Since 2000, more than $2.5 billion has been invested in downtown, and that number is likely to grow even more in the near future. In addition, job projections are on the upswing and private investor confidence is at an all time high, according to Rochester Downtown Development Corp.
“There’s a much more palpable feeling of (optimism) today than my other 14 years in Rochester,” says Joe Stefko, president and CEO of the economic alliance ROC 2025. “There used to be a prevailing narrative in Rochester as a company town, but that is a narrative about what we were, not what we are today or what we will become.”
When he envisions the future of downtown, Stefko turns to building blocks as a metaphor.
“When you’re building something, the cornerstone is important to place so you can get higher and higher. There’s not one end-all be-all. It all builds on each other,” he says.
An instrumental building block for the future is New York’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, which aims to transform downtown neighborhoods across the state by funding redevelopment projects for business, job creation, and economic and housing diversity. Through this program, Rochester has $10 million in funding for 14 proposals, all of which have the potential to recast downtown.
A boon for change
The DRI program was announced during former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 State of the State address as a “comprehensive approach to transform long-forgotten areas into vibrant neighborhoods.” That year, $100 million was split among the 10 regions of New York.
Last year, the most recent round of DRI increased the program’s scope by making $200 million available, targeting funds for two cities per region. In the Finger Lakes region, Newark and Rochester were awarded $10 million each. When Malik Evans ran for mayor, he viewed the DRI as an important tool to rid downtown of blight and accelerate vibrancy.
“Downtowns are the hearts of regions because the population density is the greatest there, and there is opportunity for unique economic growth,” Stefko says, adding that downtown growth and innovation are core focuses for ROC 2025.
The DRI process is well underway here. The Local Planning Committee began meetings in April. The group is considering the 14 proposals as well as community input from an open house at Monroe Community College last month.
During the open house, beyond comments through surveys and Q&A sessions, participants were given “DRI bucks” to place at projects they deemed the most interesting. At that open house and other community input sessions, issues of housing and commercial vacancy issues were among the topics discussed.
Dana Miller, commissioner of neighborhood and business development at the city, confirmed that the proposals that have generated the most interest include the redevelopment of the buildings at Main Street and Clinton Avenue, the Main Street Commons plan and the addition of more mixed-income housing, hotel and restaurant space.
Soliciting ideas and concerns directly from community members who live and work downtown is a valuable component of the process, says Stefko, who is also a member of the Local Planning Committee.
LPC members are local and regional leaders tasked with constructing an investment plan with the most worthy projects for state approval. The entire process, which includes a public workshop and project revisions, is expected to wrap up next month, city officials say.
The 14 proposals include building rehabilitations and renovations for a variety of housing, commercial and creative projects within the boundaries of Andrews, Franklin and East Main streets, and the Genesee River.
The average DRI request is for $2.1 million, or roughly 34 percent of the total project cost. Ten sponsors having both the capacity and legal authority to undertake the projects, are responsible for the 14 proposals, with four from Fortified/Dutton Properties and two from the city of Rochester itself. Most projects put their expected completion sometime during 2024.
DRI guidelines state that the LPC must consider the catalytic and transformative capabilities of the proposals, meaning projects must both spur investment to and improve the experience of downtown Rochester.
“We have some really good options. As a group, they all have exciting, viable concepts, which can, in their own way, jumpstart development,” Stefko says.
More housing options
While most proposals include both housing and commercial opportunities, some are primarily housing based.
By far the most expensive and expansive project, a proposal by affordable housing developer and investment corporation SAA/EVI at the Granite, Atrium and Gateway buildings, is requesting $9 million in DRI funds toward a $119 million project.
The ultimate result would be 143 mixed-income apartments across the three buildings, the largest gain in housing units among the proposals. In addition, the first floors would include 80,000 square feet of commercial space. Currently the Granite building is CGI Communications headquarters, while the Atrium and Gateway buildings are empty.
Similarly, the Edwards building on St. Paul Street has been empty for more than two decades. A proposal for that space asks for $2.75 million in DRI funding for the $36 million project. If successful, the project would add 114 apartments and 13,700 square feet of commercial space. In addition, 111 geothermal wells would provider heating and cooling at that building as well as three other locations, according to the sponsor, Fortified/Dutton Properties.
According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, geothermal systems are emission free, require less maintenance and operating costs than traditional energy systems, and are among the most efficient, with every one unit of energy they use providing three to four times that in heating or cooling energy. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 2022 State of the State address announced support for geothermal energy in her housing plan and Clean Green Schools initiative.
LJB Development LLC wants to rehabilitate the empty Cox Building on St. Paul Street—previously used for a mix of apartments, offices and retail—into 85 apartments and three spaces for commercial tenants. The proposal requests DRI funds of $3.5 million toward a $31 million project cost..
“We’re already seeing a reimagining of these downtown spaces,” Stefko says. “It’s not ‘Oh, that’s a Class A (premier office space) and will always be’ but instead ‘How can we use that differently? Can it be residential now?’ It’s a creative way of reforming our downtown area.”
The northeast quadrant of the Andrews Street area has a DRI proposal that would construct a building and offer 76 affordable housing units. Fourteen of those units would be set aside for individuals who are unhoused, have mental health issues or are survivors of domestic abuse. This proposal for $2 million in DRI funding out of a total project cost of $32 million, by Ibero-American Development Corp. and Edgemere Development, would replace a vacant parking lot and improve conditions at the neighboring St. Joseph’s Park.
