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The City of Rochester has a big choice to make about the Midtown Plaza site. Midtown Tower and Windstream are all set, but the fate of rest of the mega-block is still up in the air.

The mayor would like to see a performing arts center. Developer Larry Glazer, who is doing the tower, would like to turn the entire site into a $185 million work-live-play complex. The Democrat and Chronicle reported:

Street-level retailers in The Tower could include Urban Outfitters, LA Fitness and Bar Louie, the plan shows. A two-story addition along Broad Street was designed with a grocery store in mind.

(snip)

The central Midtown parcel extending to East Main Street would house large-scale retailers on the ground floor such as REI, the development plan shows, with a 10-screen movie theater and possible IMAX on the second level, and a 100-room hotel rising as high as 10 or 12 stories and possibly a 300-space parking garage either below ground or on floors three to five.

On the corner lot that used to house Wegmans, at Broad and South Clinton, there would be small- and large-scale retailers such as LaCoste and Steve Madden, creating a “street of shops” along a pedestrian mall area cutting between that building and The Tower. The concept shows second-floor retail, shown as a Nordstrom Rack, and 60 to 75 apartments on three floors above that.

It sounds really wonderful and I would love to see this kind of life return downtown.

But a city source points out, “We can’t have Medley at Midtown.”

Translation: What if we build all this stuff and it fails? We would have torn down a failing mall and replaced it with another failing retail complex.

I think creating a mixed use project that includes housing and entertainment provides more of a buffer against failure.  But there are many competing projects, including CityGate and College Town. Our population is essentially flat, so building more retail doesn’t create more shoppers. If Glazer can shift shoppers downtown, that would be awesome, but the last thing the city needs is a ton of empty storefronts on a new Main Street.

I’m guessing the city will require strict timelines and tenant agreements before giving the okay to Glazer to develop more parcels. He’s expected to submit a more detailed proposal in the coming weeks.

Links of the Day:

 

– Frontier is among the “Worst Places to Work.”

– Wilmot’s Seneca County casino looks like Park Point on steroids.

IKEA is raising worker wages. I wonder how many other big retailers will follow.

– The ethical negligence of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.

– What does the Supreme Court ruling against Aereo mean for us? Scott Fybush and I break it down.

– It’s nice to know our state lawmakers are hard at work outlawing “tiger selfies.”

“I respectfully request $100 million to allow the City to support the private development of a downtown Performing Arts Center.”

That might be the most amazing sentence ever written by a politician.

But Mayor Lovely Warren did indeed ask for the money with a straight face in a February 13 letter to the governor. She also asked for other stuff, including money to repair sidewalks, reorganized the police department, fill in the Inner Loop and assist the Sibley Building project. Her monetary request was far, far greater than the wish list sent to the governor by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner.

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

Two weeks before Warren wrote her letter, I wrote a blog asking “Why Not Rochester?” The governor had just visited suburban Syracuse, awarding $100 million for a lakefront project. We can’t criticize Rochester for not getting anything and then criticize our leaders for asking.

Yes, Warren’s request was very bold. But we’re talking about a state that was prepared to give Syracuse University $200 million for an athletic stadium before Miner put on the brakes. We’re talking about a state that is giving Buffalo $1 billion, not including the tens of millions being used to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium.

That fact is, we’d have a new performing arts center on Main Street if our last two mayors cared to advocate for one. If Warren wants a theater at Midtown, she’ll get a theater at Midtown, especially with help from County Executive Maggie Brooks, who said she supports the effort. Getting our state lawmakers behind that vision would help, too. (So far, they most definitely are not.)

Here’s what former Brooks spokesman Noah Lebowitz posted on my Facebook page:

Facebook comment

 

Links of the Day:

 

– A Cornell professor weighs in on college athletes getting paid. She relates them to medical interns.

– I just do not understand putting $95 million of tax dollars into a Ralph Wilson Stadium renovation while at the same time exploring a new Bills venue.

– See ya suburbs. More people want to live in the city.

– This is hysterical: When your anonymous neighbor makes fun of you via a Wi-Fi name.

 

Video of the Day:

 

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(The above images are from Philip Michael Brown Studio, which is working with Buckingham Properties.)

Buckingham Properties has huge dreams for the Tower at Midtown. The upper floors will be apartments. The lower floors offer an opportunity for retail and offices.

The developer is clearly is thinking outside of the box. This vision of heavy retail at the Midtown site would truly change the face of downtown. The renderings make the Tower at Midtown look like a mall that faces outward, with street-level retail.

