure improvements made by the city.

The total cost of the first phase is $82 million, but that doesn’t include the cost of a planned hotel and conference center.

There are three big pieces of news here. First, the College Town project is happening. Second, taxpayers will be heavily invested. Third, we have a better idea of what the project will encompass.

According to the legislation:

The pedestrian-scaled development will showcase street level retail and restaurants, outdoor patios, spacious sidewalks, and a public gathering space. Specifically, the development will include a 25,000 sq. ft. two-level bookstore, 20,000 sq. ft. gourmet market, 64,000 sq. ft. of other retail, 75,000 sq. ft. of office, 150 units of market rate residential units and a 150 room hotel and conference center. The project also includes a proposal for an 850-space parking garage and RGRTA multi-modal center.

There’s no mention of a YMCA facility that had been in the works for the site.

The developers need the loan to secure additional financing for the $82 million first phase of the project.

There’s no doubt this will a fantastic development for the University of Rochester. But this is a tax-exempt institution with an endowment of $1.7 billion. The developers will be paying a PILOT, some of which will be used to fund the project itself.  This is not an area of the city that needs help and studies show subsidizing retail has little economic benefit.

“I’m shocked by that. A $20 million loan? We have people living paycheck to paycheck,” said Councilman Adam McFadden. “Somebody who has means and could do this with their eyes closed, I don’t understand why we keep getting into this practice. The excuse of leveraging funds? This is a project that is going to be profitable.”

City council votes on the loan later this month.