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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.

We hear threats all the time from businesses wanting tax incentives from government. They threaten to move out of town. They threaten to not spend money on improvements. They threaten to close up shop.

Wilmorite, owner of Greece Ridge Mall, threatened to walk away from a redevelopment project if it didn’t get a PILOT agreement. The $12 million to $14 million project involved tearing down the Bon-Ton and replacing it with nice restaurants. The County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency said Wilmorite needed the PILOT to get bank financing.

Worried the mall would deteriorate, a tentative deal was reached among the town, county and school district.

Was the threat real?

A government official who didn’t want me to use his name said yes. One need only look at Irondequoit Mall, now named Medley Centre. Wilmorite built the mall and when it declined, gave up and sold it. The mall is still awaiting redevelopment. One could say Wilmorite gave up on Sibley, though that’s a bit more complicated.

Judy Seil, head of COMIDA, doesn’t like calling the Greece Ridge incentive plan a “tax break.” She said the mall is reducing its square footage by knocking down the BonTon, so it’s actually not taking advantage of what would likely have been a property tax reduction. I’m skeptical of that explanation, because if this wasn’t a tax break, why would Wilmorite need it in the first place?

Aside from serious questions about whether tax breaks for retail projects are wise, this entire episode begs other questions about malls in general and Greece Ridge in particular. America is discovering it built too many malls. People are shopping more on the Internet. In Rochester, we knocked down Midtown. Medley is almost empty. What’s the long term plan for Greece Ridge? Will restaurants keep it afloat or will it need more taxpayer support in the future?

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.

Links of the Day:

– Malls across the country and in Rochester have installed child play areas as a way to lure in moms and dads. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The once-humble play area is one of shopping malls’ new secret weapons. In their bid to keep shoppers from deserting to the Internet, more malls are adding restaurants and services like hair salons and fitness clubs that provide things that the Internet can’t. New play areas can create lively public spaces while keeping a key constituent—parents—happy.

Most malls are grappling with encroachment from online shopping and competition created by decades of retail overbuilding. As a result, malls “no longer can afford to be just landlords,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell Inc., which consults for mall owners and retailers. “They have to be place makers…”

I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon. On the one hand, malls need to adapt and evolve and offer more than shopping to survive. On the other hand, the idea of spending childhood in a gated foam-filled mall playpen doesn’t sound so appealing.

A search of mommy blogs about mall play areas finds an obsession with germs, thankfulness they exist and concern about too many exits (because everyone wants to abduct your child). One Columbus, Ohio mom wrote her city is so cold, it’s great to have indoor play spots. (What happened to the days of donning a snowsuit and building forts?)

I’m so glad I was a child in the 80s.

– A University of Buffalo researcher found that the risks of fracking decrease with strong government oversight. But he still found one of four wells has an environmental violation.

– A Siena poll finds New Yorkers support medical marijuana.

– Many of you know I am a swimmer. Although I haven’t swum competitively since my days on the Maplewood Y swim team, I still swim about 2,500 yards three to four times a week. Turns out, one of my idols, Lynn Sherr, who often visits the Susan B. Anthony House, is also a swimmer and wrote a book about its benefits.

– The French First Lady kind of rocks. I don’t even think we should have First Ladies, after reading this. (By the way, French women age so gracefully, don’t they?)

Remember when East End businesses harshly criticized former Mayor Bill Johnson for subsidizing the High Falls entertainment district? They said the High Falls area was getting an unfair advantage.

What’s likely about to happen at the Mall at Greece Ridge Center is along the same lines. Wilmorite stands to get $3.6 million in property, sales and mortgage tax abatements over the next 30 years. Many restaurants in town (or their landlords) don’t get this kind of help, but we’ve gotten numb to subsidies for the big box retailers.

Unfair competition is one reason skeptics oppose tax breaks for retail. Another reason is the jobs are often part-time and pay low wages. Finally, unless retail is in an economically disadvantaged place, the development is likely to occur anyway. (Wilmorite has said in the past, it cannot do these types of mall upgrades and stay competitive in the industry without taxpayer help.)

Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First said this country has a glut of retail space. “Retail isn’t economic development. The only time (incentives) are justified, is a neighborhood that’s been demonstrably red-lined.”

West Ridge Road, packed with businesses, isn’t a disadvantaged and isolated neighborhood. Meanwhile Greece and other municipalities and school districts are squeezed for cash.

A 2011 study found St. Louis spent billions on retail incentives with very few gains in jobs or sales tax. The problem is we don’t suddenly have more money to spend just because more stores open.

“If you want retail to succeed, make sure people have good paychecks,” said LeRoy.

But then you look at Medley Centre and ask, “If this project doesn’t happen at Greece Ridge, will we end up with another Medley Centre?”

I don’t know. But it’s legitimate to ask what is the role of the taxpayer.

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.