Buckingham is very optimistic about its talks with national movie theater chains. The mayor has often talked of a movie theater at Midtown. Seeing how a private developer would be behind the project, it may not require the $1 surcharge she floated. There would still be room on the Midtown site for a performing arts center, another thing the mayor wants.

Buckingham has a track record of success. It’s hard to imagine a national theater chain coming in that hasn’t done market research. Downtown offers other entertainment options, such as sporting events, so why not movies?

Let’s remember, we all used to go to Midtown Plaza at one point. We parked underneath the mall. Midtown fell victim to the suburban malls and suburban lifestyle. But if Buckingham finds the right mix of retail, restaurants and entertainment, this grand plan to draw people downtown could work.

People will live above this complex. The East End is a stone’s throw away. Corn Hill is less than a mile away. There’s a customer base within walking distance and another one within driving distance that is sick of bland offerings in the suburbs.

(I wonder about the impact on The Little Theatre, which is undergoing renovations. The Little will still likely be cheaper, but can it compete on comfort and offerings? The Little does offer major movies, not just small films we’ve never heard of.)

I’m cautiously optimistic about Buckingham’s dream. Maybe hopeful is a better word. What do you think?

 

Links of the Day:

 

– Buckingham Properties is also about to start work on the north campus of Alexander Park, which is the old Genesee Hospital site. This has been a long time coming.

– The future of urban freeways is playing out in Syracuse.

– A Rochester developer is facing opposition to a plan to build affordable housing in wealthy Westchester County.

Is there a clown shortage?

Entrance on Clinton Ave.

Entrance on Clinton Ave.

 

The wall that fronts Main St.

The wall that fronts Main St.

 

View of south side of building.

View of south side of building.

 

Courtyard side

Courtyard side

 

People have been asking me lately why it appears the Windstream building on the Midtown site is built with its back to Main Street.

There is a blank wall, devoid of windows, on the Main St. side. That’s because the building was never intended to front the street. There’s a parcel of land that sits between the building and Main St. The developer, Pike, has an option to buy that parcel.

The danger is Pike and the city take years to put anything on that piece of land. Pike will landscape the property, but it won’t mitigate the Main St. view.

Rochester’s mayor has said developing Midtown will take 10 years, a projection I find rather pessimistic. Let’s hope development of the site moves along quickly and we won’t be staring at a blank wall for long.

Links of the Day:

– The death of a Monroe County jail inmate was cited in a critical Albany Times Union report on for-profit medical providers.

– A Syracuse fire station is in such disrepair, firefighters can’t park fire trucks in all bays or they might crash into basement.

– Buffalo celebrates Dyngus Day, squirt guns, pussy willows and all.

– The troubles of a historic former Syracuse hotel are reminiscent of the Sibley Building.

A Schenectady house built around 1725 is for sale.

Men’s basketball is among the safest college sports.

Prime Time Brass at Liberty Pole Lighting in 2009

 

On Saturday evening, the mayor will light the Liberty Pole:

Fun starts at 4:30 p.m. outdoors at the Liberty Pole, with music from the School #54 Chorus and Prime Time Brass! Mayor Richards and Santa will flip the switch to light up the Liberty Pole at 5 p.m. Then join the Mayor, Santa, holiday characters, an old time trolley, fire truck and sports mascots in a parade to Manhattan Square Park for fireworks, horse drawn wagon rides, free ice skating (limited $3 skate rental), dj music and more! The old time trolley will be available to bring you back to area parking garages and parking lots!

It’s a tradition started under Bob Duffy that ended up replacing the lighting of the Midtown Christmas tree.

It’s a very nice tradition, but who among the crowd won’t long for the old days? Admit it, you still get misty thinking about the Monorail, Magic Mountain, Clock of Nations and the reindeer at Sibley’s.

I like that the city is creating new downtown memories. But allow us a moment of nostalgia. We’ll feel the twinge every year at the holidays.

Midtown Plaza, 2007

 

Links of the Day:

– The Mt. Hope neighborhood has secured changes to the design of the Barnes & Noble going into College Town.

– A drive to unionize fast food workers has begun in New York City. One man has been working at McDonald’s for three years and still earns only $8 an hour.

– Imagine going to the bank and not having to wait in line. Want some coffee to go with your deposit? The future of “counterless” retail has arrived in the Albany area.

