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Winn Rendering

The finalization of the sale of the Sibley building- in the works for several years – is excellent news for the development of downtown Rochester.

Communications Bureau, City of Rochester

Winn Development out of Boston plans to invest $100 million to $150 million over the next decade to revitalize the property. Plans include putting in apartments, retail and offices. An outline submitted to Monroe Community College called for 25 units a floor in the tower. The company has a track record of renovating historic building and turning them into desirable properties.

Getting Sibley back on the tax rolls and filled with life will do wonders for Main St. Within a couple years, the Liberty Pole won’t be a giant bus stop. Maybe MCC will decide to stick around.

But the sale is not without controversy. Winn is buying the property for $5 million. That money will go to paying some of the back taxes and loans owed to the city and others. Owner Rochwil, a subsidiary of Wilmorite, won’t see a dime of the sale price and will still be on the hook for $19.9 million.

Man repairing clock tower, 1910

The city’s press release says:

The current owner of the Sibley building, Rochwil, will not be released from all outstanding obligations totaling approximately $19.9 million,…While Rochwil will not be released from the Float Loan obligation or delinquent PILOT obligations, it is not anticipated that Rochwil will have assets to satisfy these obligations.

In other words Rochwil, a.k.a Wilmorite, gets out of jail free.


City officials and Tom Wilmot, head of Wilmorite, have said the building lost money over the years and no one was profiting while the taxes went unpaid. Wilmot has said he lost money on the deal. The city chose not to foreclose on Sibley, believing its development chances were better if it stayed private and at least Wilmorite was keeping the lights on. Wilmot has said he tried to make a go of it (casino, anyone?) and things just didn’t work out.

As for not dragging Wilmorite into court, the city has said the company was allowed to form an LLC that was largely protected in the event of default. They say Wilmorite’s original purchase deal was set up that way in the Ryan administration.

A Republican source told me, “If Tom Wilmot had been a Republican backer, the headlines would scream what an insider deal he got. The city just took a $19.9 million haircut.”

Armstice Day

Wilmot is a supporter of Democratic candidates and many suspect the city’s gone easy on him. Critics say Wilmot was taking in cash from MCC, a public institution, while not paying taxes. It’s probably time to file a Freedom of Information request for all the rent MCC paid to Rochwil since 1992. Then you’d have to figure out how much was invested to turn the department store into classrooms and how much it costs to maintain a (largely vacant) building.

Was the Rochwil chapter of Sibley’s history a scandal or a sign of the sad state of developing downtown? We need to get answers to those questions. In the meantime, the new chapter should be exciting.

Update: I went on a tour today. 9/6-RB


Links of the Day:

– Is there some kind of huge black market for stolen bicycles?

– A Rochester couple exchanged marriage vows at a historic State Fair exhibit.

– Vernon Downs isn’t handicapped accessible. Fans of Bruce Springsteen helped a guy out.

– I can always tell when I’m a passenger in a car driven by someone who’s baked. Some people argue stoned drivers are better. I think they’re spacey and slow.

8 Responses to Sibley’s New Start

  1. I wonder if the office located on the top floor will be remodeled. It has repeatedly been told to me by those that have been in there that there was a clause put in place when the Sibleys sold the building stating that Mr. Sibley’s office was to perpetually remain as is and that they (those who had been able to view the office) said it looked like it had been left as such.

    • September 2, 2012 at 12:11 am RaChaCha responds:

      Dueling Sibley trivia! IINM, the tower portion is not actually the “Sibley Tower,” but the “Filon Memorial Building” — named for a former mayor of Rochester whose family owned the property and stipulated the naming to Sibley’s. Assuming it’s still there, you can actually spot a plaque on the side of the building with its “official” name. I’ve seen it. Reference (and a good article about Sibley’s):

      • That’s a good point. I forgot that the entire block was Sibley’s and not just the taller part with the large atrium that is closerer to the Liberty Pole. I will never forget the glass cases filled with cakes and cookies and candy in the ‘desert’ area. To me that was way better than seeing Santa and the monorail across the street, and I’m only in my early 40’s.
        Pictures of the building during and after the 1904 fire, including crushed fire apparatus, still hangs in the kitchen of the firehouse on Andrews St.