Commercial projects include proposals by Fortified/Dutton Properties include renovations at the Kresge Building for a 28-room hotel, with 26,000 square feet of commercial space, and a redevelopment at the corner of Clinton and Division with two floors of 10,000 square feet of office and retail space.
Also on the list is the redevelopment of the Meng and Shafer Buildings on the south side of East Main Street; this would include four high-end apartments and two commercial buildings. These projects ask for $1.75 million, $750,000 and $750,000 in DRI funding for total project costs of $11.7 million, $2.6 million and $2.8 million, respectively.
RDDC estimates that 48,000 people work downtown. These commercial projects could increase that number and keep homegrown talent in the city.
“When you look at Rochester, we have a regenerating talent pool here,” Stefko says. “The 19 colleges and universities around our area graduated 18,500 students last year. That’s a robust pool that can be tapped by companies.”
Other proposals include a couple of primarily commercial plans from two different sponsors– Home Leasing and SOS General Contractors LLC—at the northwest corner of East Main Street and North Clinton Avenue, a central downtown location. The site was the home of Mayflower Doughnuts, a mainstay of the corner during the 1930s.
(Photos below: Left, former Mayflower Doughnuts store, courtesy of Rochester Municipal Archives Collection, Local History Division, Rochester Public Library. Right, northwest corner of East Main Street and North Clinton Avenue, courtesy of city of Rochester)
Home Leasing LLC’s proposal, titled “the Mayflower,” pays homage to the store. In the 1950s, it was home to an eye-catching Genesee Brewery billboard. The building is vacant except for a cell phone store.
Home Leasing and SOS General Contractors LLC each plan for roughly 10 to 12 apartments and 4,600 square feet of first-floor commercial space. The plans request $5 million and $3.7 million in DRI funding for $10.3 million and $9 million projects, respectively.
Attracting the public
Another proposal for the northwest corner of East Main and Clinton is from Xperience Live LLC and ROC City Leasing LLC. Their request for $500,000 in DRI funding for a $1.15 million project would include LED high-definition video billboards and solar panel equipment. The media fixture could show 24-hour news, weather updates or advertisements for community events.
Two proposals from the city of Rochester also do not fully fit within housing or commercial categories but instead aim to transform the downtown area in a different way. A Main Street Commons plan would demolish a building to create spaces for outdoor dining, small-scale entertainment and potential full closure for larger events. It would also offer pedestrians another way to pass between East Main and Division streets. The $1.5 million project requests $1.3 million in DRI funding.
Coinciding with the Commons is the city’s second proposal, to renovate the Mortimer Street garage to include electric vehicle car-share and charging stations, as well as a shared trash/recycling enclosure. This $850,000 project calls for $750,000 in DRI funding.
Another idea would pay homage to Rochester artist Albert Paley while working to preserve works and educate the public. Rochester Institute of Technology and WinnCompanies partner with the award-winning sculptor and longtime educator to create the Albert Paley Archives and Exhibition Space in Sibley Square. Paley’s artwork is in the permanent collections of the world’s major museums. Paley’s public artwork is around Rochester, including downtown at , the Strong Museum, Legacy Tower and the East Main Street Bridge.
Just in front of the Liberty Pole, the store space would serve as an archive but also include exhibition maquettes and interactive multimedia installations. The project is expected to cost $2.6 million and asks for $1 million in DRI dollars.
“Creating spaces for creative collisions of a talent pool and businesses is important for effective downtown areas,” Stefko says. “Plus, cool spaces are significant for even attracting that talent in the first place. People, especially younger people, like to have fun activities to go to.”
Another Sibley Square proposal envisions a community center by nonprofit health provider and sponsor His Branches Inc. His Branches already has two locations in the 19th Ward and Beechwood neighborhoods, areas designated as Medically Underserved Areas/Populations, that is, locations with “too few primary care providers, high infant mortality, high poverty or a high elderly population,” according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. (Sibley Square within MUA/P boundaries.)
The project would create a primary care clinic with exam and consult rooms, a retail pharmacy and space for office and community programs. This would allow for 5,000 to 6,000 additional patients to receive primary, women’s health, prenatal behavioral health care. The $2.5 million project requests $1 million in DRI funding.
More than DRI
Although DRI is an important element of upgrading downtown, Stefko returns to the building block analogy to emphasize that, whichever projects are ultimately recommended, they are simply part of a greater strategy for the center city.
“Economic growth is not going to solve (revitalizing downtown) on its own. Talent acquisition is not going to solve it on its own. Marketing and advertising is not going to solve it on its own. It’s all these elements and so many more working together that we need to transform Rochester,” Stefko says.
Indeed, DRI is not the only downtown effort.
ROC the Riverway, which began in 2018 with an investment of $50 million from the state,has more than two dozen projects in the works along the Genesee River. Earlier this year, RDG+Partners, a CPA firm, moved from the suburbs to the former site of Hart’s Grocery on Winthrop Street. Constellation Brands is planning a $50 million move from Victor to the Aqueduct Building campus on Broad Street. The former Xerox tower’s transition into college housing as Innovation Square is aimed at talent retention.
Amid all this development is uncertainty, Stefko admits. Work habits have changed since the pandemic, and developers are still gauging what will work best for the new landscape.
“It’s a national question people all over the country are asking. But we’re really in a transitional period. We’re forming the new normal,” he says. “We have to recognize it may be a while, or maybe never again, before we get 100 percent of that workforce level we had at pre-pandemic levels. That’s daunting, but it also has a lot of possibilities in it. This is a chance to build back with economic inclusivity and with creativity.”