– An Albany airport invokes “safety concerns” in a bid to prevent people from handing out flyers. Didn’t you know? Leaflets are dangerous!

– We’ve heard of “Drug Free Zones.” In Syracuse, someone put a sign saying “Free Drug Zone.”

Removed temporarily from the city, the good Rochesterian will eulogize the town to all who will listen and to many who won’t.

– Henry Clune, “Main Street Beat,” 1947

When you grow up in Rochester, you learn all about our famous residents of years gone by. You learn about the mills, the nurseries, the garment factories and the lilacs. You learn about the founding of Xerox, Kodak and Bausch & Lomb. You learn about garbage plates, white hots and Abbott’s. You learn about Sam Patch and his bear. You learn about the A Team and the B Team. You learn there isn’t another place like Rochester.

We’re Smugtown USA.

Governor Andrew Cuomo got the full Rochester come-on today aboard an RTS bus. Mayor Tom Richards stood at the front with a microphone, his arm wrapped around a pole. Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy sat across the from the governor. University of Rochester President Joel Seligman and Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman sat on either side of Cuomo.

Richards was in his glory telling the governor all about the city. He explained why it wasn’t built on the lake. It was built at High Falls, because the falls powered the mills. “Genesee River is one of the few rivers in the country that flows north. It created this city.”

(On the tour, Richards revealed Duffy decided to ax the fast ferry before taking office in 2006. Duffy announced the decision in his second week on the job. Not surprising, but one has to wonder if Duffy knew he would can the operation before the primary. He demurred until the very end.)

Going up Lake Avenue, the mayor mentioned Duffy grew up in the 10th Ward. (So did a certain reporter sitting in back.) Cuomo frequently peered out of the windows as the bus passed the tougher parts of Lake Ave., south of Lexington.

When the bus went over the Smith St. bridge, Richards pointed out the old Bausch & Lomb factory site. “This is Old Rochester,” he said.

Passing Genesee Brewery, the mayor said, “We had to convince them this is a place to put their money…There are 500 good jobs there now.”

At Midtown Plaza, Richards gave Cuomo a mini-tour of downtown, pointing out the Sibley, Xerox, Chase, and Bausch & Lomb buildings. Cuomo asked about the occupancy of the Chase building. Richards said a couple floors are vacant. He said he’s frustrated the bank keeps moving people to Midwest.

The mayor pointed out Dinosaur Barbecue, Capron Lofts, and Washington Square Park. Richards said the park is famous for two things – the Occupiers and the crows. “It’s not that we don’t like birds. We don’t like what they leave.”

As the bus approached the Erie Harbor project, the mayor warned the governor, “You’re going to see right away the colors….It is growing on me, actually.” Richards said he stayed out of the paint job controversy, taking advice from Duffy, who told him in such situations to nod and say, “Gee, it’s lovely.”

Going up Mt. Hope Ave. the mayor talked about how the South Wedge emptied in the 1970s, as people fled to the suburbs. “Now, you can’t get a house.” Richards credited the U of R for the rebirth of the neighborhood.

After the tour, I asked the governor what stuck out to him. He said he’s been to Rochester many times and has been on similar tours. (Really?) He didn’t mention anything specific about the city, but said he was struck by the spirit of collaboration and energy among local leaders. He talked in generalities. I’ve criticized Cuomo before for not talking with any specificity about Rochester. But lack of knowledge clearly isn’t the issue, as he’d just gone on a tour. The folksy Schumer-esque style of “all politics is local” just isn’t Cuomo’s thing (at least not publicly).

I hope Cuomo appreciated the tour, which was way too short. Richards gave the tour we all give our visitors. He clearly enjoyed talking about our city – as all Rochesterians do.

Wow.

Terry Pegula and the Sabres are making a gigantic investment in downtown Buffalo. They will build a $123 million complex that includes two ice rinks, a hotel, retail and a “destination” Tim Horton’s. (It’s supposed be a really special Tim Horton’s.) It will be connected to First Niagara, where the Sabres play. It’s considered a first-of-its-kind concept in the NHL.

While the city is providing tax abatements, it does not appear Buffalo threw a ton money at the deal, the Buffalo News reports:

The Sabres will pay the city $2 million for the 1.7-acre parcel, and city residents will be sought for post-construction jobs. Local labor will be used for construction. Employees of the ice rink and parking ramp also will be paid a living wage, Brown said.