        • September 2, 2012 at 12:57 am RaChaCha responds:

          I’ve been trying to avoid going down the nostalgia rabbit hole, but you may be pulling me in 😉 You know, although the Midtown monorail & giant tree were great and all, I agree that Sibley’s was the place to be at Christmas time. Some of the Santa’s Workshop figures turned up here in Buffalo a couple of Christmases ago, in the windows of the Broadway Market. A secondhand store set up to benefit the restoration of one of the massive old Polish churches near the market somehow acquired them, and displayed them in the external windows. I recognized them immediately, and they brought back a flood of memories for me and the Rochester sweetheart who was visiting me that day 🙂

          Also, a cousin of mine, since passed away, worked till retirement at one of the first-floor cosmetics counters at Sibley’s. She was a real people person—a perfect fit for the job.

  2. September 1, 2012 at 11:53 pm RaChaCha responds:

    It’s great to see this finally happening. This mix of uses strikes me as exactly right for Sibley. In 2005, when the Urban Land Institute was in Rochester to study the Midtown site & surrounding blocks, one of the out-of-town developers who volunteered his time for that study through ULI told us that he felt that Sibley had so much potential for a mixed-use, mostly housing project that if his firm didn’t already have a maxed-out project pipeline, he would do it himself.

    On the taxes, I don’t so much mind “Rochwil” getting what in effect amounts to a 20-year tax abatement. In reality, Wilmorite did the City and the city a huge solid by stepping in after Sibley’s closed. What the consequences might have been to the city and the City from having much or all of that building go vacant, I shudder to think. Especially such a large, iconic, historic building at a key crossroads. In Buffalo the largest DT department store went vacant about a decade ago, and even though it’s smaller than Sibley it’s been something of a millstone for adjacent properties — and heartburn for the City in trying to get a property owner reaping no revenue from the building to keep code violations and hazards from getting out of hand.

    The City’s decision not to pursue the taxes may be a recognition of that practical truth. It also may be a recognition of the inherent difficulty of getting blood from a stone: the LLC will have neither income nor assets from which to recover back taxes. It’s actually fairly standard practice for developers to form LLCs for specific properties to form liability firewalls between their building and corporate assets. Of many examples I’m familiar with, the one that sticks out is Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development, which forms LLCs for most or all of its separate building projects. It sticks out because Paladino often bypasses at least the intent, if not the letter, of campaign finance law by having his various LLCs make contributions to candidates or political committees.

    Still, to be really kosher, a property tax break or abatement ought to be part of the deal upfront, no? Or at least, it ought to be actually approved by an entity composed of elected officials or their representatives that is actually authorized to give tax breaks — like an IDA, or City Council. Since they weren’t approved, and the City is essentially choosing to look the other way rather than collect, it strikes me that someone might have grounds for a Section 78 suit to try to force the City’s hand (an attorney would know). But those suits need to filed within 4 months of whatever action the filer objects to, IINM. It’s also possible that Council could pass a resolution directing the administration to collect. It will be interesting to see what becomes of that.

    The bottom line is that Wilmorite carried the building, in some sense on behalf of the community, through a period of time that could have left the building derelict, until the convergence of factors needed to reuse the building in a way that would put it on a solid footing in the future. Two of those are the increase in the per-project cap on state-level historic preservation tax credits, and the growing demand for downtown housing — now large enough so that the market will be able to absorb this many new units.

    The other interesting aspect of this is that an out-of-town developer is doing this project. I’m surprised and disappointed that no local developer was either willing or has the capacity to take on such a significant project, in an iconic, historic building so perfectly suited for housing conversion. In dollar terms it might have been a stretch for a local, but still…it would have been an iconic feather in a local developer’s hat.

    • September 2, 2012 at 11:53 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      Sibley’s biggest challenge was always its size. One million square feet made it prohibitive to many developers.

  3. All that aside, downtown itself must be cleaned up, and by that I mean the the darker side of the population that walk the streets and lurk in every doorway

  4. Trying to find out whst happened to the clock..inside of Sibleys.. Meant a lot to a lot of us.. Wouldn’t it be great if a store like Macys took over the Sibley building and brought back that great department store experience? I can see the beautiful window displays, canopies to keep you from being rained or snowed on, the animated Christmas windows(wouldn’t it be great if they brought back the Christmas displays they had ..on the 4th or 5th floor). I believe it was our girl scout troop..we took lessons in manners in a big open room up there.. Went to fashion show there. When maybe a senior in high school, freshman in college..I worked for a time at the costume jewelry counter. I would definitely ‘come back downtown’ if we could experience all that again.. Now we have to go to NYC for anything like that.

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