The Sabres are expected to seek a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, which abates local property taxes, and state brownfield tax credits. Brown said he did not expect the city to provide additional financial assistance for the project, which Sabres spokesman Michael M. Gilbert confirmed.

WGRZ reports the Sabres will pay about $4.8 million in taxes a year once the project is done. The station also reports there are deadlines built into this deal:

Under terms with their agreement with the city, the Sabres need to have the parking garage and ice rinks open by no later than September 30, 2014…The Sabres have until May 30, 2015 to open the 200 room hotel.

This is very exciting for downtown Buffalo and hockey fans.

Rochester needs a Terry Pegula downtown. Maybe he’ll buy Blue Cross Arena, home to his minor-league club, and take a shine to Midtown?

ColumbusCommons.org

Midtown Plaza closed in 2008. Four years later, the mall has been torn down and nothing has opened on the 8-acre site. Besides Windstream, we don’t know what will fill in the property in the years to come. It remains a hole in the middle of downtown Rochester.

But there is hope!

ColumbusCommons.org

While the pace of change has been frustrating, I was encouraged to read about an eerily similar scenario in Columbus, Ohio. That city closed its downtown shopping mall in 2009. City Center opened in 1988 and was on DeadMalls.com in short order. City Planners tore down the mall and built a park on the 9-acre site. One-third of the property was reserved for market-driven development.

The new development happened remarkably fast. By the end of 2010, Columbus Commons was hosting events. New development is springing up around the site.

The Columbus story reaffirms Rochester’s decision to get rid of the mall. But Rochester has a ways to go to duplicate Columbus’ success.

Links of the Day:

– Should New York cities be allowed to declare bankruptcy or should the state impose control boards?

– A single before and after photo in the Democrat and Chronicle shows how a neighborhood deteriorates and why preservation is important.

– The New York Times profiled an art exhibit at the Rochester Institute of Technology featuring a cast of colorful characters.

Maybe cities should subsidize marathons instead of stadiums.

Prepare for the inevitable Greek yogurt backlash.

USA Today says it’s better to tip restaurant servers in cash. Maybe so, but all of the reasons listed are not the customers’ problem. Unscrupulous restaurant owners must get their act together. It’s not practical for consumers to carry around cash.

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.

(snip)

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.

(snip)

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.

Mayor Tom Richards marks his first year in office on Wednesday.

It’s been a year filled with controversy but little chaos.

“There’s not a lot of drama,” said former mayor William Johnson, one of his opponent in last year’s special election. “I think he’s done a good job. I think he’s not flashy, very steady, approaches the office very business-like, which is good in these times.”

Johnson said Richards’ most significant move was immediately killing Assemblyman David Gantt’s attempted resurrection of mayoral control. Richards isn’t interested in reviving that debate, nor is he interested in running 131 W. Broad St.

Richards also scores high marks in his handling of PAETEC’s sale, which jeopardized the Midtown project. “He didn’t get too emotional and made the best deal he could under the circumstances,” Johnson said.

Some of my observations:

Richards knows how to bring the fight. Exhibit A: Monroe Community College’s planned move to Kodak. Richards will not go down without a battle.

Richards knows when not to fight. After the first night, he wisely did not allow Occupy Rochester to create the spectacle of mass arrests at the park. He let them camp out in the bitter cold and then left it to a court to kick out the protesters. He successfully avoided being the bad guy.

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

Richards says it may take 10 years to fill up the Midtown site. I wish there was a little more urgency and vision. I’d like to see the city attempt a true partnership on a performing arts center that could duplicate Buffalo’s success. Richards has consistently said there’s simply no money for the project. But…

Richards knows how to spend big taxpayer bucks. Like his predecessors, the mayor is not shy about giving big incentives to projects. College Town and Windstream are the latest in a long line of examples.

Richards explains things very well. Whether giving an interview to a reporter on the Sibley back taxes or presenting the city’s budget issues in community forums, he breaks it down.

Richards doesn’t panic. He didn’t get worked up over Kodak’s bankruptcy, PAETECs’ sale, Occupy Rochester, Emily Good or Buffalo’s billion-dollar-gift from the state.

Richards had a good first year. Will his administration be marked by a lot of small victories or will he go for some really big wins? If he wants a really big win, he’ll have to get fired up.

The Pike Company unveiled the design for the Windstream offices on Monday. Pike will spend $19 million (with some taxpayer help) to rehab what remains of the Seneca Building.

The response to the renderings was a collective shrug.

Architect Roger Brown of the Rochester Regional Community Design Center said, “It’s a nice Rochester building. It’s very conservative. It meets a lot of the urban design requirements, such as transparency, detail and the material. It’s got a little bit of flair with the entranceway.”

But Brown said Rochester would be “missing the boat” if the site was filled up with similar buildings.

“My disappointment is that it’s not taller. The downtown zoning code says that buildings in that area should be five stories or more in height, at least that’s my interpretation. I think buildings in that location should have more of a presence.”

The building is what it is for one reason – money. PAETEC scaled down its planned headquarters several times. We’re lucky anything is happening at the site at all. Pike and Windstream deserve major kudos for taking the plunge. But like Brown, I’d hate to see the entire site filled up with run-of-the-mill buildings.

There’s still time for the “wow” to surface. Midtown Tower could end up being quite beautiful. If all goes as planned, it will bring density, housing and retail.

This is a tremendous opportunity to reshape downtown. Midtown Plaza was a wall that obstructed views and created an artificial barrier between Main Street and the East End. Tearing down Midtown Plaza clearly opened up downtown. I hope the city proceeds very carefully on the development of the remaining parcels.

The next 50 years of downtown are at stake.

City of Rochester Communications Bureau

Politicians will gather Monday to mark the groundbreaking of the Windstream building at Midtown. This will be the first construction on the site since the city and state announced the demolition of the former shopping mall and office complex in 2007. It’s a significant milestone.

But serious questions remain about the rest of the development site. Midtown Tower, which I’ve always thought was the most important piece, still needs financing. The tower is important because it would bring housing and first-floor retail. (Grocery store, perhaps?)

There’s no clear vision for the remaining parcels. The city is not interested in a performing arts center, though Buffalo’s theater is a huge economic engine. A casino is highly unlikely and the mayor has said he doesn’t want one downtown.

What do we want to see on the rest of the property? How much input should the public have? Should it really take 10 years, as the mayor has indicated, to fill in the site?

Links of the Day:

– Governor Andrew Cuomo is such a micro-manager, Crain’s quotes an insider who said:

“He is so unbelievably involved in almost everything,” said an Albany insider of Mr. Cuomo. “On one level, it’s very impressive because he’s a machine in the way he works. But it’s also completely paralyzing and debilitating because [agencies] can’t go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead.”

– What is Cuomo hiding? An Albany Times Union columnist writes about the governor’s secret records from his time as attorney general:

The governor is thoroughly steeped in hypocrisy when it comes to transparency. The more he utters the word, the less he pays attention to it.

– The former Erie County Executive is taking on Rep. Kathy Hochul in the 27th District race. This is the Buffalo version of Maggie v. Louise.

– Why does iced coffee cost more?

Links of the Day:

– The shopping mall as we know is it dying. The New York Times wrote about the reinvention of vacant malls across the country:

Schools, medical clinics, call centers, government offices and even churches are now standard tenants in malls. By hanging a curtain to hide the food court, the Galleria in Cleveland, which opened in 1987 with about 70 retailers and restaurants, rents space for weddings and other events. Other malls have added aquariums, casinos and car showrooms.

Designers in Buffalo have proposed stripping down a mall to its foundation and reinventing it as housing, while an aspiring architect in Detroit has proposed turning a mall’s parking lot there into a community farm. Columbus, Ohio, arguing that it was too expensive to maintain an empty mall on prime real estate, dismantled its City Center mall and replaced it with a park.

Rochester is far along the mall-redevelopment track, though the endgame isn’t clear. Midtown Plaza has been knocked down. A developer plans to transform Medley Centre into a “lifestyle” venue, complete with residences, retail, offices and entertainment. It’s clear something had to be done with those properties and we await the outcome.

– The New York State Regents English test has been dumbed down in an effort to create a common standard, reports a columnist in the New York Times:

New York’s last three education commissioners, all leaders in the reform movement, have been suspicious of assessment instruments that rely too heavily on people who work in schools.

State officials have instead chosen to use one English test to assess every high school student in the state, which has caused another fairly gigantic problem: How do you create a single graduation exam for 200,000 seniors when some are heading to the Ivy League and others to pump gas?

– Is it ever okay to leave a child alone? A New York Times columnist says the law is murky.

– Careful, if your kid is late to school too many times, you could be charged with a misdemeanor in some places.

– Serving on a Civil War naval ship was no walk in the park. The Democrat and Chronicle has the harrowing ordeal of a Rochester soldier.